Saturday, September 28, 2013

Quick Trip to Dubai

I was in Dubai for the weekend. Qatar Airways was having a seat sale and I had some good friends in Dubai that I had not seen for a long time so I took advantage of the sale to book a 2-day, 1-night trip. It was great to see my friends again.

Booked a hotel through a “last-minute deals” website and wound up in a really nice five-star hotel in Dubai Marina, and was immediately upgraded to a suite. Shame I was only there for one night -- I think my hotel room was bigger than my apartment.

With all of the recent grumblings from people in Doha about traffic and construction it was nice to be able to compare and contrast it with Dubai. I do have to admit that Dubai just seems more “finished”, whole neighborhoods have little to no construction. Traffic was not bad except for a few areas around Jumeriah and JBR but it was the weekend so I didn't get to see rush-hour traffic. My friends tell me it still isn't too bad, having the metro helps as well.

I don't think Doha will ever reach the grand scale of Dubai but then again I'm not sure it wants to. Doha does not appear to want a lot of package-holiday tourism where thousands of vacationers sit on the beach and drink themselves silly for a week. Dubai is also more glamourous, kind of like Vegas, whereas Doha wants to remain more conservative and retain its Arabic character. I don’t have an issue with that, Arabic character is one of the reasons why I prefer traveling to Oman. Shiny malls and tall buildings do not impress me too much.

I just wish Doha could improve the traffic situation.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Learning Arabic in Qatar

So I've been continuing Arabic lessons and things have been going well. I've also found myself in a situation where I'm now working with a number of Qataris who do not know English very well, this is really forcing me to use Arabic. It's a challenge but I must admit I'm grateful because I think it's making a big difference for remembering the words and how to structure sentences.

Over the years I've taken Arabic lessons from many different sources and if you're interested in learning Arabic there are a number of options:

1) Use a language school

This will probably be the most expensive option as some of these schools can charge upward of QAR 200+ an hour but can be a useful way to tailor the learning to what you want, especially if it's just yourself or a small group.

I've never used one of the language schools so I certainly can't recommend which ones are better than the others. Many of them advertise in books like Marhaba or in classified ads in the newspapers if you're interested in contacting them.

2) University courses

Qatar University offers Arabic for non-native speakers, at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. I took this once (intermediate) and they definitely push you on speaking, writing and pronunciation. It was pretty intensive, I think nine hours a week, and between that and the distance to get to the University I didn't continue on once I completed the course. Decent program though. I think the cost worked out to around QAR 50 an hour but don’t quote me on that.

Stenden University also offers Arabic courses for beginners. I did one of these many years ago as part of a work program and thought it was also decent but I recall it was more about reading and writing as opposed to conversational.

3) Fanar (the Islamic Cultural Centre) offers six different levels of Arabic, ranging from complete beginner to very advanced. It's probably one of the most affordable ways to learn -- a 35-hour course costs something like QAR 300 or 400. I think the cost also makes it very popular, typically they have hundreds of students and class sizes are typically around 20-30. I've taken levels two and three twice each, while level 1 is definitely for people who don't know any Arabic the jump in difficulty from level 1 to level 2 is big, same for going from levels 2 to 3. Even after taking it twice I struggled with level 3. Maybe now it would be different since my Arabic has improved. Ultimately I wasn't all that happy with the structure of the lessons, and I think there could be a lot of improvements in that regard, but for the price Fanar is definitely worth trying.

As it is an Islamic Centre the classes are gender-segregated, with different classes for men and women.

4) Private tutors

You would think since this is an Arabic-speaking region there would be a ton of people posting fliers offering Arabic lessons but in truth it can be a challenge to find people advertising such services. It took a while to set up but a private tutor is what a friend of mine and I are using now. He is not a professional teacher, we met him through a mutual friend and since his English and Arabic are both excellent he agreed to tutor us whenever we can arrange an evening (sorry I can’t give you his contact details as he does not plan to spend lots of spare time tutoring people – he has a day job). So far I’ve enjoyed this as it allows a lot more flexibility in terms of when we meet and what subjects we cover. For you it is unlikely to be the cheapest option but the flexibility makes up for it. If you’re interested in private tutoring maybe ask around and see if anyone knows someone.

If people know of other Arabic-language classes please let me know in the comments. However please note I'm not going to advertise for “for-profit” companies so unless it is a school, university, or Islamic centre it’s unlikely to go into this post.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Corniche Construction and Traffic

Does anyone know if they are adding an additional lane to the Corniche and Al-Bidda Roads? I've heard from people that they think it is happening but they don't know for sure. Let me know in the comments if it's true, it would be great if they expanded the road to relieve traffic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ezdan Mall Update – 20th September 2013 (with 4th October updates)

Well I happened to be at the mall today, here are the updates:


Mado, the popular Turkish café and ice cream chain. My Turkish friends were eagerly waiting for this. The staff were getting ready this afternoon and the manager said they were opening at 5:00pm. Despite being famous in Turkey for ice cream Mado is more of an upscale café, kind of like Paul or Lenotre. I believe standard opening hours is 10am.

Sharaf DG, the electronics and appliance chain. I recall they opened two weeks ago and the first few days of their opening was apparently a madhouse (guess they had some good deals).

Lina’s Café has also opened, as has Coldstone.

Almost there:

WHSmith. There were boxes of stock on the floor as they were just starting to put the books on the shelves. [4 October update, still closed but around 75% of the inventory was on the shelves]

Papa Roti is getting close to opening too, as is Starbucks. [4 October update: Papa Roti is open, Starbucks is not]

Not yet:

Any other restaurants. If you consider Mado a restaurant that means Mado, Lina’s Cafe and Royal Tandoor are the only restaurants open. There are also a few places in the food court open as well but still around six or seven places in the food court are closed. Opening food & beverage outlets has been slow going at the mall.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Astronomical Distances

Reading about the Voyager 1 probe leaving the solar system got me thinking about the unbelievable distances there are in outer space. Voyager 1 was launched 36 years ago and only now has it left the solar system, despite the fact that it's traveling over 17 km a second (or around 62,000 km/hr).

This got me tinkering with some calculations to try to convey how big astronomical distances are. Back in elementary school you may have done a project where the earth was a small size and then had to determine how far away the other planets were. Let's do something like that again.

If you shrank the universe such that the Earth was a tiny dot only a quarter of a millimeter in diameter (so the entire Earth shrunk to the size of a dot you can barely see):

• The Sun would be 2.9 meters away (and it would only be 2.7 cm in diameter)
• Pluto has a very elliptical orbit but on average it would be around 114 meters away.
• The next nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would be 786 kilometers away. Not meters, kilometers.

(remember, the Earth is the size of a dot you can barely see)

• The star Sirius would be 1595 kilometers away.
• The Orion Nebula would be over 250,000 km away.
• And the Andromeda Galaxy would be 473 million km away!

And that’s why it takes probes like Voyager 1 a long time to get anywhere -- the distances are unbelievably big. It will take tens of thousands of years for the probe to reach another star system.

Sometimes I feel sci-fi books and TV shows do a lousy job at capturing this vast emptiness. Most get around the distances with tricks like “warp” or “hyperspace” travel, or some other way to quickly traverse the distance such as wormholes. A few recognize the long time it will take to cross interstellar distances so use things like suspended animation for travelling. I suppose it wouldn't make for an exciting book if it was all about hurtling through empty space for your entire lifetime.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to have been around for the momentous occasion of the first man-made object to leave the solar system.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Population Growth, Vehicle Growth

In an intriguing coincidence, just a couple of days after my post about traffic congestion local newspapers have published a study by the Statistics Authority and QNB discussing population growth over the last nine years and also how many vehicles have been added to the roads.

For 2013 and 2014 the study expects the population of Qatar to grow by around 10.5% a year. 10.5%! That would be equivalent to Canada gaining 3.4 million people in one year. Imagine the place you live (or used to live) growing by 10% a year. Not surprisingly that will make Qatar the country with the fastest-growing population in the world. It also means Qatar has to somehow keep the infrastructure-building going to stay ahead of population growth of 200,000+ people each year. Yikes. Is it any wonder there's construction everywhere?

Even more shocking it states that from 2004-2009 the population grew on average 15.5% a year! When I arrived in 2006 the population was just under 1 million, now it's almost at 2 million just over 7 years later -- and that was including the slowdown due to the global financial crisis.

It also notes that by the end of 2012 there was 876,000 vehicles, compared to 287,000 in 2000, a growth rate of around 53,000-58,000 a year on average. That means my initial estimate of 75 new vehicles a day on the roads of Doha is way too conservative -- it should be more like 140 cars a day. How can the road system keep pace with that kind of traffic?

I'm not sure the housing construction can keep up with that kind of growth either. Yes, most of the new arrivals will be laborers housed in dormitory-style accommodation, but if even 5% are people who will be renting accommodation that is still 10,000 new apartments/houses needed every year. Looks like rents will start soaring again, much like pre-2008 when they were going up 20+% a year. And even now I'm told it's very hard to find places at decent schools and I doubt new school openings will be able to keep up with 10% population growth either.

Looks like a rough few years ahead. I expect that by 2017 things will settle growth-wise (almost all of the staff needed for building things like the 2022 World Cup infrastructure will be in the country by then) and then 6 to 9 months later the construction of accommodation will catch up and the supply/demand curve will stabilize. Until then I don't think traffic and rents are going to get any better.

Friday, September 13, 2013

2013 Traffic Woes

75 cars.

That's my estimate for how many cars are added to the roads of Doha everyday. It's a conservative estimate as well, if you look back at my post from last year discussing traffic the average number of cars added to the road from 2000-2010 was around 36,000 a year.

While summer is pretty brutal weather-wise due to the heat it is the nicest time to drive around Doha as the schools are out and many people are on vacation. Traffic is much lighter. A lot of people then get used to it and forget how bad the traffic gets when the schools are back in session.

And 75 more cars were added everyday during that break. During the summer an additional 6,500 cars were added to the streets of Doha.

Now schools are back in session, which means that now traffic is once again congested. This time though it's compounded by the massive roadworks going on at the Corniche, Al Bidda, Al Quds signal, Markiya Street, Arch Roundabout and Souq Waqif areas. I can honestly say in the 7+ years I've been here I've never seen so much road construction, which is pretty surprising given road construction has been a constant fact of life here as the city struggles to keep up with the rapid population growth. So for most commuters the daily commute has become worse than ever, and every morning I read reports from the Twitterverse about the gridlock and congestion. Naturally my commute is also worse, which means my prediction for September 2014 is on track:

The road system in West Bay is already at capacity, so even a slight increase to the number of cars has a significant impact on the commuting time (which is what I suspect is happening now). In two years time [2014] the increased traffic to West Bay will put such a strain on the system the entire thing will gridlock. People living on Al Waab Street will likely be facing commutes of around 1hr 45min. My 20-minute commute will become at least 45-50 minutes.

My commute is currently hovering around 30 minutes on average, but sometimes it can be much quicker if I hit the timing right and get to the intersections as the traffic police are letting the traffic through.

This Thursday was a whole new experience though. For the first time ever my neighborhood was completely surrounded with gridlocked traffic. On all of the 4 main roads surrounding the neighborhood it was cars just inching forward – I know because as I saw the congestion I took the back roads through the neighborhood to find another way out, and then backtracked to find another way out, and then another. I'd never seen that before, and here's hoping it's not a daily occurrence.

All the construction is a temporary nuisance to be sure but it had to be done so better we suffer the inconvenience now in the hopes that it improves things going forward. The removal of the roundabouts had to happen, it could not continue this way. I just kind of wish it had been done years earlier.

Sadly I'm not sure it will make a lot of difference unless the government makes one key change -- increase the number of lanes. As I highlighted last year there are only nine lanes going into West Bay and those lanes can only handle so much traffic. It doesn't matter if it's lights or roundabouts at the intersections the actual capacity of the road will not increase. Heck, you could make Al Bidda Road a freeway and it would only mean 5000 cars would get stuck at the next set of lights (kind of like Salwa Road does at Ramada Signal). Only by expanding the number of lanes can you increase the capacity. This construction is the main opportunity to do it so I sure hope the government is planning this.

If it doesn't happen then the traffic is only going to get worse.

By 75 cars a day.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Are You New to Qatar?

I took some time to go through my posts and created a new category that would be relevant to anyone who is thinking of moving to Qatar or has just arrived and needs to sort out what to do. Just click on the “New to Qatar” link in the labels section to get posts on where to go, what to do, and how to get that e-gate license, or click on "New to Qatar" at the bottom of this post. I hope it helps.

Unfortunately there's no way for me to constantly check whether anything has changed. Please, if you find that the information was correct or that the blog post is a bit out-of-date because something changed, please leave a comment so that I can look into it and update the post. Thanks.

Remember Your Building Number

In Doha it can be very difficult to find the location of a building. The smaller streets in the neighborhoods can be so labyrinthine that no one bothers to remember street names. I can maybe name twenty streets in the entire city. I have no idea of the name of the street that I live on, nor the street next to it. Pretty much everyone only knows the main streets like the Corniche, the ring roads, Salwa Road, etc.

Thus navigation becomes an exercise in remembering landmarks. Directions are usually about being near somewhere or in some neighborhood, such as, “near Crazy Signal, behind the car dealership”, or “in Al-Sadd, close to Sports Roundabout”, and so on. It can be a problem if you get a taxi but aren't sure exactly where you're destination is – the taxi driver probably will not know either unless it's a well-known place.

This can also create a problem for Emergency Services, how are they to know where you are? So the Government has been doing an ad campaign asking people to memorize their building numbers so that they can give it to emergency services.

All buildings now have a plaque like this:

It gives you the neighborhood (in this example 22), a street number so you don't have to memorize the name (880), and the building number (15). By memorizing the numbers you then don't have to memorize the neighborhood, street and building name. Street names have not changed, the street this building is on does not have street signs saying it’s “Street 880” but at least you don't have to remember the name, just the number.

I don't think it'll help you with taxi cabs, but I didn't have an issue memorizing the numbers just in case I need emergency personnel at my building. If you're reading this in Qatar you should memorize your building numbers too.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Styles of Minarets in Qatar

Over the years I've taken pictures of a number of mosques in Qatar because I always found the architecture interesting especially the minarets. It might take a while to notice that there appears to be no single style for minarets, the look of the minaret changes a lot from mosque to mosque. I decided to compare some of my pictures to mosques from other parts of the world to see if there was some sort of inspiration to the various styles, and sure enough there were. Minarets in Qatar can have the look of minarets from North Africa to India.

I’ve given each style its own name -- I have no idea what the official name is so I’m going with my own. If you don't like laymen descriptions of architecture leave the post now.

Traditional Qatari

Back in the day the main building material was mud and clay brick and mosques were made from this material as well. This limited the height of the minaret, which I’m sure was fine since someone had to climb up to the top. The minaret also had to be wide enough for an interior stairway so traditional Qatari minarets were shorter and wider than other styles.

Here's an example from an abandoned mosque in Al-Ruwais in the far north of Qatar.

And at a photography exhibition I took a picture of a great photo by Khalid Al Maslimani (sp?) that showed another example.

Many newer mosques in Qatar have kept that style, especially in areas that they like to keep the old architecture. The following two examples are from Souq Waqif and the last one from the cultural area in Wakra (still under construction)

I also think this style was the inspiration for the minaret at larger mosques such as the State Mosque and the large mosque near Souq Al Jaber. The State Mosque even kept the big square base.

Samarra (Ziggurat) Style

There is a very old mosque in Samarra, Iraq, that has an almost unique style of minaret, a very wide base with a spiraling staircase around the outside.

I don't think I need to point out which minaret in Doha may have been inspired by the Samarra one:

Maybe there’s also a similarity to minarets from the famous Ibn Talun Mosque in Cairo but I'm more inclined to go with Samarra.

Ottoman Style

This is a very distinct style used by the Ottoman Empire, and since the Ottoman Empire covered much of the Islamic world minarets in this style can be found throughout the Middle East. Ottoman minarets are very tall and narrow, ending in a distinct point. There will be one or more balcony-type structures surrounding the column at periodic intervals, something you don't typically see in other styles. I'm going to assume that the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul serve as some of the best examples of this type of architecture.

And like I said before the style is predominant throughout the former Ottoman Empire. The following examples are from Bodrum in southwest Turkey, two examples from Macedonia, one from Damascus, and one from the island of Kos in Greece.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that Qatar was under Ottoman control, there are not many mosques that have minarets in an Ottoman style. I'm going to speculate that since Ottoman control ended in the early 20th century minarets throughout Qatar were still in the traditional style as the building materials were not available to create the much taller and narrower Ottoman minarets. Once those materials became available, long after the Ottomans had left, Qatar didn't really need to build those types of minarets.

There is one possible example though, the “Green Mosque” next to the Emiri Diwan. Even then one could argue it's not entirely in the Ottoman style as it has a prominent open-air portion near the top that my other examples do not have.


So if the Green Mosque minaret isn’t Ottoman, then what is it? This architectural style with one or more balconies and an open area at the top is actually pretty common in Qatar, though typically the minarets are not as tall and narrow as the Green Mosque.

So off to the internet to find examples that may indicate where the style originated. Boy was I surprised when I recognized the style in a picture of one of the most famous buildings in the world:

Yup, the Taj Mahal, a tomb built by one of the greatest Mughal rulers. Many mosques throughout the Mughal Empire had this open-space minaret design (the Empire covered what is now most of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), some with pointed roofs, others with rounded roofs.

Was it the inspiration for the minarets at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca?

But it's difficult for me to say whether Mughal designs inspired or were inspired by . . .


Many Persian minarets also have a similar open-spaced feature at the top of the minaret, and I've seen a few pictures that are exactly like the minarets of the Taj Mahal, only more colorful. In fact, Persian minarets in general tend to have lots of color, especially turquoise.

Here’s some examples:

There is one good example in Qatar of a Persian minaret that I know of, at Katara.


One of the earliest Islamic dynasties was the Abbasids who overthrew the Umayyeds in the 8th century. A minaret built by the Abbasids in one of the most famous mosques in the world, the Umayyed Mosque in Damascus, has an unusual square design.

This in turn inspired minarets in other parts of the Islamic world over the centuries. It's hard to say if this was the inspiration for some minarets throughout Qatar. Not all are square but appear to have a similar "house-on-top" look. Still might be more Mughal influence rather than Abbasid. You be the judge:

That covers all the major styles of minaret that I could find in Qatar. If you know of others, or know where certain styles may have come from, let me know. I’m still looking for good examples of minarets in the style from mosques in Mecca and Medina. I’ll leave you with a modern design, from the mosque at Aspire that I refer to as the “Jetson’s Mosque”.