Qatar Riffs

How two years in Doha altered Yasmine Abdel-Aal’s career

Published in 2018 Southern California Rising Stars Magazine

She had it all planned. After graduating from Whittier Law School and landing a job at one of California’s top intellectual property firms, Yasmine Abdel-Aal was working her way toward the partner track. 

Then she fell in love. 

Worse, the guy in question was leaving for a job in Doha, Qatar. “So this girl who swore she’d never leave her career, and her family, and her friends, and life—did just that,” she says. After marrying him, the two moved to Qatar. “I didn’t pre-negotiate any sort of contracts for work. I got there, only two years out of law school, still green.”

But she had two advantages—fluency in Arabic, thanks to her Egyptian parents, and a J.D.—and she soon landed a job as in-house counsel at the Qatar Foundation. Funding almost 50 scientific, educational and community-development organizations, the foundation aims to create, Abdel-Aal says, a “knowledge-based economy rather than what is basically a natural-gas-based economy.” 

With a multimillion-dollar budget and a staff of five, Abdel-Aal learned a wide range of law quickly. “I was thrown everything from reading contracts for an equestrian center to drafting a collaboration agreement with a French scientific institute,” she says. “Sinking was not an option.”

About a year into her stay, Abdel-Aal took a job as general counsel at the Doha Film Institute, a non-governmental organization that sponsors award-winning Arab filmmakers, collaborates with Hollywood and independent film studios, and promotes Qatar as a filmmaking hub. Due to the small legal staff, Abdel-Aal once again found herself in the role of a kind of Swiss army knife-attorney: “I did everything from employment agreements to collaborations and co-productions,” she says. 

She found Doha a fascinating, vibrant city. “We were fortunate to have a great group of friends—people from all over the world,” she says. “Some things I’m critical of, but I feel the positive outweighed the negative tenfold.”

Her two years in Qatar had a profound effect on her career. Rather than return to an established firm, Abdel-Aal, in 2011, hung a shingle. “I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself again,” she says. “I really wanted to do a lot of that same work—to provide the services I did in Qatar.” Her clients range from independent filmmakers to small businesses.

Abdel-Aal continues to be involved in film. She has an associate producer credit on the new Maggie Gyllenhaal indie, The Kindergarten Teacher, and attended its premiere at Sundance. “It’s such a fun, buzzing atmosphere of creators,” she recalls. “You’re in a 500-person theater but you’re right next to the actors and producers.” 

That type of energy continues to infuse her career. Of her clients, she says, “I’m taken aback by the stories of these people—how sometimes it’s their fourth business, their fourth startup, or the fifth screenplay they’ve written. And they just keep going. That perseverance, that ambition, and the tenacity to get it right because they believe in something, I couldn’t ask for more in a client base.”

 


 

ARAB CINEMA SELECTIONS

Clash (2016): Set entirely in the back of a police truck in Cairo during the coup that removed President Morsi from power.

In Syria (2017): In an apartment in Damascus, a mother tries to protect her family from the horrors of the Syrian war.

The Insult (2017): A disagreement between a Lebanese-Christian and a Palestinian refugee leads to a courtroom battle and national media attention.

The Nile Hilton Incident (2017): A maid witnesses a murder in an upscale hotel, but powerful people don’t want the crime solved.

Solitaire (2016): A woman from Beirut introduces her Syrian boyfriend to her family, and must confront her mother’s social prejudices.

—via Abdel-Aal’s friends in the Arab film world

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