A Glimpse of Doha

Having a hard time picturing Doha? This might help.

Envision Las Vegas, a city of gleaming towers rising from the dunes. Add a decent expanse of moderate to low-slung housing stretching inland and southward around a grand, C-shaped bay (some say the city's name comes from dohat, Arabic for bay, while others believe it's a derivation of ad dhawa, for "big tree"). Encircling this bay is the Corniche, a two-mile long pedestrian promenade that skirts the glistening Gulf waters past the rocking dhows in the harbor and terminates at I.M. Pei's glorious new Museum of Islamic Art (it's a gorgeous building, fantastically well placed on its own tiny peninsula jutting into the Gulf -- it changes color during the day, depending on the angle of the sun's rays, and it feels both ancient and new. The inside is less spectacular, mainly broad open spaces, but I've yet to take a good look at the collection, was there only for a couple screenings and discussions during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One very neat-o thing about it is that it's also a woman in a niqab -- the two windows at the top are shaped much like a woman's eye slits in a niqab. Find a picture online and you'll see what I mean). The Corniche is Doha's Las Ramblas, its Champs-Elysees, although nowhere near as appealing or popular. Still, on any evening you will find joggers from three or four continents, Indian families dangling toes into the water, various Arab men smoking cigarettes and couples from everywhere but Qatar leisurely taking in the view.

Otherwise, imagine wide boulevards and dull highways linking glass-walled apartment buildings and five-star hotels, strip malls with foreign franchises of retail, fast food, autos, banking, travel and anything else a consumer bursting with cash might desire. For Qatar is the world's greatest supplier of liquid natural gas, and there's really been no recession here -- Qatar's economy is among the world's fastest growing. The government is predicting 16 percent growth next year and few are disputing. Its per capita income is in the vicinity of $80,000, highest in the world -- but keep in mind there aren't many capitas here.

Qatari citizens make up less than 20 percent of Qatar's total population, which is around 1.3 million. Other Arabs -- mainly from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan -- make up another 20 percent, followed by Western expats at maybe 15 percent. Then at last we have the immigrant laborers, mostly from South Asia and the Phillipines, who work endless hours in the searing heat and the dead of night, raising buildings, who clean and park cars, tend gardens, run restaurants and serve food -- they make up around 40 percent of the population of Qatar. Doha is rather international: at a mid-level cafe or restaurant – not too swish, not too dhaba, perhaps in a mall or the made-to-look-old Souq Waqif – you'll see an Indian family, a group of Jordanians chatting over tea, a few Qatari men in their dishdashas and thobes and a smattering of Western professionals all minding their own business and feeling relatively at home. Foreigners seem quite comfortable in Qatar, perhaps because they sort of own the place.

But in reality they will never own any of its great wealth. Foreigners cannot become citizens in Qatar, much like the other wealthy emirates and kingdoms in the Gulf. These governments prefer to distribute the booty to as few people as possible.

Despite being on the edge of the desert, there's not much sand here because it's all covered up with concrete. The women, too, are generally covered -- you can tell Qatari women because they were the niqab, generally, or at least the full body and head-cover black with exposed face. Many of them do glamorize the look with makeup and earrings and pastel designs along the cuffs and hem. Most other Muslim women generally wear a headscarf over their hair, but a lot don't. And the Western women wear nearly whatever they want -- I've seen tight jeans and short skirts and cleavage, surprisingly. Westerners make good money working for big business, finance and oil and consulting and airlines and banking and the like, live in very nice apartments, drive sleek cars and dine and dance at the fancy restaurants and bars within 5-star foreign brand hotels like the W, Ramada, Four Seasons, Intercontinental and Sheraton.

Qatar puts on a show

Doha// Brazil snatched Saturday's much-anticipated friendly from England 1-0, but the real winner may have been Qatar.

Despite 50,000 fans from around the Gulf cheering, dancing and chanting in a sold out Khalifa International Stadium, much of the action took place off the pitch. Match organizers Al Jazeera Sports and the Qatar Football Association spent some 5 million pounds to lure two top teams, build an entertainment center and display Qatar's readiness to host the 2022 World Cup, which would be the first ever in the Middle East.

“Everything has been very efficient,” Pat Brogan, a 42-year-old salon owner from London, said before the game. “Qatar Airways was fantastic. The transport has been good. The stadium's gorgeous and everybody has been very nice.”

Brogan and his friend Ricky Darcy have followed their team across several continents and had rarely been treated so well. “In some countries we were cordoned off and separated,” said Darcy, a 37-year-old social worker, referring to England fans' reputation for hooliganism. “In Slovakia we were greeted off the plane by policemen with big dogs. But this, this is the way it should be.”

But questions remained about whether this country of 1.3 million people – and only 250,000 Qataris – could handle the demands of hosting the world's most popular sports championship.

“In terms of infrastructure, I think they could handle a World Cup here,” said Mustafa Ramadan, an English citizen who recently moved to Doha to work as a schoolteacher.

His compatriots were less optimistic. “I can't understand how they could possibly do it,” said Brogan. “They've got one good stadium and a lot of desert.”

As part of the bid, the government plans to build at least two new stadiums in addition to Khalifa: the 86,000-seat National Stadium, to be built as part of the $5billion Lusail City project, and the Doha Port Stadium, a smaller, modular sports stadium with seating for 43,000.

Qatar's 2022 bid is aiming for “a completely new type of World Cup.” While previous cups have been played in up to eight cities, all the events for the Qatar tournament would take place in and around Doha. Organizers say a more compact event will save teams the hassle of constant travel and offer fans the opportunity to see more than one match per day.

Before Saturday's match, fans thronged the Fanzone, an 18,000 square foot festival set up outside the stadium. It included Brazilian, Qatari and English food stands, live music, a mini beach-football pitch, camel rides and face painting.

“This is fantastic,” said Steve Collins, 43, an Australian living in Doha for a year. He came with his wife, a friend and her two children. “This opens up Qatar to the whole world. They should do something like this every weekend.”

A traditional Brazilian Batucada drum band led dozens of fans dancing down the main thoroughfare. Kids played the latest FIFA Soccer video game on a 12' foot screen and a quartet of Buckingham Palace guards marched smartly about the grounds.

“It's been really nice so far,” said Camilla Delboni, a 23-year-old Brazilian who works on an oil rig near Doha. “They brought Brazil here to play – that's very good. But I don't think they could host the World Cup – it's too hot here during the summer.”

A key aspect of the bid is the use of low-carbon cooling technology to control temperatures in outdoor stadiums and practice facilities during the Gulf's broasting summer months. Along with modular tournament sites, after the World Cup this technology would be passed on to other Arab countries looking to improve their football and sports infrastructure.

“For this one match, they've done fine," said Waleed Al Harbi, a 30-year-old Saudi. “But during the World Cup it's different; where's the after party going to be?”

One key party to the bid is Mohammad bin Hammam, a Qatari who is president of the Asian Football Confederation and an influential member of FIFA's Exective Committee. Bin Hammam led the teams onto the field for Saturday's match, and recently spoke out in support of England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. Many believe he did so on the assumption that England will return the favor for Qatar's 2022 bid.

That support needs to come soon. Completed official bid books must be submitted to FIFA by next May and the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be named in December 2010.

This weekend likely boosted the Qatari bid – to what extent is unclear. On the Fanzone “Wall of Support” spirits ran high. “Good luck for Qatar!” wrote one backer. They may need it.

-- an edited version of this story appeared 18 Nov in The National (www.thenational.ae)


Qatar school reforms pass test

By David Lepeska

Doha // Qatari first lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned launched this week’s inaugural WISE Summit with clear objectives. “Innovation in education should become an achievable and executable process,” she told hundreds of educators, academics and experts gathered here to discuss the future of education. “Innovation stems from the society and is not imposed on it – it should therefore be a part of the identity of educational institutions."

Innovation may soon be part of the scholastic identity in Qatar, where an ambitious, six-year-old reform programme has begun bearing fruit. In several dozen new government-run schools teachers have shown greater engagement and students tested higher than peers at standard public schools.

“The reform has achieved important successes in its early years,” said a study released this month by the Rand Corporation. “Independent schools have been showing clear progress in applying new student-centred curriculum and teaching methods.”

In a region with few high-achieving school systems, and millions of knowledge-hungry youths, this tiny nation’s new schools offer hope.

The seeds of Qatar’s billion-dollar reform programme, “Education for a New Era”, were planted in 2001. At that time, some 70,000 K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) students attended government financed and operated public schools that could impart the basics but little more.

Seeking to better prepare Qataris for post-secondary education and careers in a globalised economy, the government tasked the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, to analyse its schools and make recommendations.

Rand found a woeful public school system and laid out three options for reform. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani chose the most ambitious – a comprehensive structural reform that would encourage innovation, accountability and variety within independently managed, publicly funded independent schools – and asked Rand to help implement the programme.

Advisers from the Centre for British Teachers and the US-based Charter Schools Development Center helped new school managers design learning programmes and developed an advanced curriculum centred on Arabic, English, science and mathematics. In 2004, the first dozen schools opened their doors. Increased demand led to the opening of a few dozen more schools by 2006.

Progress followed. “This is just a much better learning environment,” said Jan Wilson, director of professional development at Qatar’s new Supreme Education Council (SEC), which runs the independent schools. After 15 years helping the United Nations rebuild school systems in war-torn countries, she joined the SEC in 2003 and helped replace the traditional school system.

A two-year study by the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute, a joint partnership between Rand and the Qatar Foundation, was released last month and describes more demanding yet more supportive classrooms.

“The leadership teams are well-trained and have a good understanding of what they have to do and the teachers are much more secure and knowledgeable,” added Ms Wilson, pointing out the value of the annual assessment tests given to all students at the new schools. “The tests show a year-on-year improvement across the schools.”

At the Abu Baker Asdeeq Independent School, a boys’ middle school in Doha, the conference room shelves are lined with row upon row of binders – comprehensive profiles of all 650 students. Some 70 per cent are Qatari, according to the vice principal, Fareed Yaghi, and the rest from neighbouring countries.

“Everything is different from the other school,” said Abdullah Yousef Deyab, 14, an Abu Baker 9th-grader who attended a ministry-run school until a few years ago. “The students, the teachers, the whole way of learning – this school is much better.” The teenager is not sure what profession he would like to pursue, but he wants to study at a US university.

That’s a possibility. The number of Qatari students in the US increased by 35 per cent in 2008 – the fastest growth rate in the Gulf, according to the latest Open Doors Report from the New York-based International Institute for Education. About 1,000 Qataris are now studying at US institutions within the US and at Education City in Doha. Some of these students graduated from Qatar’s new independent schools.

Yet Qatar’s success remains a regional exception. “The divide between education and employment has not been bridged and the quality of education continues to be disappointing,” said a 2008 World Bank report on education reform in the Middle East and North Africa. “Despite considerable growth in the level of educational attainment, there continues to be an ‘education gap’ with other regions.”

Qatar’s 106 independent schools have begun narrowing that gap. The government eliminated the ministry of education and by September next year, will have also eliminated all its traditional public schools. By that time, the SEC will be operating 180 independent schools, with the possibility of more to come.

Yet the initiative has not been perfect. School leaders have had difficulty explaining to parents how their schools differ from traditional public schools.

Too many policy changes have slowed administrative progress, and classes in English have lagged because of little proficiency among teachers and students.

Most troublesome has been a shortage of Qatari teachers. “Local capacity is limited by numbers,” said Ms Wilson. “There are just not enough Qatari teachers in the country.” She has partnered with Qatar University to attract more, but that’s not the only hurdle.

Female Qataris are willing to teach in part because it provides a secure, gender-segregated workplace. Qatari males take a different view. “Qatari men just don’t want to teach,” said Fareed Yaghi, vice principal of Abu Baker, where six of the 50 teachers are Qatari.

That may change as the independent schools take root. For now, Qatari educators must content themselves with small, daily revelations. “Today the student parliament requested more time for exams, they told me one hour is too short,” Mr Yaghi said. “I’ll have to talk to the teachers – they may be right.”

-- originally appeared 20 Nov 2009, in The National (www.thenational.ae)


A Look at My Place

Some folks have been clamoring for a glimpse of my living conditions here in Doha. Not sure why, exactly, but I thought I'd deliver anyway -- if only to appeal to potential house guests. Come one, come all, anytime after the holidays (I'm heading back to the States for Xmas and New Year's), when Doha is 80 degrees and sunny almost every day, and cool in the evenings.

The living room often looks like this, empty yet welcoming.

This is the ground floor pool, which has a small connected patio. Many an evening you will find me going back and forth from corner to corner lengthwise because it's too short to do laps the normal way. Still it's a cozy little nook, yeah?

And the rooftop pool, nicely tucked away from the world and the perfect spot to while away an afternoon and evening.

The view is not bad either. And when you're surrounded by desert, the sunsets are perfect every night.

Afterwards, the place to go is the Sky View bar at La Cigale, one of the best nightlife spots in the city. Fortunately it's right down the street.

Hope all are well this fine Sunday.


Q & A Show's Value Beyond Debate

By David Lepeska

DOHA // During the question and answer session of this week’s Doha Debates, a Qatari student named Donna stood and asked one of the guest analysts a tough question about political trust, then pressed him to give an honest response. The exchange begged the question: why don’t we have many TV shows like this in the United States?

The thought seems revolutionary. The common wisdom is that it is Arab countries that lag behind, with poor education, little freedom of expression and a dearth of quality entertainment. There is some truth to these beliefs.

But consider that on American television this week, Oprah’s karaoke contest came down to three finalists, Tyra Banks, supermodel turned talk show host, wondered if you’d like to try The Tapeworm Diet, and The Jerry Springer Show asked the eternal question, “My Cousin’s Baby is Yours?”

Yes, US television has some intelligent programming, such as the Emmy-winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose on PBS. The BBC, which manages and broadcasts The Doha Debates, is a world leader in news and entertainment programming.

But The Doha Debates is financed entirely by the Qatar Foundation and the majority of its speakers and audience are of Arab origin. It is an Arab production, one that regularly hosts illuminating and often heated discussions on some of the most pressing topics of the day, including extremism, women’s rights and the occupation of Iraq.

It is also closing in on its 50th episode, and with its appeal to the region’s youth, it may be creating a new image of Arab intellectualism.

“In some ways the show has exceeded our expectations,” said the show’s host and founder, Tim Sebastian, who hosted the BBC’s HARDtalk interview show for decades.
The Doha Debates is the BBC’s most popular weekend programme, according to producer Tanya Sakzewski, and the show’s website is among its most visited. This week The Doha Debates rolled out an Arabic-language website, where episodes can be viewed with Arabic subtitles.

At least 2,000 Arab and Qatari students have attended debating classes at QatarDebate, a national debating society established in September 2007 in response to the show’s success. The Qatar Foundation recently launched an Arabic-language student debate show, Lakom Al Karar (“The Decision is Yours”) and Doha will be host to the World Schools Debate Championship in February. Debating clubs have sprung up not just in Doha, but in Saudi Arabia and at a Palestinian university.

This in a region with a rich intellectual history and tradition of debate that many -- especially in the West -- assume has been lost in today's more conservative societies.

“In a sense, this is a giant leap backwards – and that’s a good thing,” added Sebastian. “These young people are questioning, probing, arming themselves with good questions and being dogged about getting answers.”

This week’s motion,“this house trusts Iran not to build a nuclear bomb”, could hardly be more timely. The international community has been pressing Iran on a UN-brokered plan to swap its low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. Iran agreed to the deal last month in Vienna but has wavered, hinting that it does not trust western negotiators to keep up their end of the bargain.

The opinions expressed were wide-ranging, belying the “Arab Street” myth of ideological uniformity that lingers in much of the West. “One of the surprising things is Arab diversity, in terms of opinion,” said Sebastian. “We used to be able to tell by dress how people would vote. Now we rarely have any idea.”

Iran and its nuclear ambitions have long been a grave concern in the Gulf. Arguing for the motion, Mr Marandi placed Iran’s nuclear energy programme in the broader framework of breaking the western monopoly on advanced research and technologies.

“We should question the motives of those countries who have and use nuclear weapons,” said Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies at the University of Tehran. “While Iran is the world’s biggest victim of WMD’s, it is very revealing that it has never produced chemical weapons, because Iran deems them immoral.”

An Egyptian student named Rama braved catcalls to voice a potentially controversial query: “How can we trust that any Supreme Leader, present or future, will not issue a fatwa saying it is a Muslim duty to nuke or attack any nation?”

Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, argued against the motion. “How can you trust a government who kills its own people?” he asked.

“Where is your evidence?” asked Sebastian.

“I’m not going to disclose my evidence here,” said Mr Nourizadeh.

“Well then it doesn’t sound very credible, does it?” said Sebastian, earning titters from a studio audience made up mostly of local high school and university students.

That audience seemed to side with Mr Nourizadeh, as 52 per cent voted against the motion. But a Qatari student who voted in favour was unfazed. “I like how this reveals two sides to every question,” said Ahmed al Malik, 18. “We can express both sides, and understand the issues better.”

Sebastian saw the ground shifting.

“You’d be hard-pressed to walk down Oxford Street in London,” he said, “and find students that would rather go debate than spend the day shopping.”

-- edited version appeared in The National, 13 Nov 2009.


The Doha Story Begins

So I'm here. I think. Hard to tell I've arrived because, well, Doha can look pretty familiar to an American. On my street alone I've got a heart attack of US franchises, flashing bright red neon signs in two languages. Chili's is considerably more appealing in Arabic, I'll have you know. You've got your McDonald's and Burger King, Hardee's and the like, but the group includes a few I wouldn't expect (Dairy Queen? Johnny Rockets?? Ponderosa?!). The streets are relatively neat and tidy, the buildings dutifully scrape the sky, the doormen are deferential and the bars are filled with beer-swilling, sports-watching professional types.

So you stroll into H&M to look into some duds and you notice a group of veiled women waiting in line to buy their clo...Wait. Where am I? Oh, right, the Gulf. Where all of these cities -- yes, I'm looking at you, Dubai, and you, too, Abu Dhabi; Sharjah and Manama you can join in as well -- are competing to be the most seductive port of call for international bankers and glamorous stars of sport and film, media power players and wealthy businessmen of all stripes. The Gulf may be the only region in the world where the leadership is consciously and purposefully building castles not for the use and improvement of its own citizens but for the delectation of the foreign hordes. Not a moment too soon, either -- about three-fourths of Doha is foreign-born. And here I've come. Am I impressed? Am I enjoying it? Has it bowled me over? Eh.

Which reminds me, what am I doing here? Oh right, the journalism, the reporting, finding stories and sniffing out leads and making contacts and getting the answers. I've done a little of that:


And I'll do more. But for now I'm just trying to get my bearings. What helped most we're the eye-rolling, drool-inducing, try-one-and-you-must-eat-ten kebabs in Souq Waqif. Al Hateem restaurant you have rescued Doha from every-place hell, and I thank you heartily. Shabu W Masa you can take a bow as well, but your franchising ways have me doubting your authenticity. I'm watching you.

Some more images from the first fortnight (I took these with my phone, apologies for the poor quality -- I'll be busting out my camera soon enough):

A shot of "The Mummy" in Souq Waqif, a fantastic old Egyptian flick screened during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in a great open square abutting the old market in downtown Doha.

A view of West Bay, or the Towers, as their known, from across the bay. Like little boys, they grow taller every day.

At the supermarket Carrefour, above each produce selection is a sign telling you the country in which it was grown. European varieties, you can see, are a bit more costly than those from the developing world - three times more expensive in this case. Predictably, immigrant laborers take the cheaper varieties, and Western expats go with what they know. Qataris? Well they do like their status symbols.

The Villaggio Mall replicates a Venetian street scene. This is indoors -- see the H&M to the left, and you might be able to make out the clouds and blue sky painted on the ceiling, in the upper left corner. This canal is plied all day and evening by what may be the world's only motorized gondola. Even in Vegas the gondoliers actually propel the boat. Not here. But that doesn't deter the steady stream of ride seekers.