Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Sports Day 2019

In mid-February Qatar has a national holiday to promote sports and exercise, Sports Day. It's held mid-week (probably so that people don't just take advantage of the long weekend to go on vacation).

My office, like many organizations, had activities planned but I received an invite from a friend at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attend their event at the Diplomatic Club. So on Tuesday morning I met my friend at the event and wandered around.

The Ministry had set up a ton of activities and there were hundreds of people there, I'm guessing mostly embassy workers and their families. Kids really enjoyed the camel and horse rides.

A nice buffet was also available in a hall, but they put the calorie counts with all the food, which guilted me into healthier choices.

I hung out with a falcon for a bit. But for sport my friend and I wound up playing tennis at their court. I knew that they had a tennis court so I brought some racquets in anticipation.

The exercise was probably all for naught though as we left there around noon to go to lunch at a French restaurant on the Pearl. The restaurant is well known in Qatar as it only serves one main dish -- steak with mustard sauce and fries.

It was a good steak though.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Qatar Won the AFC Cup!

Yesterday was an incredible day as Qatar beat Japan 3-1 in the finals to win the Asian Championships. Tons of firsts for Qatar:

-- first time winning (heck, they had never made it out of the group stages before)
-- their star striker, Almoez Ali, had 9 goals in the tournament, a new record
-- Almoez of course won the MVP award
-- Qatar's goalie Saad won best goalkeeper, only 1 goal was scored against Qatar the entire tournament

All the Qataris were telling me that they weren't too fussed if Qatar lost to Japan, beating UAE to reach the finals was good enough. You wouldn't have known that based on the celebrations last night! Massive crowds poured out onto the streets to celebrate the historic win. I was at a friend's majlis watching the game so we didn't go down to the Corniche to get stuck in traffic, but my social media accounts exploded as everyone was posting comments and videos. I must have seen Qatar's goals at least 20 times now.

The timing couldn't have been better. When Qatar was awarded as host for the World Cup in 2022 one of the criticisms was that Qatar had never even qualified for the World Cup before because they never had a great team. No one is saying that now.

Some of the credit would have to be given to the vision of the Aspire Program. Started in 2004, it trains promising kids at Aspire's world-class facilities and provides them with free schooling as well. Some of the early graduates from the Aspire program are now on Qatar's team. It made a big difference.

But the football doesn't stop there. Qatar has been invited to play in the Copa America in June, where they'll play against South American teams. I hope they do well.

Everyone is now really excited to see how the team will do in 2022!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Asian Football Championships

The AFC tournament has been going on for the last month and the tournament has been closely watched by everyone here in Qatar. The tournament is being hosted by the UAE, one of the countries blockading Qatar, but as it was an international FIFA tournament it had to allow Qatar to play. So the Qatari team could go but because of the blockade the fans couldn't go, not an ideal situation. It doesn't help that in the UAE it is against he law to show sympathy for Qatar, punishable by fines and jail time.

Qatar has done really well this tournament. Some credit I think should go to the Aspire Program, allowing young players access to top trainers and facilities. Aspire opened over a decade ago and it looks like it is now starting to bear fruit as the team is really punching above it's weight, Qatar is usually ranked in the 80s-90s in the FIFA rankings but you wouldn't know it from this tournament.

The blockade has added a political dimension to the tournament and everyone was a bit nervous when Qatar had to play against blockade-leaders Saudi Arabia. It turned out fine, clearly players on both teams had been warned to not do anything antagonizing as the game was one of the 'cleanest' I had seen in a soccer match. Few fouls and a more respectful atmosphere than I expected. There were a few Qatari fans (some foreign residents from other countries that decided to support Qatar because they'd have no fans there) and a number of Omanis were showing up to support Qatar. Oman is the most neutral of the Gulf countries and many Omanis were showing up to Qatar games to give an overall message of "Arabs are all brothers and we should support each other".

Qatar made it through to the semi-finals where they would face . . . the hosts, UAE. Ouch, this was going to be tense and there was a lot riding on it. A year-and-a-half long blockade has really upped the rivalry between the countries.

The game was last night and everyone in Qatar was watching. I watched it at a majlis with about a dozen friends. Sadly, it was uglier than the Saudi game. Apparently someone (or multiple) people in the UAE Government purchased all of the tickets and gave them out for free but only to Emirati supporters, thus even the Omanis weren't going to be able to attend. In essence the stadium was an all-Emirates crowd. Lots of booing by the crowd, and when Qatar scored a second goal the crowd started throwing sandals and bottles (why was the stadium selling drinks in plastic bottles anyway?!). Qatar only had one corner kick that game and it was a challenge to do as people were throwing stuff at the kicker. Ugly scenes. The Qatari Team stayed cool and went on to a 4-0 victory, a pretty crushing defeat of the UAE. Qatari players did not stick around long after the match as the coach and others were hurrying them off the field, probably for safety.

In Qatar however the victory was huge. People were out in the streets, and a parade of cars descended on the Corniche. There was no denying it was a comprehensive win.

Qatar now plays the Finals on Friday vs Japan. I've spoken to many Qataris and no one is fussed if Qatar loses that game.

"We won our final", one Qatari proudly told me.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Qatar Has New "Sin Taxes" so Alcohol is Now Really Expensive

On January 1, Qatar announced new taxes. Taxes are pretty rare in this region but in the last while, mostly due to pressure from the oil price dropping, taxes have been introduced across the GCC. The other countries are introducing a 5% VAT. Qatar was going to as well, not that it needed to given it was not running huge deficits, since the other countries in the GCC were introducing the VAT Qatar decided to as well. With the advent of the blockade there was no need for policies that were unified with the other countries so Qatar has postponed implementing a VAT but instead introduced a new tax.

The tax targets specific goods -- soft drinks, energy drinks, alcohol and tobacco. Essentially a "sin tax". And rationale is that the tax will help offset rising healthcare costs due to unhealthy lifestyle choices (alcohol, smoking etc). The tax is huge, upward of 100% on alcohol and tobacco, less (I think 50%) for soda.

So I did something I've not done for a long time, visit a bar in Qatar. I wanted to see what kind of prices the bars were going to have. I went to a place that was more "low end" to get a sense of the base price. Wow!

48 riyal ($US 13.10) for a pint and 42 riyal ($US 11.50) for a bottle! And this wasn't at a 5-star hotel bar, where I will assume it's even more expensive. It's a big jump in price, I think it was around 30 riyal before.

Tobacco has had similar increases. Friends of mine who like to smoke cigars told me that the small box of cigars that they would normally buy for ~250 riyal is now more than 400 riyal.

I do not expect a significant increase to the price of soda. At the store a can is 1.5 riyal ($US 0.40) so if it increased to 2 or 2.5 riyal a can that's not too burdensome.

Smokers and drinkers are I'm sure outraged by the hefty tax but I'm guessing they are here to stay. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and tobacco is "makruh" (not forbidden but instead is strongly not recommended) so I doubt many Qataris are going to publicly support removing the tax and thus have their name associated with alcohol and tobacco. Without some support from Qatari citizens the chances of foreigners getting the tax reduced is pretty much nil.

Expensive drinks are here to stay. Drinkers might need to cut back (the whole point of the tax of course).

Sunday, January 06, 2019

2019 ExxonMobil Tennis Tournament

It's tennis season again here in Qatar and this week was the men's tournament. A friend of mine got a bunch of us tickets to the final.

Now I like following tennis and Doha is always an important tournament, it's in the opening week of the tennis year and for many players the tournaments held this week (Doha, Pune and Brisbane) are the only warm-up tournament a player will enter before the Australian Open. Thus tennis watchers keep an eye on who is doing well and who is struggling as it might indicate front-runners for the Australian. Doha pays better-than-average money so lots of players come here. This year the buzz was around world #1 Novak Djokovic (is he still in his impressive form from last season?), 3-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka (has he recovered from injury?), up-and-coming young-gun Karen Khachanov, and top-10 Thiem who has been a dangerous opponent in 2017.

Well, none of them made it to the final. Both Djokovic and Wawrinka lost to the Spanish player Bautista-Agut, a sometimes top-20 player who is a bit of a wild card as he gets the occasional fairy-tale run. Like this week.

Hey, whatever works. The final was Bautista-Agut against back-from-injury top-10 player Tomas Berdych. Odds favoured Berdych but Bautista-Agut kept the magic run going and won. It was a bit tense in the 3rd set, Bautista-Agut has triple break point and blew it, then faced double break point the next game, but managed to calm down, refocus, and get out of trouble.

Had you asked me at the start of the week I'd have never picked Bautista-Agut as a potential winner but his win was well deserved. The tennis world is now abuzz about it, he beat three solid players in a row (Wawrinka, Djokovic and Berdych) to win. Wow! Thanks to the win be sure to look for Bautista-Agut's name as one of the bookie's dark-horse candidates for a deep run in the Australian Open.

In February is the ladies tournament. I hope some top players show up for that.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Reflections on 2018

So ends another year in Qatar. I have no plans to move so with luck I'll be here for a while yet. Meantime, as is my usual custom, here's a recap of some photos throughout the year.

At the Robot Restaurant. Shinjuku, Japan.

With a new friend. Vancouver.

Trying a brainwave detector. Seattle.

On the beach having a shisha. Bodrum, Turkey.

This guy did a good job singing Beatles covers despite not knowing English (he memorized the words). Random bar on the side of a highway, near the Laos border, Northern Thailand

Enjoying the skyline. Osaka, Japan

At the corner of Haight and Ashbury. San Francisco

Wandering around Souq Al Wakra, Qatar.

It's raining but it's still a nice view. Phuket, Thailand.

Trying out a new hairstyle, courtesy of my niece.

I did alright. The Strip, Las Vegas.

A watch, immobilized at the time the bomb hit. Hiroshima, Japan.

At a Borg exhibit. Seattle.

A resort in the jungles near Chiang Mai, Thailand

At a camp with friends (and friends of friends). Dukhan, Qatar.

Witnessing the sacrifice of animals for Eid Al-Adha. Mudanya, Turkey

Owls! They're so soft and cute. An owl cafe, Ikebukuro, Japan

And best wishes to everyone for the New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Souq Waqif Update

It's winter! That means the temperature is nice enough to go walking around in the evening. It had been a while since I've been to Souq Waqif so I went down to see what changed over the summer.

First, the latest stock of falcons is in the shops. I saw a few Qataris looking at the birds, shopping around for the perfect hunting falcon.

Crossing over to the restaurant area I was surprised to see that a Novo Cinema opened in the Souq! It doesn't look very big but actually most of it is underground, the building is just the entrance.

And at the end of the restaurant area they've opened the stairway to the new Musherib neighbourhood. Some of the Musherib area is open and it looks like there will soon be shops and cafes opening. There was also a new hotel that looked like it would open soon.

I didn't realize that Musherib also is developing a light rail service to take people around the neighbourhood.

That rail service will be a great way to get around when everyone arrived at the metro station. It looks like it's almost ready but the buildings around the station are still under construction.

I'm really looking forward to the metro. Some of it will be open soon. There were rumours there would be a soft opening on Dec 19th but Qatar Rail made a press release denouncing the rumour. Anyway, it'll be soon.