A prominent Arab-American businessman from Michigan has enlisted the aid of U.S. lawmakers, diplomats and others to help him get out of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where he considers himself "an economic hostage" after a business relationship crumbled.
Nasser Beydoun, 46, said by phone Friday that he plans to meet Sunday with Joseph LeBaron, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, where Beydoun said he has been trapped for more than a year despite prevailing in a labor case and two subsequent appeals. He said he was told by Qatari officials that restrictions on his travel were removed on Feb. 7 but reinstated hours later after prosecutors reopened the case that had been dismissed.
"I'm free to do whatever I want in Qatar but the only thing is I can't leave the country," said Beydoun, a U.S. citizen whose wife and children are in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.
"My suitcase is packed. It was packed on Feb. 7," he said. "I could get a call on Monday that says, `You're free to go,' or I could get a call from the prosecutor saying, `Come down, you've been arrested.'"
Beydoun, a former executive director of the Dearborn-based American Arab Chamber of Commerce, joined a group of Qatari investors in Wataniya Restaurants in 2007 and became the company's chief executive. At first, he said, business was booming: He oversaw the opening of 40 restaurant outlets, including Rainforest Cafe, Sbarro and original brands in places such as Cairo, Beirut and Doha, Qatar.
Then the company ran into financial problems. Beydoun said he requested a meeting with the company's board in early 2009 to discuss them but the meeting wasn't held until July of that year. He said he presented the losses and requested additional money, but the board ignored him and instead brought in consultants and made him a "scapegoat" for the company's problems.
By the time he resigned in November 2009, Beydoun said, he hadn't been paid for six months. He said he filed a claim with the Qatari labor board, and the company filed a lawsuit against him days later accusing him of mismanagement.
Wataniya Restaurants executives and Qatari officials did not respond to email messages seeking comment.
In an arrangement common in Gulf nations, Qatar requires all foreigners working there to have a sponsor and restrictions on international travel can be imposed in ongoing legal disputes or for business debts. A U.S. Commerce Department guide to doing business there says U.S. firms have reported some problems with their Qatari sponsors and business partners.
Beydoun launched a website Friday outlining his plight and linking to stories of two European businessmen who were stuck in Qatar because of disputes with their business sponsors.
He has well-placed supporters. On March 11, Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow sent a letter to the Qatari embassy in Washington to press for his release. Beydoun said two other Democratic members of Michigan's congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. John Dingell have been lobbying on his behalf by speaking to diplomats.
Beydoun said he won his labor case in June 2010 and prevailed in two appeals. He said the judgment became final in January, and he's now collecting the money he was owed. In the meantime, he is living in a friend's apartment and trying to make money by doing consulting work online, though he said he cannot find work in Qatar.
He said he and his Qatar-based lawyer are now trying to clear him of the criminal charges filed in February after he won his labor case and hours after he temporarily won the right to leave the country.
"They're trying to ... make a criminal case that I've already won in a civil hearing," he said. "Usually the threshold for criminal charges is a lot higher than civil, and I've already won the civil."
The hyper-rich Qatar is best known to the rest of the world recently for outclassing the United States and other rivals to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. It's also home to Al-Jazeera, the international news network founded by Qatar's rulers in 1996.
Beydoun said he was no stranger to the country or region, having led a half-dozen business delegations to the Gulf.
"I'm the last person that I thought this would happen to," he said. "I was the biggest fan, biggest promoter of Qatar."