When Auckland woman Marguerette Heding moved to Doha, she didn't expect she'd bond with Osama bin Laden's daughter-in-law. She talks to Joanna Mathers
The arid peninsula of Qatar, bounded by the Persian Gulf, is a state of surreality. The parched deserts starved and strained its inhabitants for centuries: eking out a living by fishing and pearl diving, they lived and died at the whims of drought and heat. Then, on the eve of the 1950s, the discovery of petroleum and natural gas propelled the nation to unimaginable wealth. Palaces replaced shacks, faux Mediterranean architecture lined its shores.
An artificial island, The Pearl epitomises Qatar's excess. A billionaire's playground in Doha, and the only place in the country where foreigners can own freehold land, The Pearl's boutiques, beachside resorts and general decadence are a magnet for the world's elite.
The Pearl was also home to Marguerette Heding, her architect husband Philip and their daughter Isabella throughout the 2010s.
Heding (Australian by birth) lived the glamour and privilege of expat life in one of the world's richest nations. While her Kiwi husband managed a design and build company, with projects that included the creation of palaces, she socialised with billionaires' wives.
Things happened in Qatar. Good things, unspeakably horrifying things. And Heding has captured these in her book, All Veils Are Off: The True Housewives of Qatar.
On a temperate morning in Auckland's North Shore, Heding is holding court. Over keto banana muffins and piping tea, she's delightful, warm, affable. She's a raconteur with a sharp wit, qualities that obviously endeared her to the notoriously closed-off women of Qatari high society.
These veiled, mysterious women slowly opened their lives (and their husband's superyachts) to her as she attended family funerals, celebrated weddings and sipped tea in gold-leafed bone china cups.
Much of her social success in this shuttered world was, she believes, due to her Antipodean lack of pretence.
Married to a Kiwi, she took this identity in Qatar. "Everyone loves Kiwis, but Australians have a tinge of arrogance," she says. Indian taxi drivers chatted with her about cricket. The image of Jacinda Ardern embracing a Muslim woman after the Christchurch mosque attack was ubiquitous.
"New Zealanders also had an amazing reputation for their work ethic in Qatar. One of the reasons Philip got the job was because of the work New Zealanders had done before him."
It was the New Zealand connection that led to one of the more remarkable moments in Heding's Qatar experience — the meeting, and eventual friendship, with Osama bin Laden's daughter-in-law.
Heding and family were returning to New Zealand after eight years in Qatar. She had been charged with finding a new home for their library of "boring old books" on New Zealand architecture (The Story of Corrugated Iron in NZ et al) as the shipping back would be exorbitant.
She didn't expect much interest when she posted an online ad for the faded collection, so was surprised when she was contacted via WhatsApp by a woman who was pictured in abaya, in profile.
"She said that she would be interested in taking all the books. I was like, really? They were very boring books. So I said she should probably come and see them first," says Heding.
An appointment was made for her to visit Heding's apartment at The Pearl. A knock at the appointed time, and the door opened to a woman in full abaya, with dark, heavily made-up eyes.
Heding welcomed her in. The woman was presented with the books: appearing emotional as she pored over the bone-dry pages.
"Here was this very glamorous woman, enraptured by a 50-year-old book about New Zealand log cabins. And I'm sitting there thinking: 'I can't see you in the log cabin! This doesn't make any sense!'"
Then the woman turned to her: "You didn't mention my name."
On WhatsApp, the woman's user name ran together. But part of her name was "bin Laden".
"I looked at her and said: 'Oh' … that bin Laden."
This elegant and cultured woman (referred to as "Z") was the wife of Osama bin Laden's fourth son.
Z spent the next few hours sharing her story. How her mother-in-law was bin Laden's cousin, married very young to a wealthy young man. This marriage would take her from wealth in Saudi Arabia to the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan.
"[Z explained that] when bin Laden began to talk about using his sons as martyrs, his wife realised she must escape. The only places in the world that offered them sanctuary were Qatar and New Zealand. They moved to Qatar to be near family. But this was the reason for her deep affection towards New Zealand."
Z took all the books, and upon leaving asked Heding if she would like to meet her mother-in-law, who was seated in the car on the road downstairs.
"She didn't speak much English, but she was very beautiful and elegant. I told her it was an honour to meet her and that I was sorry for everything that she had been through. She looked in my eyes and started talking, with Z translating. We had an immediate connection."
Heding likened the slow reveal of the lives of high-society Qatari to the twists of a kaleidoscope. A pattern, a glimpse. A new pattern emerges, swirling and tumbling, replaced by another.
One of the early revelations was the esteem with which these women, controlled by fathers and husbands, were held. After her first visit to a Qatari palace, the home of her husband's boss, she concluded: "I had not witnessed religious or sexual apartheid — instead I felt the warm, beating heart of a family where the husband and wife loved and respected each other."
These women are legally forbidden to seek education, study overseas or travel without the permission of a male guardian. But Heding didn't see frustration with their lack of agency.
"There are the rules. People have big families and you have all your sisters around you, and everyone is related. If you step out of line, everyone is affected. But women are treated well. And if men aren't behaving well towards their wives, male family members will talk to them."
Toeing the line makes sense in the context of what it means to be a citizen of Qatar. The country has a tiny citizenry (around 330,000 people, compared to more than two million expats) and this brings with it privileges. Women (with permission) are offered free education, and have used this to their advantage. Heding says that citizens are given land and money to build homes.
This privilege has a darker side. Qatar, in its most recent incarnation, is likened by Heding to a teenager. Headstrong and impetuous, but also enthusiastic and willing to learn. Children raised in wealthy Qatar, those who have only ever known wealth and privilege, can be problematic. They are often given important roles in industries such as construction; their ineptitude shielded by the expats who do the real work.
The Villaggio Mall fire of 2012, which killed 19 people, including New Zealand triplets in a daycare centre, is possibly the most chilling outcome of such nepotism.
Heding had visited the mall the day before the fire, shopping for a new dress. It was never a place that she enjoyed: "It's huge, with no windows and a fake sky. It's totally bizarre: Venice-themed, with canals, an ice skating rink and a theme park. There was always something strange about it. Philip and I would argue every time we went there."
She had seen the sign for the nursery many times, but hadn't thought it strange that the whole place was internal and accessed via a flight of stairs. "I was just a naive expat."
On the day of the fire, she had been playing canasta with friends.
"Isabella had a half-day at school and, when she arrived home, told us there was a fire at the Villaggio. Then all our phones started to ping. I had a sinking feeling that something really terrible was happening. People started posting pics of children being carried on to the roof, parents desperately looking for their children.
"Then I couldn't get hold of Philip. Eventually he walked in looking absolutely crushed. He told us that a friend of ours had lost all his kids in the fire. And there was a New Zealander, who we didn't know, who had lost his triplets. It propelled us all down a horrible, horrible hole. It was all so preventable."
An investigation would reveal layer upon layer of ineptitude. Fire exits blocked, corners cut, electrical wiring faulty. Qatar authorities closed down all the malls to get the fireproofing sorted. They all had jammed fire exits blocked by excess stock.
This was the darkest episode in Heding's Qatar journey. But the unfolding stories of Qatari high-society women would continue to charm. One of the more surprising discoveries Heding made was the way in which Islam celebrated female sexuality.
"These are very sensuous women. They know how to use their eyes, how to talk. They understand the art of seduction.
"Sex is very important in Islam. I was told that it was considered very important that a man satisfy his wife. If that wasn't happening, the father-in-law would be brought in to talk to the husband. They would tell me that I was really naive about their religion: that female satisfaction was very important, and that families can break down if a wife isn't satisfied."
The Hedings moved back to New Zealand to escape the intensity of Qatar — the heat, the money, the corruption, the wealth. And they still miss it.
"You can have an amazing expat life in Qatar. But there is also a huge disparity between rich and poor. The people brought in from India and Bangladesh, who live in slums and do the hard, manual labour. That can be a real shock."
It's a country of extremes. Beauty, wealth and horror. All behind veils.
All Veils Are Off: The True Housewives of Qatar, by Marguerette Heding (Mary Egan, $35), is out on April 29.