Friday, April 26, 2013

“Fire of Anatolia” at Katara

Last night a Turkish friend of mine invited me to watch a Turkish dance production that was at Katara for one night only. Called “Fire of Anatolia” the group is apparently well-known in Turkey, conducting performances of traditional dances from all the regions of Turkey, albeit with some modern choreography. Needless to say there were a lot of Turks in the audience, and loudspeaker announcements were made in English, Arabic and Turkish.

The show took place at the amphitheater at Katara, the first time I've attended an event there. I took a couple of pictures before the show started as they said you weren't allowed to take pictures during the show. The pictures are from well before the start of the show so there were a lot more people in the audience than the pictures would indicate.

It was a big dance troupe, I think at one point I counted almost 50 dancers. It was a very athletic performance, with elements of ballet and modern dance blended in with the traditional folk dances.

As promised there were energetic performances of traditional dances. It was surprising how varied the dances were but my friend and his wife were able to immediately note which region of Turkey the dances originated from, for example meditative Sufi-inspired dances from Konya, line dances similar to traditional Irish dancing (lots of leg work with the little upper-body movement)from the Istanbul region and an even more intensive one from the Black Sea region, belly-dancing, a traditional dance from Izmit, and a dance with powerful leaps and spins from the northeastern mountains with clear similarities to other dances from the Caucuses.

At one point during the second half it started raining! I got a little worried for the dancers lest they slip and fall but "the show must go on” as they say, and it did not appear to affect the performance. For the dance from the Black Sea region they seem to take advantage of it, a couple of times some gentlemen were using the rain to slide on the stage.

I enjoyed the performance, it was great to see such a variety of dances at one show. My friend as promised when I next visit Turkey he will take me to see some traditional dancing from the Bursa and Ankara regions.

Searching for "Fire of Anatolia" on youtube gets lots of videos, look at this one and go to around the 9:00 mark for an example of the Black Sea dance.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Qatari Weddings – Lighting the House

Around Qatar you will occasionally see a house with strings of lights on it.

This is part of the wedding celebrations, the lights are used to signify that someone in the house has or will be getting married. According to a Qatari friend of mine, the lights are typically put up a few days before the wedding and stay up for a few days afterward (I think some families keep them up longer, I'm sure I've seen houses where those lights are there for a couple of weeks).

And just to clarify, the lights are put up around the time of the wedding parties, not at the time the marriage contract is signed. They are two separate events: the couple signs a marriage contract (at which point they are legally married) but cannot live together until they have had the parties (one for men, and one for ladies). The parties can occur well after the contract is signed, in some cases over a year later.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Change the Pearl!

Today dohanews posted a report that UDC, the company behind the development of the Pearl, has hired a consultancy firm to revisit its strategy of being a “high-end” shopping destination, possibly shifting to stores more in the mid-range.

UDC could spare itself the huge consultancy fees and ask me for advice -- I'll charge a lot less. ;-) Do I think the Pearl should change from its high-end shopping strategy?


Tons of super-expensive overpriced stores and restaurants has not worked. In fact it's become kind of a joke. A colleague of mine and I still laugh about the time we were at the Pearl a year or so ago and popped into this top-end housewares store (I don't remember its name) where we saw things like a bottle opener for QAR 400 ($US 110). Seriously, are you kidding me!?! And we’re not talking some kind of fancy electric-bottle opener, this was a bottle opener like the one a bartender uses to open a bottle. We were the only ones in the store. Gee, I wonder why. I guess there's not enough blindly-rich people in Qatar to support this type of stuff.

UDC just needs to look at two things:

• what are the people who frequent the Pearl looking for; and
• what shops at the Pearl seem to be doing decent business

It's that simple -- find out what people want and provide it.

I've been to the Pearl many times and what seems to be busy? Reasonably-priced restaurants and reasonably-priced coffee shops. Everything else, with the exception of the supermarket, is pretty much empty. Second Cup seems to be busy, meanwhile many restaurants have closed. Visitors to the Pearl seem to be families or casual walkers just out for a stroll, not the type of people who are going to pop into a store to buy a multi-thousand riyal purse. The only reason I go there is to wander around and see what’s changed.

UDC will also have to fix the parking situation. On the one hand they want more people to visit yet even now parking is not always easy to find, the parking lots near buildings 1-6 tend to be pretty busy, you have to go much farther out (maybe to the parking lot near Carluccios, is that building 16?) to find parking. How does UDC expect to have double or triple the number of people visiting if there is no parking?

So I think UDC needs to bite the bullet and lower the rents so it can attract more low to mid-range enterprises. I think that's what visitors really want anyway -- something casual.

UDC may also want to consider more shisha places. Go to the Souq and Katara and what is popular there? Places where you can have shisha. Is there a place in the Pearl that has shisha? Maybe the Lebanese place near building 1? (I think it might but I'm not 100% sure). The Pearl has better views than the Souq so I'm sure it would attract visitors if they have shisha places.

My hope is on Qanat Quartier section of the Pearl, the Venetian-looking area. Get nice cafes in there and it would probably be a nicer place to hang out in than the main area of the Pearl.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Another Tremor, April 16, 2013

So I was sitting on the second floor of a building visiting a company when my chair vibrated a little. A colleague was with me and he said, "Hey, my chair is vibrating”.

We figured it was another tremor. Sure enough, alarms went off and people started leaving the building. Most buildings in West Bay evacuated.

Turns out it was a much stronger earthquake but much farther away, a magnitude 7.8 near the Iran-Pakistan border. That we could feel it all the way over here in Qatar was pretty surprising and goes to show just how powerful it was. The damage at the epicenter must be catastrophic.

So another tremor in less than two weeks. This one didn't cause the disorientation and dizziness the last one did but I was on a much lower floor so that could've been a factor. I spoke to a few people from the office and none of them really experienced the dizziness either.

So far there are no reports of injuries or damage in Qatar, which doesn't surprise me given that the vibration was approximately the same as an 18-wheeler driving past.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Opening of Ezdan Mall

[the most up-to-date information I have on Ezdan Mall is from August 21st and can be found here]

The new mall had a soft opening today so I went to check it out.

A lot of people had the same idea, traffic was pretty heavy getting into the mall.

Here's some interior shots

There were no restaurants or cafés open yet. The food court was a decent size though. It will even have a SushiMinto, not a restaurant that I expected to open In a food court.

Sorry Canadians -- Tim Hortons isn't open yet.

Some stores were open, but not a lot. Here's pictures of some where I'm not sure if that brand of store is available anywhere else.

As for what isn't open, here's some examples . . .

According to the newspapers about 80% of the stores should be open by the end of May.

And as I was leaving I got stuck in a traffic jam, not a good impression for opening day. Hopefully they have this sorted out soon because what will they do when the mall is fully open?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Issues Surrounding Qataris and Employment

There was an article a while ago on Dohanews about statements a Labour Ministry official said to an Arabic newspaper. Amongst the criticisms from the official was that companies were not following the employment law and setting aside at least 20% of jobs for Qatari nationals (which was a bit surprising, I was aware that there was a minimum requirement for having Qatari staff but for some reason I thought it was around 10%).

Shortly after that there was news from other countries in the Gulf. Kuwait announced it was going to reduce the number of ex-pat visas by 100,000 a year for the next 10 years, and Saudi Arabia is moving to a system (called “Nitaqat”) where companies that do not meet minimum requirements for employing Saudis will face penalties such as fines or not having any new ex-pat visas issued.

Not surprisingly the articles generated a lot of discussion and it got me thinking about the overall issues surrounding hiring Qataris and the views of ex-pats in hiring Qataris.

I've worked with many Qataris, and trained many Qataris, and feel that when it comes to public discussion of Qataris in the workforce a lot of rhetoric and finger-pointing seems to occur, which takes away from critically looking at the issue.

A common remark made by foreigners is around the issue of how Qataris would never be waiters, construction laborers, etc. I don't feel this is a valid point. I will go out on a limb and say that the Qatari Government’s intention for protectionist employment laws is for its citizens to acquire meaningful, well-paid employment, not that they will be waiters or taxi drivers. Does anyone honestly think the Labour Ministry will be calling Karwa and asking why 20% of their drivers are not Qatari? Or why a mall isn't employing Qataris to clean tables at the food court? Of course not.

The Government spends a lot of money providing its citizens with free or heavily-subsidized education. It's not doing this so that Qataris can go on to be car-washers. It does this in the hopes that they will be able to use that education to find gainful employment, something that would allow a Qatari to earn enough money to provide a decent life for themselves and their family. I don't see anything wrong with that vision. Qatari parents have expectations that their children will do more with their lives than become store clerks or landscapers. They are fortunate to be citizens of a country where that is a more-than-reasonable expectation, in many parts of the world parents are grateful if their children manage to have a steady job that keeps them out of poverty.

Despite the occasional comment on the Internet along the lines of “all foreigners should go home” I can't imagine that people who say such remarks meant every foreigner. Qataris know full well that foreigners are needed to do most of the blue-collar and service-sector work. They are not going to do it themselves nor does the Government expect them to. Qataris make up around 15% of the country’s population and have accepted that they will be a minority in their country. No, I think this malevolence is directed at the foreigners who are in middle or senior positions and making good money, leaving Qataris to ask why hasn't a Qatari been hired in that position. Unfortunately such inflamed Internet postings rarely go on to analyze why, perhaps, a foreigner instead of a Qatari is in that position.

Which brings up a criticism commonly thrown about – that Qataris/Saudis/Kuwaitis/[insert Arab nationality] are not hard workers, don't want to work long hours, etc. In my experience this stereotype is not entirely deserved. I have met Qataris who have a good work ethic, come in on time, have worked overtime when needed, and have worked jobs that are “9 to 5”. I sometimes think there is an element of confirmation bias in the stereotype, maybe foreigners see lots of Qataris kicking back and having coffee with their friends at the malls during the workday, or they met an ambivalent Qatari worker at a Government office, and project that to the populace as a whole. The Qataris who are actually working hard won't usually be seen or noticed in those circumstances.

With that said I will state I have also seen Qataris who do fit the stereotype: come in late, appear to put minimal effort to their work, take long breaks or leave early. And while I have heard stories of young Qataris coming into an interview expecting to be senior management even though they don't have appropriate qualifications I have not experienced that myself. Qataris with a poor work ethic do their countrymen no favours because of the negative impression they give to others. And negative impressions spread faster and are more remembered than positive ones.

I suppose I just want to say that the work ethic for Qataris runs the whole range, from the hard-working to the hardly-working so, yes, there are Qataris who could work at that managerial job just as hard as the ex-pat. They do exist. So why does there seem many who are ambivalent about their jobs? I don't know for sure but I'll get back to that point a bit later.

One commentator wondered why there is this issue of not hiring enough Qataris if the private businesses are owned by Qataris (by law a minimum of 51% of a business should be owned by Qataris, though there are some exceptions). Firstly -- and this section is entirely speculation on my part -- in some of these businesses the Qatari does not have an active role in running it, he is the owner who gets his share of the profits but leaves it to the people running the business to handle hiring. Secondly, I assume it's in part because the difference in wages is an extra expense impacting the profits of the owner. If you would have to pay QAR 25,000 a month for a Qatari for a job that you can pay an expat QAR 15,000 it becomes big money over time, the owner is looking at a difference of QAR 120,000 a year (~US$33,000). If you had 25 staff you’d need five Qataris, which in my example would be an extra $165,000 in wages a year. A Qatari business owner can do the math. The difference in salaries could be a significant factor in why private businesses would be reluctant to hire Qataris.

It could also be an issue of the strict employment laws here in Qatar for ex-pats. For example, in most sectors an employee cannot change jobs without a “no objection letter” from his previous employer. If a person wants to leave his current employment and cannot acquire the letter from his employer then he has to leave Qatar. This of course does not apply to Qataris who are free to switch jobs. This creates an incentive for an employer to hire ex-pats as there is some security that the employee will not leave your company for another one.

As for the Government, it also finds itself in a bit of a bind. By providing quality employment for its citizens the Government has provided thousands of jobs in the various Ministries, with good wages, working hours and benefits. This has set the bar of expectation for Qataris looking for work. Private-sector jobs have to compete with that, which is not easy. It would be hard for a Qatari to stay motivated to start a 9-to-5 job with four weeks vacation if they knew that their sibling/cousin/friend is working for the Government for the same money (maybe even more money), working 7-2, and receiving more vacation.

Sometimes the best intentions can have unintended consequences, by trying to help its citizens by providing good Government jobs the Government has had an impact on the employment of citizens in the private sector.

I sometimes wonder how many Qataris have entered the workforce ambitious and with drive, only to find they are in a Government job where they are shuffling some paper back and forth, and realize there isn’t much career advancement barring retirement of senior people, yet if they leave they will probably find a lower paying job with more hours and far less benefits (like the very generous Government pension). They may find themselves stuck, perhaps they strive to do more but are then risking the secure job they have. I wonder if many Qataris in such a situation eventually become disheartened, leading to ambivalence about their job or their performance. It's not unique to Qatar, I think this happens to civil servants in the West as well. You want to go to another job but the risk can be too great. In the West this can be offset by the private sector offering better money and benefits, in Qatar I don't know how easy that is for the private sector, especially if they can hire an ex-pat for less.

So what is the solution for Qatar’s job issues? Well, I'm not sure what would be the best way to deal with it, but I would like to note how things were handled in my previous job, also in a small country with a resident population who were worried about jobs – Bermuda.

Bermuda is a very small island, much smaller than even Bahrain, and of the approximately 60,000 people living on the island around 50,000 are Bermudian. This is not a country where if you can't find a job you can move to another city to search for a job there. There are no other cities. If a Bermudian can't find a job, they're pretty much stuck, so the Government has a strong incentive to find employment for Bermudians.

So in Bermuda all vacant jobs have to be posted in the newspaper for, I think, a minimum of 3 days. This means in the jobs section of the paper you see all sorts of jobs listed, ranging from minimum wage positions all the way up to management of billion-dollar companies.

If a qualified Bermudian or spouse of a Bermudian applies then they must receive the job. Qualified being the key word here. A company is not forced to take just anyone who applies.

Now my understanding was if a Bermudian applied and did not get the job, and it was given to a foreigner, they could contact the Immigration Ministry who will then investigate. At least that was what I was told, some Bermudians have a different view of that process but I think it would be a great thing if it worked well.

Also, my understanding was businesses tended to be questioned by the Government if you appear to hire a lot of foreigners and aren’t training Bermudians to replace them. It is easier to get a work visa for a foreigner if you can show the Government that you are training Bermudians.

It’s not a perfect system (see the article a couple of paragraphs above) and there are ways for an unscrupulous company to get around it, for example by inflating the requirements to ensure no Bermudian could qualify for the position, but at least the Government is trying to secure jobs for its citizens.

While training citizens is also a step in the right direction there is the issue, in both Qatar and Bermuda, that foreigners do have an incentive to keep their well-paying jobs. This means they might not put in a full effort to train Qataris to replace them thus keep their jobs secure. I’m not saying this is always how it works, many ex-pats plan to be here for only a few years anyway so would not be concerned about being replaced by Qatari, but you have to admit the potential for a conflict-of-interest exists.

But what to do about it? It's likely there are not enough Qataris in senior HR positions to oversee training. Then again I don't think there could possibly be enough experienced Qatari HR staff to oversee every company in the country. Would initiatives like what is done in Bermuda work? Hard to say, it would certainly have to be tailored in some way -- you don't want the newspaper filled with hundreds of ads for waiters, laborers, or other positions that Qataris would not be interested in. But what would be the criteria for job ads? Above a certain salary? Above a certain level of hierarchy in the company? These are issues that the Government would need to look at.

What about the proposed Saudi method? Qatar is not Saudi Arabia and there are different factors at play -- Saudi Arabia has a much bigger percentage of citizens compared to the ex-pat population so employment for Saudi citizens must be aimed at positions that are lower-level than the expectations Qatar has for Qatari citizens. It wouldn't work to arbitrarily penalize a company for not meeting the Qatarization percentage, many companies in the construction, transport or industrial sectors may have thousands of low-level jobs so it would just not be practical to demand 20% of the staff be Qatari (and as I’ve said above I don't think it's the Government's intention for its citizens to be working in such jobs).

The Government is finding itself in a tough situation. It wants to help its people so provides an abundance of Government jobs but by doing so it makes it difficult for the private sector to compete, and because of the over-employment in Government many of those who work for Government are probably in jobs that are not very meaningful but they can’t risk losing the benefits the Government provides by leaving their job. It tries to create laws to help its citizens to find employment in the private sector but they those laws don’t appear to adequately tackle the incentives for employers to hire ex-pats instead. A bolder plan is needed, one more complex and better tailored to address the issues.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Tremor in Qatar April 9, 2013 – What Happened

So I was sitting in a conference room talking to a colleague when suddenly I felt a little light-headed and dizzy. I thought was a bit odd when my colleague said something like, “I feel a bit dizzy.” When we realized it was happening to both of us we immediately both thought it was an earthquake.

Outside the conference room everyone was standing up looking a bit confused and confirming that their neighbor felt something as well.

Since it only caused a slight feeling of disorientation it certainly wasn't a powerful tremor, not enough to cause buildings to collapse, but I had two concerns, either:

1) it could have been a powerful earthquake far away (hopefully not from a populated area like Dubai); or
2) it was localized to the building, i.e. the building was somehow moving, maybe sinking on its foundation.

Anyway I wasn't too concerned, the shaking wasn't even enough to knock over small items, but I went outside with some coworkers to catch some air.

Once I got outside and saw that other buildings were evacuating so it was clear it was not anything to do with just the office building I work in.

Which then meant it was a general earthquake. But Qatar does not lie on any known faults and is actually very seismically stable. I was chatting with other colleagues and hoped that what we were feeling was not a big earthquake further away. Meanwhile the entire office building was evacuated and we all stood around chatting and wondering what was going on.

For monitoring my twitter account I discovered that it was due to a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in southern Iran, which is unfortunate as earthquakes in that country can cause thousands of deaths. News reports now say it was near their nuclear power plant as well -- here's hoping nothing goes wrong. Current weather reports have a light wind from the east so if there is some kind of complication from the nuclear power plant at this point in time nothing should reach here.

I’m at home now, everyone was told to not go back to the office. Even if there are further aftershocks in Iran they will not cause much more here than the slight tremor we felt earlier.

Tremor in Qatar - April 9, 2013

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake in southern Iran caused a tremor which was felt throughout Qatar, causing people to evacuate office towers and buildings. It was not a strong tremor so it is unlikely there was any damage in Doha.

More updates shortly.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Bicycles in MIA Park

Just a quick update. While I was in the park of the Museum of Islamic Art I noticed that they had bikes for rent. Costs QAR 25 for an hour. The rental place is near the Café at the far end of the park.

I guess that means it's okay to ride bicycles in the park, unlike the Corniche where bicycles aren't allowed.