It’s 9:03 am and Reem Al Kubaisi is frantically searching for her earphones. QatarDebate coach Mubarrat Wassey is a stickler for time and training starts at 9 am.

Reem Al Kubaisi
Reem Al Kubaisi

The reason for her search is that Reem – together with her fellow debaters on Team Qatar, which will be representing the nation at the Online World Schools Debating Championship (OWSDC) – are learning the art of ‘virtual’ debating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It means that their preparations are a little different from this time last year.

Back then, the team were surrounded by papers, files, and books inside QatarDebate’s classroom, dedicated to enabling them to prepare for major championships. But due to the pandemic, and the lockdown measures and travel restrictions it has led to, their training this year is purely online, as they equip themselves both for the OWSDC and the World Schools Debating Championship in Mexico City, which was supposed to be held this month, but has now been postponed until January next year.

Because of this delay, the organisers of the World Schools Debating Championship have given their endorsement for the OWSDC, to be held from 17 July to 2 August. Team Qatar’s intensive training has been taking part online, including sparring against other national teams – such as those from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – and getting acquainted with the online tournament by taking part in the Helsinki Online Open Debating Championship earlier this month.

The Helsinki tournament showed them that hard work pays off, as they went on to win the championship, with Alanoud Al Thani named the Best Novice Speaker as well as the 8th Best Speaker Overall. The championship consisted of 56 teams and featured some of the best university debate teams from across Europe, including those from the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, Trinity College Dublin, University of Glasgow, and the University of Edinburgh, as well as universities in Berlin, Utrecht, Tallinn and Stockholm University.

A New Debating Normal

Reem, who has been part of the QatarDebate community since 2017, has just graduated from the International School of London and is about to join QF partner university Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q). She says that it feels like they are once again re-learning how to use Microsoft Teams, which is the platform they are using for online debating.

But we have come a long way since our first online training on 16 March, when the group discussions were centred on ‘how do I create a Teams profile’, ‘can we access it using our personal email accounts’, and ‘how do I upload my homework’ – as well as finding it cool that we were able to use different backgrounds!

It has now been more than 100 days since the team has seen each other in person. Team Qatar training, like everything else, was abruptly halted in March because of the pandemic. QatarDebate subsequently moved training online.

Having been selected in January, the team trained bi-weekly up to April, before – following Ramadan, Eid, and the exam period – intensive training began in June, with three sessions a week. This has been stepped up in July, with online sessions everyday except Fridays. And after over 120 hours of online preparation, wake-up calls, and technical glitches and solutions, this form of debate training has become part of the team’s new normal.

Team Qatar member and Al Bayan Secondary School for Girls student Moza Al Hajri, who is part of both the English and Arabic national debating teams, has been training in both languages online, and has not been fazed with the shift to online preparation.

While I truly miss the atmosphere of pre-COVID-19 training, where debates were more heated and everyone would interact more passionately in discussions, meeting via Microsoft Teams is not so bad and we are still able to have good and efficient training sessions.

She said that she’s enjoying the online trainings and look forward to the online tournaments, since they are giving her something to do in what she calls her ‘seemingly never-ending’ free time!

A Unique Experience

As weeks of lockdown turned into months, the realisation that this year’s edition of the World Schools Debating Championship would have to be delayed. The Qatari debaters are glad that the online tournament will help bridge the gap.

Moza said it’s a great way of coping with the pandemic in a debating sense.

Alanoud Al Thani
Alanoud Al Thani

Amid the new reality of the pandemic, members of Team Qatar say that as well as managing to continue their training, stay motivated and sustain their work ethic, they have also become closer as a team supporting each other through this unusual shared experience – and embracing it.

Team Captain Alanoud Al Thani said that it has been quite an experience. Al Thani will also join GU-Q in the new academic year following her graduation from Qatar Academy Doha. Having been part of Team Qatar last year and this year, she said that she can see differences and challenges involved in moving everything online.

However, she said she felt she managed to rise above the challenges, and with the support and guidance of their coach and QatarDebate, they not only made the best of things given the circumstances, but also had a fun learning experience along the way.

For updates and more information about QatarDebate, visit their website at qatardebate.org