Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sandstorm and a BBQ

Last Friday was a weird day. My friend Mohammed texted to say a bunch of people were going to the beach at Umm Bab (on the west coast of Qatar) so I should come along. I loaded up some stuff and headed out of Doha on the Salwa highway to meet Mohammed at the gas station near the turn-off to Umm Bab. After accidentally going past the gas station I called and agreed to meet him just after the turn-off.

While I was on the Umm Bab road I noticed a large brown cloud coming from the northwest. A sandstorm! In an instant the sunny day turned into what I could best describe as a blizzard, only light-brown sand instead of white snow. Visibility was maybe 75m. Unfortunately I didn't take a picture, I was too busy concentrating on my driving to take a photo, but if you do a quick Google News search you’ll find plenty of photos. It was pretty wild and I've never driven in one like that before. In Qatar you get plenty of dusty days but it’s rare to have an actual sandstorm where the day goes from sunny to dark in less than a minute. I may have seen it I think four times in the 8+ years I’ve been here.

I continued on to Umm Bab, around 30 km away. Because it is on the west coast, and the storm was blowing from the northwest, there was almost no chance of the dust storm at the coast. Sure enough the storm was gone after about 15km and the air was clear when I got to the beach.

The guys set up majlis-style seating and we whiled away the afternoon and evening preparing hamburgers, hot dogs, and liver kebabs, chatting over Arabic coffee or shisha, and playing cards. Luckily one of the guys had brought a tarp that could be unfurled to act as a windbreaker, while it was not dusty it was still windy out. A bit chilly too but most of us had jackets and sweaters or could use the fire to stay warm. After a hearty meal by about 10pm we packed up and went home.

While that’s a typical Arab weekend beach trip it was something I’ve only been on a few times so I was grateful for the invite. If next time I'm given enough notice maybe I’ll make a chili for dinner.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Renewing my Passport at the Canadian Embassy in Qatar

Yesterday I went to the new Canadian Embassy here in Qatar to renew my passport. It's great to finally have an embassy here in Qatar, before you had to either courier things to the embassy in Kuwait or wait until a counselor officer came once a month and set up shop in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel (no I’m not kidding, I visited once and he was sitting at one of the tables in the lobby with a little Canadian flag on a stand on the table.) My Qatari friends told me I should've taken a picture cause they found it really amusing that a big nation like Canada would do that.

Here’s some things you need to know about the Embassy and renewing your passport.

1) The Embassy is located on the 30th floor of Tornado Tower in West Bay. If you want to renew your passport you go there. If you want to apply for a visa to visit Canada you do not go there, apparently there is a centre called VFS in the Jaidah Square building on Al Matar Street that will handle visa applications.

2) The Embassy's hours are from 9am to 12 on Monday and Wednesday only. Yes, that means it's open only six hours a week. Six hours a week. I think it would be a bit nice if they could expand those hours -- most Canadians here in Qatar have to work you know. And have you tried getting to West Bay weekday mornings?

3) There is a visitor parking lot at the Tower, just look for the entrance with the barrier and the security guard out front. If you tell them you are there to visit the Embassy they will take your name down and then let you in. But if the parking lot is full then you will have to wait until a car leaves before the security guard will let you in. You don't have much of a choice, good luck finding parking anywhere else nearby. Luckily it's a decent-sized parking lot (maybe 60-70 spots) so someone should be leaving after a few minutes. I waited there around 10 minutes, and that was with two cars ahead of me.

4) Passport renewal -- there is now the option to get a ten-year passport. I fully applaud this move by the Government as having to renew a passport every five years was annoying. You’ll pay about $70 more but it's worth it as far as I'm concerned.

It’s also easier to renew now. You can get a form here®ion=international
, fill it out, and print it. If you qualify for the simplified process you just need to give the contact details of two people who the Embassy can contact to verify your identity, you no longer need to have two lawyers or other professionals sign the application.

You have to pay with a Visa or Mastercard. No more certified cheques!

While the limited hours and parking were annoying once you actually get in the building everything went smoothly. Once security let me into the Embassy I only waited a few minutes before a lady took my passport application and documents, double-checked it, processed my credit card for the fee, and that was it. My new passport will be ready in 28 days.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Traffic Woes

I left the office late, around 6:00, and proceeded to hit crazy amounts of traffic. Everyone was moving along the Corniche at a snail's pace. I didn't know what was up so I checked twitter and the twitterverse was complaining about the traffic all over Doha. It appears that something was up and things were far worse than usual. So after taking about 20 minutes to go 500m I did something I've never done before -- parked my car in a parking space on the side of the road and walked to the Costa Café on the Corniche to have a meal there and wait out the chaos. Figured there was no point of just sitting in traffic, at the rate the traffic was moving it was going to take over an hour to get home.

An hour later traffic looked better so I went on my way, only to hit the traffic jam about 800m down the road! It still took me over 20 minutes to get home from there.

What frightens me the most is that traffic is just going to get worse over the next two years. There's not much that can be done about it in the near-term, it's not like the Government doesn't know the traffic has gotten worse. Any solutions (the metro, more and wider roads) will take time to implement. There's no quick fix.

But if it's going to get like this every evening I'm going to have to have a rethink of either my working hours or where I’m living. An hour back from the office every day, on a commute that used to take 20 minutes, is just not on.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Muslim Doesn’t Want to Sell Pork or Alcohol – and Apparently Civilization is Now Doomed

About a week or so ago the London newspaper the Daily Mail had a big story about a hotel that was no longer going to serve pork or alcohol. You can read the article and the comments for yourself but here's a quick (humorous) summary:

Muslim: I just bought this hotel. Because I am a devout Muslim I don’t want the hotel selling pork or alcohol.


Many Daily Mail readers: OMG!! Muslims are going to turn Britain into an Islamic country! Soon there’ll be Sharia courts everywhere!! *runs to grab torches and pitchforks*

Muslim: uhhhhhhhhhhh, what?

It's both funny yet disturbing that such an innocuous thing would cause such Islamophobic mayhem. The Daily Mail wasn’t the only one to run this story, if you search Google News a number of newspapers and websites reported it. Some of the comments posted under the Mail article, and there were more than 2000, were really quite shocking but I won’t reprint them here. Instead here’s some of the “worst rated” comments, the comments that readers flagged down [sic].

• Do not believe what is written, this is not a sharia hotel. For example, unrelated men and women can still sit and eat together. The owner has made many suuch compromises to ensure westerners can visit it. We should applaud such a compassioate approach not criticise it. One day all hotels will be like this.

• Good on him, sticking to his beliefs, going to cost him a lot of money though

• His hotel. His law. Calm it people, this will not change Britain.

• If there is a call for it then let it be.. I am sure it would do well.. I not in favour of Sharia Law but running a restaurant the way the owner wants is no ones business but theirs.. We don't go to a woman clothes store and complain it does not sell men's trousers?

• As somebody who has no interest in booze or bacon, I have no problem with this. If these two things rule your life - then just stay in a different hotel, it's simple. Variety is the spice of life. But you can't expect everything you like to be available everywhere you go. That's just silly. lol

Apparently saying that it’s no big deal did not go over well with many Daily Mail readers.

I can’t help but think that this furor is mostly due to the current tide of Islamophobia spreading in many Western societies. What’s important here is not that the menu is changing but that it is a Muslim doing it. Change Muslim to something else and you can see how ridiculous this gets. Would newspapers even be bothering to write an article about:

-- a hotel purchased by a Hindu who doesn’t want the hotel selling beef?
-- a hotel purchased by a vegetarian who doesn’t want the hotel selling meat?
-- a hotel purchased by a Jew who only wants the hotel to sell kosher food?
-- a hotel purchased by a Seventh Day Adventist who doesn’t want the hotel selling alcohol?

Highly unlikely. I don’t think most people would actually care. WELCOME TO HOTEL BROCCOLI just doesn’t have the same ring to it. (I’d probably go to it though, I love broccoli.)

When I told my friend Murat he laughed, as I told him a story years ago about a similar issue. An incident in 2010 where making concessions to Muslims caused a wave of nationalistic fury . . .

Kraft Foods decided to make halal Vegemite! (OMG!)

A blogger responded with a great post titled, “Vegemite is now certified as halal. Apparently, this is the end of civilisation as we know it.” I liked his title so much I did a similar thing for this post. Yep, halal vegemite resulted in OMG from many Australians.

Well apparently four years on the outrage never entirely died down. In 2014 there was a resurgence and some online petitions and social media wanted the halal certification stripped. Paying for a halal certification apparently supports terrorism (huh?!)

I sure hope Kraft sticks to its guns and keeps vegemite halal, a Qatari friend of mine loves the stuff (not me though, ick).

Listen up everyone, you all need to calm down and not freak out when a Muslim wants halal food or to not sell alcohol. It’s not hurting anyone. If you are the type to get upset about these things I think you should cut back watching and reading reactionary news articles. Maybe go to a nearby mosque or Islamic Cultural Centre and spend a bit of time learning about Islam, you’ll find most Muslims are moderates who just want to live normal lives.

Friday, November 21, 2014

World Squash Championships

Attended the semi-finals of the World Squash Championships held at the Khalifa Tennis & Squash Centre (where I go to play squash as well). I'd never been in the room reserved for competitions -- a fully transparent squash court with seating for around 600 spectators. It was pretty cool actually.

Saw both semis, both played by top-10 players and they made it look effortless how easily they moved around the court. The rallies can be longer than tennis, I think a few rallies were in the 50+ hits range, and you really have to stretch down to get the ball since it doesn't bounce much.

In the end Egyptian players won both semis in straight sets so it's an all-Egyptian final tonight. Egypt have always been a major squash powerhouse and it appears this year is no exception.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Protection from the Evil Eye

In an amazing coincidence three of my Arab friends and co-workers announced the birth of a child, all three births occurring within a span of four days. All of the babies and mothers are doing well. Another friend announced the birth of his first child about two weeks ago. [Strange, I don’t recall a large power outage 9 months ago ;-) ]

The announcements were the first time I even knew that any of them were expecting a child. This may seem like an odd thing to Westerners, keeping the news of such a big event secret until after the birth, but I have become used to this as it is common practice in much of the Middle East.

In this part of the world belief is still strong in what we would call the “Evil Eye”, a belief that a person being envious or jealous of your good fortune can cause you harm. While this belief does occur in some non-Muslim countries (such as Greece and parts of Eastern Europe) in Muslim countries it is not considered merely a superstition, a least one hadith notes the Prophet Mohammed stating it exists, so it has religious acceptance.

This means that it is common for people here to not tell others of impending good fortune (a pregnancy, a marriage, a possible job offer) so that others cannot be envious and thus cause the Evil Eye to wreck the event. Some people can even take it a step further, years ago when one of my friends had his first child he didn’t announce it to everyone until a couple of days after the birth because newborns are so vulnerable. As for weddings, at least for the men’s party, you usually find out within a week of the party, maybe only days before. Bear in mind that the couple is already legally married, they would have previously signed a marriage contract maybe weeks or months ago, and that event is only announced after it happens. One day you meet your friend and he will tell you out of the blue he just signed a marriage contract -- you’d have no idea he and his family had even been meeting potential brides.

In Turkey belief in the Evil Eye is widespread, so much so that Turks use a charm, called a nazar, to protect against it. When you visit Turkey you’ll see nazar for sale everywhere in tourist markets but they are not just for tourists. I have yet to see a home in Turkey that didn’t have at least one displayed somewhere. I believe it was the Ottomans who spread this belief to areas of Europe they used to control.

While nazar are less common in the Middle East it is common to say “Mashallah” (God has willed it) whenever you look at a picture of a child or someone tells you about good fortune. The phrase is to help protect against the Evil Eye because you invoke the name of God, similar in some respects to saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. This phrase is used in both Turkey and the Middle East and you’ll hear it often. Again some people take this seriously and I recall a few years ago a Qatari friend asked me to make sure I said it when I looked at a picture of his newborn. I pretty much say it automatically now when looking at a picture of a child or seeing a baby.

So if you know Arabs don't be too surprised or offended if they tell you about some happy event only shortly before or even after it has occurred. It's standard practice in Arabic culture.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Qatar Boat Show

Yesterday I went to the Lusail district for the Boat Show. A friend of mine wanted to go and since I was curious about seeing Lusail I didn't have a problem going.

Lusail itself still had a lot of development to do. There were maybe three completed buildings, another seven or eight under construction, and a lot of empty space. I'm not sure why they would have the Boat Show out here given Lusail is a huge construction zone, I think it would've been better off at the Pearl.

Anyway there were plenty of yachts on display, ranging from small boats for day-trips to luxury yachts. Most of the larger ones didn't have prices listed, they’d be so expensive that if you had that kind of coin you could just ask the price. I did see one booth that listed prices for a number of boats. Amusing that one for around QAR 500,000 (~$140,000) was listed next to a yacht priced at QAR 175,000,000 (~$48 million).

A lot of the yachts required appointments for you to be able to board but there were some that the public could board and wander around. The most notable being a three-story luxury barge that looked more like a floating boutique hotel.

But if it's luxury you want these boats can come with everything. I couldn't believe one we toured had a Jacuzzi.

The Boat Show ends today but admission is free. If you looking for something to do today this is definitely a great way to while away some hours.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Bank Debts in Qatar

Continuing on from my post about Qataris being in significant debt The Peninsula newspaper had a front page story on alleged biases in bank lending and how many Qataris are over-borrowing from banks.

Much of the article is about how banks appear to be very conservative in their lending to expats and not loaning money to people who even have good credit histories and salaries. I'm not going to comment much on that part of the article. Banks have to be careful about loaning money to expatriates who can quickly abscond with the funds. Loans typically are collateralized, such as the bank having a lien on a home because of a mortgage. I'm not sure about the personal loans mentioned in the article as to whether they can be collateralized or not. This article does mention that some ex-pats have managed to flee the country after getting the loan, which would make banks even more shy about personal lending.

Though the big surprise for me was just how much personal debt there is in the Qatari population. The article cites a figure for October 2013 of QR38.1 billion in personal loans to Qataris. That’s about US$10.4 billion! If the Qatari population is around 230,000, that works out to an average of QR 165,600 (US$45,000) for each man, woman and child. Just personal loans, I don’t think that includes mortgages. It means on average a Qatari family of 5 would have $225,000 in personal loan debt. That’s a lot of debt. I sure hope that figure includes car loans or the debt levels are truly frightening as many Qataris also purchase vehicles on credit. Not surprisingly the default rate is going up and now there are many bounced cheque cases going to the courts (in Qatar as in many other Middle Eastern countries there is no such thing as declaring bankruptcy, if you can't pay your debts you might go to debtor prison).

Again it provides evidence that not all Qataris are rich despite the stereotype. Unfortunately I think many are under pressure to "keep up with the Joneses" and thus go heavily into debt to keep up appearances and look like they on the same income level as their wealthier friends and colleagues. I'm glad the Central Bank is trying to clamp down further on this issue but it may have farther to go (really, can any Qatari get personal loans for over 1 million riyal? That’s a LOT of money. A young Qatari is going to struggle to pay that back.)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Traditional Dance at Souq Waqif

For the past while every weekend there has been a group of Qatari men performing traditional music and dance. It’s great that a group of men now gather to do traditional dances, I’m sure the historical culture of Qatar has been in decline due to all the modern influences and technology. Most times when I watch I see a dance that is unusual, one that I haven't seen before. I took a video of some of it and posted it below: (I had to compress the file so used a free downloader, sorry about the annoying watermark)

I've been to a lot of weddings and have never seen a dance like this performed. So I showed the video to some of the Qataris I know to see what they knew about it. Surprisingly, the answers varied a lot.

I don't think any had seen it performed in Qatar before. One said he had seen it performed in Bahrain and given that Qatar and Bahrain have a lot of cultural similarities there was every reason to believe it was a dance from the region of Qatar/Bahrain/Eastern Saudi. Another guy I spoke to thought it might have been an Emirati dance. Yet another thinks it may have Persian influence (many generations ago some Qatari families moved across the Gulf into what is now Iran, though most returned to Qatar in the last 50 years or so).

So there seems to be a complicated history here. If anyone knows more please let me know in the comments. Next time I get a chance I'll see if I can ask one of the dancers during a break if he knows the history.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Population Growth in Qatar

Whenever you read the news in Qatar there is always some article about the problems with traffic, or the problems finding places for kids in schools, the increasing rents, the lack of parking . . .etc

There was an article today in The Peninsula newspaper which nicely summed up the reason behind all the problems.

Here’s the relevant points:

More than 170,000 people, most of them freshly-recruited workers, have entered the country this year, taking the population to an all-time high of 2.21 million.

Qatar’s population has nearly trebled in the last 10 years. In 2004, it was merely 744,000.

Digest that for a second. The population has nearly tripled in 10 years. 10 years!

I've said before that I always felt a bit sorry for whoever was the Minister of Urban Planning because he had a nearly impossible job. How can you manage to build roads, construction and infrastructure to keep up with the population tripling in 10 years? Pretty much impossible, just a game of catch-up the whole time. As soon as a new road is built it’s filled to capacity within a year. A new school has a waitlist by the next term. New apartment buildings open yet the vacancy rate continues to decrease. Everyone complains that there’s construction everywhere yet there has to be just to try to keep the city from gridlocking completely. What to do?

If you went to the mayor of a city in Europe or North America with a population of 750,000 and told them that the population of the city would tripling 10 years so they better plan accordingly, they would look at you like you were insane.

Unfortunately the problems seems set to continue, the population is expected to grow by about 15% a year for the next two years at least. Maybe after that things will stabilize a bit since all of the 2022 World Cup projects will have been started so won't need to bring in more people. Just means at least 2 years of traffic and high rents.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Scuba Diving Lessons

I haven't posted anything for the last week because I've been really busy with work and preparing for scuba diving lessons. Some of my friends are avid divers so I decided to give it a try with a PADI instructor that they knew. Spent most of the week reviewing a big PADI lesson book, shopping for some gear, and watching some PADI videos. You can't just show up and start taking lessons, you need to do a lot of reading ahead of time so that you have an idea of some of the techniques you’ll be learning, how scuba diving equipment works, common hand signals used when you're in the water, and common problems and how to prevent them.

This weekend I went to a pool for my first lesson, putting the equipment together and learning the basics. All told I was in the pool over 3 hours. It was not as nerve-racking as I thought it would be, in truth I was probably more nervous before the lesson started, but once I got in the pool and realized that breathing with the regulator was easy I was a bit calmer and was able to focus on the exercises. That gear is heavy though! I am not the most muscular guy so lugging all of that stuff on my back was probably the hardest part. It's fine once you get in the water but out of the water it's a lot of weight.

I need to practice buoyancy control a bit more but otherwise I did fine for the first lesson. Next week the class will be doing a dive in the ocean near Sealine, in an area where the sea is shallow, where we will practice the exercises again.