Monday, January 28, 2013


I love science news (and I'm happy to admit I'm a bit of a geek). I always drift around science websites looking up the latest news. I can't wait for the arrival of Comet ISON! But I digress.

Today in the paper they announced something really cool: they’ve sequenced the genome for the Arabian Oryx!

The Arabian Oryx is an endangered gazelle that once roamed the Arabian Peninsula. There aren’t many left, their numbers quickly dwindled once the locals acquired rifles and 4x4 vehicles, and by the 1960s they were in danger of going extinct. I'm not sure there are any Oryx left in the wild, I believe they are all in captivity in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

A few years ago I visited in Oryx sanctuary in Qatar as part of the tour with the Qatar National History Group. While the breeding programs appear to be working out well there were still concerns as to whether the Oryx would be able to survive outside of captivity. They would need a large area to roam in, something that can't happen in Qatar anymore with all the development, and they would likely be hunted by poachers. Apparently a number of them were released into the mountains near the Oman-UAE border but they didn't last very long. An Oryx would likely fetch tens of thousands of riyal on the black market and while Qataris are on average wealthy not everyone in the Gulf is -- that kind of money would be very tempting to many Omanis and Saudis.

I also had an opportunity to ask an older Qatari if Oryx was delicious. He didn't hesitate, “Oh yes, very tasty! That's why there aren't any left, we ate them all.” This followed with a detailed discussion about how to cook Oryx. Apparently it's similar to venison so needs to be cooked for a long time or else the meat is tough to chew. (At this point I really hoped that the fence around the sanctuary was secure, sounds like there's still a lot of Arabs who would love to have some Oryx for dinner.)

Anyway, I'm glad to hear that the genome was sequenced. They are now sequencing more DNA from other Arabian Oryx get a better idea of the genetic diversity available. Chances are the remaining Oryx do not have much diversity due to the small numbers is a significant risk of inbreeding.

If you would like to look at the scientific data it too is available online at the university's website.

Go Science!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Critique of a Recent BBC News Article on Qatar found a recent article by BBC News on Qatar, written by Jane Kinninmont, and is asking readers for their views. Looking through it I think there are a few things that need amending or clarifying.

Let’s see . . .

In 2011, Qataris were the world's richest people in GDP per capita terms. This means that the economy produced $98,900 (£61,600) per person, . . . For Qatari citizens, the news is even better. GDP per citizen is in fact closer to $690,000. The $98,900 is an average for the total population which includes many migrant workers and Qatar's wealth is heavily concentrated among Qatari citizens. . .

I realize the ultimate point here is that while Qatar’s GDP per person is the highest in the world much of the population are poorly-paid migrant workers, which means that Qataris are even wealthier than the GDP/person stats would indicate. However, not all of the migrant workers are poorly-paid (for example, me) so dividing GDP per citizen over-represents their wealth just as badly as GDP per person under-represents it. They make decent money yes, but not THAT much. My Qatari friends would be thrilled to make even a third of that ($230,000).

Cost of living also takes its toll so wages have to be high. A reasonable house rents for ~$4,000 a month. I live in a decent one-bedroom apartment in an old part of the city for $1,750 a month. A one-bedroom apartment in the luxury sections of the city would rent for around $2,500+ a month.

The stuff on population statistics and brief description of the working life of South Asian labourers looks fine to me.

. . . there are social strains, debates, and disagreements taking place within the small community of Qatari nationals - though these rarely come to an outsider's attention.

Yep, though I believe it's more apparent if one reads Arabic press or listens to Arabic language radio. My Arabic isn't good enough to but occasionally my Arabic speaking friends tell me about some article or opinion voiced on a call-in radio show regarding discomfort with some aspect of the level of change going on in the country.

Arrive at Doha airport on a late-night flight, and almost everyone in the arrivals hall is a blue collar, male worker from Asia. Qataris are more likely to use a separate terminal for premium-paying passengers.

No, the separate terminal referred to in the article is the Qatar Airways Premium Terminal, which is used by Qatar Airways first and business class passengers either transiting through Doha or leaving Doha. However I believe if you are arriving in Doha you use the same arrivals hall as everyone else.

Qatar Airways does have a Premium Arrivals Lounge for first and business class passengers who are staying in Doha but it is in the Arrivals Hall that everyone else goes to and you access it after you've gone through passport control. (see the airport map).

I’m willing to be corrected on this -- I don’t fly business class.

The reason you don’t see many Qataris and instead see lots of blue-collar workers when you arrive is because:

• There are usually a lot more of them than Qataris, as the article already points out;
• Passport control processing time is a lot longer for South Asians because the officers have to look at their visas etc. so the lineup moves slower (and thus backs-up);
• GCC nationals have their own dedicated passport lines, so it's faster; and
• Many Qataris and some ex-pats (like me) have an e-gate card which allows us to enter without going through the passport line up, which is even faster;

The few Qataris who do work in the private sector mainly work for banks or oil companies.


Migrants typically live in segregated areas, in accommodation provided by employers, and stay no more than five years. They cannot bring their families with them unless they earn over $1,922 a month.

Yes, (though I don't know about the five years) and I was originally wrong about the amount of salary. I remember a recent news article saying it was $2,700 a month (QAR 10,000) but the government website does say QAR 7,000 ($1,922).

I also agree with the bit after about how these workers can be exploited and unfairly treated.

In a telling sign of the difficulties balancing Western tastes with the sensitivities of a conservative local population, one such hotel bar features a sign outside: "No Qatari Females".

Only one? Should be all of them, it’s the law that Qatari ladies are not allowed in bars. Arab men are also not allowed in if they are wearing national dress (thobe and gurtra) but can be allowed in if they change into Western clothes. The bars are required to scan the passports or Qatar ID cards of anyone entering the bar (I guess in part to make sure that a lady is not a Qatari dressing in Western clothes).

a few years ago, shopping malls started having dedicated "family days", where single men (and thus most labourers) are discouraged.

It's a nitpick I know but I've been here almost 7 years and as far as I recall malls always did this. “Family Day” is always Friday (the day that laborers have off) and usually any holiday the laborers may have off as well. “Discouraged” might be a bit of a misnomer since usually security guards stand at the doors and stop laborers coming in.

They [Qataris] are entitled to subsidies, state jobs . . .

I don't believe they are entitled to state jobs. The government will certainly try to provide jobs but the population is such now that there are too many Qataris for the government to provide them all with jobs. It is not a right that the government provide them with a job.

Qatar's state-owned Arabic language TV channel, Al Jazeera, embraced most of the Arab uprisings with enthusiasm - except when protests came in neighbouring Bahrain, all too close to home.

Really!? I’d need to see some evidence of that. It's a pretty damning statement and the article doesn't provide support for it. I don't know about the Arabic language Al Jazeera but the English language one gave the Bahrain uprisings a lot of coverage. I'm not saying the article writer is necessarily wrong but I’d like to know what evidence that opinion was based on.

While I had a few clarifications and corrections all in all I'd say the article had most of its facts right.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Changes at Souq Waqif

I love Souq Waqif, it’s my favourite place in Doha to hang out. While the majority of tourists also like it you'll hear occasionally a comment that it's too “touristy” or “artificial”, or you might hear the dreaded “Disney” thrown in. There were some things that I did feel brought the whole souq experience down a bit – old Arab-style buildings containing modern Western chain restaurants like Dunkin' Donuts. Not exactly what people expect to see in an old souq.

Well a couple of months ago the Dunkin' Donuts was closed, and this week I've now seen that the Haagen-dazs has been shut down. It appears both are going to be replaced with other restaurants or shops that are not part of a big chain. Haagen-dazs is going to be an Arabic pastry shop (possibly café). I think now that only leaves the Coffee Beanery as the only place left in the Souq that would be considered part of a big chain (maybe Mandarin as well? I’m not sure).

I'm speculating that the Qatar Government is trying to improve the authentic look of the Souq by getting rid of the big-brand restaurants and cafés. I'm not complaining.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Qatar ExxonMobil 2013 Tennis Tournament

So thanks to the generosity of a friend of mine I had a ticket to the finals of the Qatar ExxonMobil tennis tournament. I did see some of the second round but it was cool to have tickets to the finals. The finals featured Richard Gasquet (not much of a surprise, he's ranked 10th in the world right now) and Nikolay Davydenko (big surprise, he's currently ranked 44th in the world). Granted, Davydenko used to be a big deal in the tennis world, at one point ranked number three and had won this tournament once before, but he's 31 now and had a fairly poor 2012 season so there wasn't much talk of him anymore. But after he dispatched world number five David Ferrer in straight sets in the semifinals here the internet tennis world was abuzz with the possibility that the Davydenko of old was back.

While I think Davydenko lacks the charisma of Gasquet I was rooting for him anyway. I think I like rooting for the underdog.

While tickets were sold out there were a number of empty seats in the stands. I figure it was maybe 75-80% full. I'm guessing that corporate sponsors get a huge block of seats and then don't fill them. While the turnout was still good, and certainly wouldn't be embarrassing if seeing it on TV, I wish the organizers would set up some kind of system where people waiting at the gate could be let in to fill empty seats, not unlike what the Doha Tribeca does now.

Anyways it was a good match. Davydenko was playing some high-risk tennis, hitting balls at sharp angles towards the lines and getting some great winners. There were times when Gasquet was left shaking his head at the shots, shocked that they landed in. Davydenko took the first set solidly, and was well on his way to win the second set (up a break at 4-2 and with two break points in the game) when suddenly it turned around and Gasquet managed to save the break points, break Davydenko, and take the game to a tiebreaker which he won. Then in the first game of the third set Davydenko had to go for a lengthy medical timeout because something was wrong with his hip. He returned but he wasn't at 100% so Gasquet now had the upper hand. Davydenko fought hard during the set but couldn't keep to the level he had before so ultimately lost.

Davydenko noted afterward that he did start to be tired. Wrong thing to say Nikolay! Now the tennis world is doubtful you’ll be able to keep up with the five-setters at the Australian Open. Hopefully it was just the hip problem and it will be fine in time for the tournament.

So congratulations to Richard Gasquet!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Tourism in Northern Qatar

I saw an interesting article in the papers today about doing some tourism development in the northern part of the country, near the town of Al-Ruwais.

I've been up there a few times and they are right -- there is very little in the way of infrastructure development for tourists.

My friend David shows his excitement at reaching the North Coast, 2006

An abandond mosque, Al Ruwais

The only restaurants I found in the town were a couple of small hole-in-the-wall “cafeterias”. If there are any reasonable restaurants up there I couldn't find them. I always advised people to bring food with them or plan to drive back to Al Khor if they want to go to a restaurant.

I did mention in my post “What to Do in Qatar” about seeing what I think are the coolest things up there, the abandoned villages between Al-Shamal and Fort Zubara. They are interesting and worth a look, especially if you have a four-wheel drive as some of the nicer ones are off-road a ways, by the coast.

Fort Zubara by itself is not all that exciting but since it's near the villages it's worthwhile stopping by.
(But they do give you the keys)

The article doesn't mention there are a few other old forts up around there that could also be utilized for tourists.

As for archaeological digs I attended one once with the Qatar National History Group but there isn't much there for your average tourist to see, just some outlines of where some houses once were and some tiny shards of pottery. It’s not Petra or Ephesus. Qatar did not have a huge historical civilization occupying the land, the inhabitants were, at most, a few thousand fishermen and Bedouins. There are no ancient monuments like you would find in the Levant or Iraq.

The article mentions “breathtaking views of a conventional desert” but I think they are confusing it with Southern Qatar.

Northern Qatar

Southern Qatar

As for the rock carvings at Al Jassassiya while interesting I don't think they are much in-and-of themselves for most tourists to take the journey to see them.

One of dozens of carvings at Al Jassassiya

But the article misses something else near to the carvings, the beach at Fuwarit, which has been a favorite of many ex-pats looking for an out-of-Doha getaway. I've haven't been there for a couple of years but I know some people who go there at least once or twice a month to relax on the beach (maybe I'll go sometime in the next couple of weeks and see how it looks). Qatar could think of developing that a bit, it doesn't have to be anything fancy like Sealine Resort but a couple of restaurants or a small hotel would be good.

At least if they develop Northern Qatar they might clean up the shoreline!