Welcome to Mecca's playground

It's Friday prayer in Manama's Adliya neighborhood, and the voice of an angry imam blasts from the loudspeakers of nearby mosque. Looking to watch the Australian Open on TV, I hop into a cab and head north to a bar in Hoora. I pass on my destination to the driver, a Bahraini in traditional Gulf Arab dress of thobe and dishdasha, and we're off.

“Would you like to watch TV?” he asks. Well, sure, but whe....Now I see. There are screens on the back of the headrests in front of me, and another in the driver's center console, where the radio should be. He pushes a button and the bass blasts in stereo sound. Akon appears onscreen with Snoop and a gaggle of writhing hotties. “I wanna F**K you!” says Akon.

Does he get sports in this thing? I start fiddling with the buttons below the monitor, trying to change the channel. “It's a DVD!” he says, turning to smile at me.

I see. So this supposedly conservative Muslim cab driver is playing a DVD of raunchy hip hop and rap videos for his mainly Western clientele. Brilliant. Except that he's been sucked in: minutes later, while Shakira's hips are telling grave truths, his eyes dart back and forth between screens -- windshield, video, windshield, video. Somehow, we make it to our destination.

As I pay him, a question comes to mind: the videos might improve his tips, but considering Manama's unpredictable drivers, how long will the salad days last?

Later that afternoon I get into another cab and the driver offers some of Manama's earthly pleasures. “Would you like a woman?” he asks. “Very nice, you get everything – massage, shower.”

One thing's for sure: these are not Osama's Muslims.

Qatar woos business travelers

DOHA // Planning a holiday? Qatar may not leap to mind.

“For leisure tourists, let’s be honest, we’re not quite ready,” said Sadeem al Mahmied, the head of marketing for Qatar Tourism Authority.

Instead, Qatari officials are aiming for organisers of conferences and exhibitions. “We have the facilities to host business events,” Ms al Mahmied said. “So we are trying to attract that segment, high-level travellers, business travellers.”

Because of its sizeable natural resources – Qatar has the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas – the country has been slower than such neighbours as Bahrain and the UAE in developing a tourism sector as part of its economic diversification.

Now it may be making up for lost time. Qatar is organising more than 180 major events this year, after hosting 80 last year.

Tourism revenue has grown at six per cent annually for the past few years, according to the tourism authority. Its focus is not mass tourism, but Mice tourism: a slice of the billion-dollar international meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector.

Hotel occupancy averaged about 70 per cent in 2008. But with the financial downturn and the swine flu scare, the number of visitors dipped last year. As tourism infrastructure improves, Qatari officials expect that trend to reverse.

Doha’s new US$5bn (Dh18bn) international airport opens next year. In 2012 the Doha Convention Centre and Towers will begin to host VIP gatherings in West Bay. And in the five years to follow a new port, a $25bn metro and light rail and a pedestrian-friendly downtown are all set to come online.

It is the National Convention Centre, to be opened next year, that has the Mice circuit drooling. The 177,000sq m facility has nine exhibition halls and 40,000sq m of exhibition space, a 4,000-seat theatre, a 2,300-seat auditorium and 57 meeting rooms. The roof will feature enough solar panels to provide one-eighth of the building’s power needs and the entire space is wired for internet connectivity and remote radio tracking of participants.

Designed by Arata Isozaki with an entry that looks like a sidra tree, the symbol of its backer, the Qatar Foundation, the centre will host the World Petroleum Congress in December next year.

To attract more such events, tourism officials leave for a European roadshow next month, stopping at conventions in Madrid, Milan, Paris and London. Next year they target Asia, and the following year the US market. Their campaign promotes Qatar’s strong infrastructure and leads with the slogan, “Experience 48 hours in Qatar: Your business is our pleasure.”

In 2009, Doha’s tourist infrastructure was bolstered by the addition of 2,000 hotel rooms last year. The city will add a further 2,500 rooms this year, from luxury brands including Kapinsky, Hilton and Shangri-La, bringing the total available rooms to 10,000. The tourism authority expects that number to nearly triple by 2012.

One project that will not be coming online anytime soon is Barwa al Khor’s Urjuan development. After beginning construction on the $10bn project, designed to hold nearly 25,000 homes and a luxury beachfront resort 40km north of Doha, work was indefinitely suspended in December.

Despite the focus on business travellers, Qatar holds some appeal for holidaymakers. Souq Waqif, a downtown Doha souk rebuilt to echo its ancient origins, presents narrow twisting alleys and dozens of shops offering ouds and North African drums, leather saddles, carpet bags and hunting falcons, each worth 100,000 rials.

Nearby, the stunning Museum of Islamic Art holds one of the most wide-ranging collections of Islamic art and artefacts in the world, including Syrian glassware, Quranic calligraphy and the white jade pendant that the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan wore after the death of his beloved, Mumtaz, for whom he built the Taj Mahal. The museum’s Pearls exhibition opened Friday, highlighted by the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, a 19th-century bauble of the maharaja of Baroda that the museum bought at auction for $5m last year.

Qatar’s top natural attraction may be Khor al Adaid, or Inland Sea, a 15km-long tidal lake near the southern coast.

Considering the site for World Heritage status, Unesco says: “The area presents a remarkable landscape and offers world-class scenic beauty.”

Moreover, celebrating Doha’s year as the Arab Capital of Culture began last week with the launch of the Qatar Marine Festival. This week the Doha Food Fest kicks off.

Last year, Doha eased visa restrictions for day visitors, thus opening itself as a port of call for cruise lines and making such events more accessible. The city saw 10 to 12 stops last year, according to the tourism authority, and is expecting up to 25 this year. That number will expand considerably when the new port opens in 2014.

Still, only 10 per cent of foreign visitors are holidaymakers.

“We have a number of projects going on, and once those are finished we will aim more for the leisure traveller,” Ms al Mahmied said. She said an indoor-outdoor water park on the edge of the city and a Cultural Village of theatres, shops, galleries and cafes along the coast north of West Bay will open next year.

That may explain why the Qatar Tourism Authority hosted a tourism marketing training workshop this week. Veteran tourism marketers guided visiting tourism officials, hotel representatives and tour operators through the various steps of selling a place and a vision.

“They’re teaching us how to build a marketing plan the right way – to be clear in setting goals and following up,” Ms al Mahmied said. “We need to introduce Qatar as a destination to people who are not aware.”

originally ran in The National, www.thenational.ae


Teenage girl poised to become youngest Arab doctor

DOHA // At two and a half years old, Iqbal al Assaad taught herself to count from one to 10 in Arabic and English. At five, she was in the second grade alongside seven-year-olds. At the age of nine she passed standardised ninth grade tests for 14-year-olds with flying colours.

“My father said every year we’re going to do this, you’re going to skip one grade and go to the upper one, and it worked out,” said Iqbal, as if it were as easy as skipping rope.

Today she is a 16-year-old medical student at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the region, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. “Maybe other students don’t have this motivation, but I like to study,” she said. “Since I was very young I would go up to my father and ask him to teach me something new.”

That curiosity and a preternatural focus have Iqbal poised to become one of the youngest Arab doctors in modern times.

“It is extremely impressive to have her in class, a student so young and at the same time so mature and capable in handling a very challenging curriculum,” said Prof Marco Ameduri, a Weill Cornell physics professor who taught Iqbal in two premed courses in 2008.

Iqbal grew up in Bakaa, Lebanon, the youngest of four children. Her father ran a covenience shop and her mother ran the house, where studying became a point of pride. Her eldest sister, 25, is married, but hopes to return to university. Her eldest brother, 23, is completing his studies as a mechanical engineer, while the other is writing his master’s thesis in physics, at 20 years old.

The real prodigy is Iqbal – but she has not done it on her own. To help her pass that ninth-grade standardised test, Lebanon’s education minister wrote a letter authorising her to take the test. Soon after, Iqbal fell ill and her parents took her to a local physician.

“He didn’t give me enough time, he didn’t give enough attention to what I wanted to tell him about my sickness,” Iqbal recalled. “It didn’t have such a big impact with me but maybe in other cases, like in cancer patients, where the psychological plays a big role, if the doctor doesn’t treat that patient very well, there’s going to be an impact on the patient – that’s what drove me to become a doctor.”

Hearing of her dream, the Lebanese education minister helped Iqbal again, requesting assistance from the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser al Missned, who oversees the Qatar Foundation, which runs Education City. Sheikha Mozah granted Iqbal a full scholarship to an undergrad program at Weill Cornell, then helped her move to Qatar with her mother in January 2006. Only 12 years old, Iqbal was not intimidated by an unfamiliar country, the vast campus or her much older classmates. She has never known classmates her own age, yet they have never rejected or troubled her.

“I don’t feel that I’m younger than my fellow students – since I was five years old I’ve been with students that are older than me, so I’ve got used to it,” she said. “My classmates have always had the ability to accept me as one of them, and that’s what has happened here at Weill Cornell.” During a recent interview at her Education City campus, she responded to a reporter’s questions eloquently and without haste or apparent anxiety.

“Just observing her interactions with other students, you would not know that she was younger,” said Prof Ameduri, who is also the assistant dean for student affairs. “In fact, I saw her as a student leader, bringing students together, forming study groups and things like that.”

Yet she is up to a decade younger than most of her class, which is set to graduate in the spring of 2013. Iqbal, however, plans to take a gap year, or perform research for a year, before returning to Weill Cornell to graduate and become a doctor in 2014.

Thus she is no threat to become the world’s youngest doctor, widely believed to be Balamurali Ambati, an Indian who in 1995 graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine two months shy of his 18th birthday. Still, after three years of undergraduate and premed studies, Iqbal began medical school last fall. She completed her first term last week, which she said was “very good”.

She looked forward to anatomy and human structure classes, and, down the line, conducting physical exams and working with real patients. She plans to be a surgeon, maybe a neurosurgeon.

“I can predict and expect a very brilliant career for her,” Prof Ameduri said. “She will be very successful in clinical care of her patients and in research, and someday I hope to see her back here.”

He will probably get his wish. “I feel responsible towards this country, Qatar, and I want to come back after I finish [medical school] to pay this country back,” Iqbal said, thanking Sheikha Mozah, the university and the Qatar Foundation.

Before leaving for term break, she reflected on her accomplishments. “I’m an example: I’m a woman, but still I made it,” she said. “If you have the motivation and you have the abilities, no one’s going to stop you, whether you’re a woman or a man.”

----- originally appeared in Jan 22 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae


Yemen's long road to stability

DOHA // A groundswell of international pressure has prodded the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to action. Negotiations with the Houthi rebels, with whom his government has been warring for nearly a year, are said to be nearing a breakthrough. And after “open war” was declared on al Qa’eda last week, air strikes on militant strongholds in the north-east mountains reportedly killed Qasim Raymi, a top al Qa’eda commander.

It's only the beginning.

“This is a long-term, multifaceted security challenge for the international community but also for the Gulf region,” said Steven Wright, an assistant professor of international affairs at Qatar University. He is working on a research paper about Yemeni instability, the Gulf and the response of the international community.

Since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was accused of trying to set off a bomb while his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam neared Detroit, grave concerns about the security situation in Yemen, where the plot was allegedly hatched, have been expressed by international media outlets, security analysts and world leaders.

“You are seeing an increased recognition, from the international community and the GCC, that Yemen is potentially the biggest security challenge in the region,” Mr Wright said.

Most assessments suggest that Yemen – facing two insurgencies, deeply rooted extremism, dwindling supplies of water and oil and a dreadful economy, among other difficulties – is on the brink of collapse.

For Gulf countries, the first danger comes from Yemen’s porous borders, as extremists operating within Yemen could move into Oman and Saudi Arabia and cause problems. The second, greater danger concerns energy security – piracy and terrorist attacks on tankers and shipping lanes in the Gulf.

“This is a risk to Gulf countries’ main economic lifelines,” Mr Wright said. Last week a statement from al Qa’eda in Yemen urged “the citizens of the Arabian Peninsula to face the Crusader’s campaign and their agents … by attacking military bases, embassies and intelligence, and the existing fleets in the waters of the Arabian peninsula and the surrounding territory”.

Still, Mr Wright said, the danger to embassies, major corporations and other foreign interests within Gulf countries is minimal. “The GCC countries have very effective internal security mechanisms.”

Another Gulf analyst disagreed. “Of course, the threat is always there,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Al Qa’eda has made that clear – its threat to Gulf countries and western assets here is long-standing.”

Less clear is how the region and the international community should handle the problem of Yemen. To prevent internal attacks, Mr Khawaji advised Gulf nations to improve their intelligence gathering and co-operation and enhance border control and security systems.

Even more vital is attacking the problem at its roots. “Gulf countries need to be using all their political strength to pressure the Yemeni government to be more engaging politically, with political reforms and national dialogue with all the parties in order to certify national unity,” Mr Kahwaji said.

GCC countries have in recent years provided tens of millions of dollars in aid to Yemen.

After the failed attack in Detroit, the United States doubled its counterterrorism aid, to $140m per year. Yet it has been providing counter-terror assistance to Yemen since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, to little effect. In 2006, international donors pledged nearly $5bn to turn Yemen around, but a lack of coordination has undermined those efforts.

Mr Wright said he was optimistic about an upcoming aid conference on Yemen scheduled for the end of this month in London. “That’s where the solutions are going to be discussed and fleshed out.”

originally appeared in The National, www.thenational.ae


Qatar's cultural ambitions: take one

Doha // Khalifa al Maraikhi shoulders a heavy burden.

“Every nation has a culture,” said the director of Aqaribabzah, the first Qatari feature film. “As an artist, filmmaker or musician, it’s important to reflect this culture into your art.”

As Doha steps into the spotlight as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2010 – an Arab League and UN designation – its budding reputation as a cultural centre is at stake.

Previous recipients of the honour, including Damascus, Jerusalem and Algiers, have found the designation both opportunity and test for their nascent arts scenes.

In Qatar, dozens of artists, artisans and government officials have already prepared more than a hundred events, including music recitals, heritage festivals, calligraphy contests and art exhibits.

Mr al Maraikhi's Aqaribabzah ("Clockwise" in Arabic) might be the bellwether. Financed, produced and directed by Qataris, it represents the filmmaking ambitions of a country of some 250,000 people. It also highlights one of Qatar’s few native art forms.

The film, set in the 1930s, is based on the Gulf legend of three men who make a Faustian bargain with a djinn in exchange for the ability to become master fijiri singers. Although there are several different genres, fijiri music generally comprises a lead singer accompanied by a clapping, drum-playing chorus. The form originated more than a century ago among pearl divers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, and remains popular in the region.

At the same time, Aqaribabzah underscores Qatar’s cultural shortcomings. Five years ago, Mr al Maraikhi and a friend wrote a script based on the folk tale and passed the story on to a few acquaintances.

But with no film production studios in Qatar, nothing came of it until last January, when the country received the cultural capital honour.

Within weeks, the ministry of culture, arts and heritage approved the film with a 10 million rial (Dh10.1m) budget. “In the US and Europe there are production companies that invest in films,” said Mr al Maraikhi, 50. “Here we don’t have those – we need the government to help us.”

The film’s composer is Howard Shore, an American who scored the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator. The cinematographer, assistant director and crew are Bollywood veterans flown in from India. The lead actress, Maisa Magribi, is from Morocco.

The rest of the cast and crew are Qatari, but with little experience.

On the last day of shooting a few weeks ago, the director sidled up to his thobe-wearing leads after an unsatisfactory take. Using words and gestures, he explained his vision for the scene, returned to his chair behind a stack of monitors and shouted, “Action!”.

The room froze – except for the actors, whose faces expressed great fear as they cautiously descended into a cave marked by grotesque wall paintings.

“I’m getting tired of telling actors what to do,” said Mr al Maraikhi, whose Qatari cast has only worked on stage or on TV serials. “Film acting is different, every movement, every expression is important; we’ve had to teach them that. They started out a bit nervous, now they’re doing all right.”

Initially scheduled to hit theatres in March, Aqaribabzah’s release was pushed back to May, following post-production in Bangkok. The delay is due, in part, to Qatar’s lack of facilities.

“Everybody is talking about a film industry, but this requires studios, screenwriters, experienced actors, filmmakers and a market,” said Mr al Maraikhi, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles before returning to Qatar in the 1990s to make short films and music videos. “We just don’t have film production experience here. What we have is maybe the beginning of a film movement.”

That movement would include the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, held here last November. As well as attracting large crowds, it may also have uncovered some young filmmaking talent.

That same week, the Qatari media group Alnoor Holdings launched a US$200 million (Dh740m) film fund that plans to partner as yet unnamed Hollywood players to make a dozen feature films over five years, starting with a $100m film about the life of Prophet Mohammed.

Although not widely known, Qatar has a budding music, art and poetry scene too, which the government has been trying to promote.

In poetry, Ali al Muri, a Qatari, has in recent weeks proved to be one of the more entertaining and successful contestants on the current season of the reality TV show, Million’s Poet.

A recent religious and cultural festival organised by the Fanar Islamic Centre included well-attended poetry recitals, along with calligraphy and other exhibitions.

In terms of music, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra regularly performs classical and operatic pieces, and presented a programme of eight Puccini arias this past week. During Qatar’s National Day celebrations last month, dozens of fijiri musicians and singers performed at malls and parks across Doha. And the Qatar Foundation is set to open the Qatar Music Academy in September. Open to all nationalities, it will focus on Arab music, highlighting links to American jazz and European composition.

Regular art shows attract nationals and expats to small, chic galleries in Souq Waqif, a popular downtown Doha quarter remade into a traditional souq. In March, Sotheby’s opened a Doha office – its first in the Gulf. And before moving on to cities including Abu Dhabi, Amman, New York, Paris and Berlin, the Art Wanson Gallery last month launched the world tour of its exhibition Passion for Art at Doha’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.

“Doha is fast becoming a hub of art and culture and we want to be a part of the process,” said Mercedes Duerinckx, who owns the gallery, based in Marbella, Spain.

But it is the much-praised Museum of Islamic Art, which offers one of the region’s most dynamic collections of art and artifacts, that made Qatar’s name in international arts. The museum opened in January 2009 and is planning a host of exhibits and screenings in conjunction with the cultural capital title.

Qatari leaders acknowledge that Doha’s art scene does not build on tradition. Rather they intend to build a new foundation for art in the Qatari capital. “We are not buying culture, we are investing in culture,” said Abdullah Najjar, the chief executive of the Qatar Museums Authority. “It is something that will be seen by future generations as an important investment.”

Aqaribabzah is among the most high-profile of those investments.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Salah Darwish, one of the film’s leading stars.

The 57-year-old Qatari studied drama in Cairo and earned acting awards in Damascus but stopped performing 26 years ago because of a dearth of good roles. “There were no interesting stories, no good parts,” he said. “But this film could change everything.”

Mr al Maraikhi hopes to take Aqaribabzah to international festivals, and to make more movies in the future. But first he is looking to the film’s premiere, as part of Doha’s year as the Arab Capital of Culture.

“It’s a big deal, because you’ll have many people, many countries seeing what Qatar is doing at the moment,” he said. “We don’t expect to make millions out of this film, but we hope that people enjoy it.”

originally published 15 Jan, 2010, in The National:

Is the Karzai government worth Western blood and treasure?

Doha// “The Bush administration is guilty of a dereliction of duty,” said Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan Administration, referring to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

“It was criminal, what the United States did,” Korb explained. “A lot of the problems we're seeing today are a result of the fact that we went in there, created a vacuum and then walked away...President Bush promised a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, and then never followed up.”

A full house packed the Education City studio of the BBC's Doha Debates this week as an accomplished panel took up the motion: “This House does not believe that this Afghan government is worth fighting for.” More than eight years after the US-led invasion, international forces are bogged down in guerrilla warfare with a resurgent Taliban while the President Hamid Karzai-led government is charged with election fraud, corruption and ineffectiveness.

Assisted by their host, BBC presenter Tim Sebastian, the panelists engaged in verbal battle on the legitimacy of the Karzai government, the need for international forces and the components of democracy, before a slim majority of the audience – 51 percent to 49 percent – voted to carry the motion.

“Afghanistan never wanted to be host for long to foreign troops – this is the history of Afghanistan, this is our nature,” said Shukria Barakzai, Mr Korb's co-panelist and a member of the Afghan parliament.

She was responding to a question from the audience about why the Afghan people do not protest against the continued presence of US-led forces. “But right now, we are a little baby,” she said, “and until we can stand on our own feet, we need it.”

Mr Korb pointed to the example of Iraq, where US forces had begun pulling out and would be out completely by the end of next year. “I'm very happy that President Obama, in announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan, also talked about a deadline,” he said. “The message is that this government has to clean up its act.”

Mirwais Yasini, deputy speaker of the Lower House of the Afghan parliament who briefly ran for Afghan president last year, did not see that happening anytime soon. “There is no security, there is corruption, there's no reconciliation, there are no services for Afghan citizens,” he said. “Democracy is just a slogan...we are establishing a very dirty precedent.”

Yasini's co-panelist, former US Ambassador Peter Galbraith, was fired last year from his post as a United Nations envoy to Afghanistan for accusing his boss of concealing election fraud. He said the government could not provide the security, rule of law and services necessary to support the US-led war.

“A government that is ineffective and in office by fraud cannot win the support of the population,” said Mr Galbraith. “It cannot do what it needs to make a counter-insurgency strategy work.”

Standing up from his seat in the audience, the Afghan Ambassador to Qatar, Wali Monawar, asked what sort of alternatives Mr Galbraith might offer to the current government. Mr Galbraith suggested a new election or a power-sharing political system.

Mr Sebastian pressed the point. “There is no other government,” he said. “This is the Afghan government, however ineffective or corrupt, however it fails to meet your expectations.”

Mr Galbraith pointed to the one million phoney votes estimated by European Union monitors. “Tim,” he said, “you cannot say that a govt that is in office by massive fraud is a legitimate government.”

“What do you expect?” responded Mr Sebastian. “It's hard enough to get a fair election in the United States.”

Ms Barakzai pointed out that President Karzai had received the support of the Afghan people three times – in a 2002 loya jirga, or meeting of elders, in the first presidential election, in 2004, and again last year. “Democracy is not a product,” she said. “It's always a process and this process takes decades and generations.”

“But why must it take decades and generations?” asked Mr Sebastian.

Ms Barakzia responded, “How long did it take your country to establish democracy?”

A BBC/ABC poll released this week found 68 per cent of Afghans saw the government as heading in the right direction. And Mr Korb viewed the Afghan Parliament's recent rejection of 17 of Mr Karzai's 24 proposed cabinet members as a “great step forward” for democracy. “We tend to confuse elections with democracy,” he said. “It's civil society that you have to build, that's the key thing.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International, a rights group, said the Karzai government shows “blatant impunity” for human rights, and has released at least five major drug leaders. Further, Mr Galbraith said last year's election fraud “disenfranchised every Afghan who cast an honest vote.”

Yet more than 500 international troops died in Afghanistan in 2009.

“They're dying for the chance to give Afghans a chance to choose their own destiny,” he said. “We're interested in helping the Afghan people make their own choices, and they have a limited amount of time..after a few years we will have done all that we can.”


Doha's real estate sector stumbles

DOHA // A surplus of homes and the aftershocks of the global economic crisis are hammering prices for rental and residential properties across Doha.

In a recent survey from Century 21 Qatar, apartment rental prices in some areas of the city fell by 10 per cent last month. Rental and housing prices have dropped 20-60 per cent in the past 18 months, say several Doha property agents, even as similar scenarios play out in other GCC metros.

“The market is not good at all,” said P N Baburajan, a property agent who as worked in the sector in Doha for 20 years. “There used to be so many new companies coming in, from Dubai and UAE and Saudi Arabia, even the US and Europe, and bringing all those employees. But now companies have stopped coming – and some have reduced staff strength as well.”

Still, developments continue to rise. Work continues on The Pearl-Qatar, a series of high-end retail outlets and leafy residential neighbourhoods built on a man-made island twisting out into the Gulf like a string of pearls. Crowned with two luxury hotels, “smart” housing for more than 40,000 and a dozen kilometres of pristine beaches, it is the grandest property development in the history of Qatar and is set for completion in 2013.

In addition to The Pearl, Doha developers are building Al Wa’ab City, a US$3.2 billion (Dh11.75bn) family-oriented community development from Nasser Bin Khaled Holding; Lusail, a $5.5bn luxury waterfront city from Qatari Diar, with housing for 200,000, not far from The Pearl; and Barwa Village, a $500 million housing project to be completed in the coming months.

All this new housing will enter an already crowded market. In a report released last September, the Qatar Oman Investment Company found some 15,000 unoccupied apartments across Doha. More recently, Bank of America Securities-Merrill Lynch warned that by 2012, when Qatar’s gas-driven expansion has been completed, there will be limited need for labour in the non-oil economy. Expatriates may then leave Qatar in large numbers, resulting in a “significant overhang” of property.

Troubles in the property sector are not unique to Doha. Kuwait’s City of Silk has been halted in the planning stages, and Aldar Properties, Abu Dhabi’s largest developer, has put its plans for the project on hold. In style and scale, The Pearl is reminiscent of Dubai developments such as the Palm islands and The World, both of which were built by Nakheel. Nakheel is under the umbrella of the government-owned Dubai World, which recently began talks to restructure its debt repayments – due in part to an unstable property market.

Yet United Development, the company behind The Pearl, is fortunate to be building in Qatar, where abundant gas revenues have allowed the government to support developers and financial services firms in the downturn, buying portfolios and backing up loans. The Qatari economy is expected to grow nearly 15 per cent this year, among the world’s fastest.

This may explain The Pearl’s target demographic. One-bedroom homes – which include remote-controlled lighting and cooling, high-speed wireless internet, maid service, security and reception, and a health club with gym, jacuzzi and juice bar – retail for 1.5m Qatari rials (Dh1.5m). The Pearl says it has sold nearly two-thirds of its available properties, including all 450 villas.

“We have some interest,” said Georges Bou Abdallah, the sales and leasing team leader in Doha for the brokerage firm Asteco, referring to flats at The Pearl. “But there’s more interest in the secondary market, in resale.” Resale properties at The Pearl were going for about 1mn rials, he said, 25-30 per cent off their initial price.

Rental prices for apartments at The Pearl have dropped further. Units initially budgeted at 20,000 rials have come down to 10,000-11,000 rials. “We are getting inquiries, but mainly people are viewing and not renting,” said Mr Baburajan, who remained optimistic. “The market is slowly coming up. By the middle of 2010, the situation will be changed.”

United Development has faced delays in delivering some units, but after cutting costs and curbing expansion plans, expects to meet its deadlines. “Everything is more or less on schedule,” a representative said.

In Porto Arabia, residents have begun moving in to The Pearl’s first completed apartment building, while some 40 luxury outlets – including Armani, Coach, Balenciaga and Hermes – have opened on the promenade. In late afternoons and evenings, couples, families and friends stroll the boardwalk, stopping to chat over coffee, watch sidewalk performers and window shop.

“It’s been pretty slow,” said Amin Derriche, assistant manager of the Giorgio Armani store, which opened last February. “But we expected it to be like this. Business here won’t be like our European stores for another two to three years.”

--- originally appeared in The National, www.thenational.ae


How TV for Arab kids grew up

DOHA // Since hitting the airwaves in September 2005, Al Jazeera Children’s Channel has broadcast thousands of hours of animated, talk and game shows in classical Arabic. It has also earned a fistful of awards and started to put a modern and distinctly Arab face on children’s programming in the region.

“We have planted the seed of change,” said Mahmoud Bouneb, the network’s executive general manager. “We have planted the seed of hope for a better tomorrow, but also for a better Arab citizen.”

Mr Bouneb recalls first hearing of the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned’s idea for an educational, entertaining and locally produced Arabic language children’s channel, in 2002.

“I thought it was, not a joke, but let’s say a fantasy, in the Arab world,” he remembers thinking at the time. “I always thought that children’s television was a very serious business and we in the Arab world have no experience with it.”

Seven years ago, locally produced programming for children was practically non-existent. Arabic-language children’s television meant dubbed versions of Bugs Bunny and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Though he had never been involved in children’s television, in early 2003 Mr Bouneb left his job working for the chairman of the board at Al Jazeera News to become the new network’s executive general manager. For more than two years he worked with producers, programmers and consultants from the Paris-based LaGardere Group to develop an identity for Al Jazeera Children’s Channel.

“I remember the first thing we discussed was, ‘Are we going to let children debate freely on this channel?’” he said. “My answer from Day One was yes, because in Arabic culture we don’t have a tradition of listening to the children ... I said ‘Let’s listen to the children, we would be amazed by what we hear.’

Today, children’s voices dominate JCC programming, in shows such as Nadra Ala, a weekly debate show, and Ad Darb, a popular, fast-moving game show.

At the station’s Education City headquarters, on the edge of Doha, the walls and furniture are painted in bright, child-friendly colours, such as orange and sky blue. Cheerful staffers watch over a steady stream of visiting youngsters and a wide variety of in-house productions keep three top-of-the-line studios in near-constant use.

JCC, which also has offices in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Paris and Kuala Lumpur, produces about 60 per cent of its programming. That content reaches 45 to 50 million households across the Arab world and Europe.

A year ago, the station split into two channels – Baraem TV, aimed at three to six-year-olds, and the original Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, for seven to 15-year-olds.

Baraem’s animated series Nan and Lili has been honoured repeatedly, including earning a certificate of merit at last year’s International Communications, Video and Interactive Media Competition and, last month, the CINE Golden Eagle Award from a US consortium for innovative TV and cinema. Competitors such as Nickelodeon Arabic and MBC-3 have in recent years begun to produce in-house game shows and other edutainment programming much like that seen on JCC.

JCC has produced or co-produced more than 50 films. Still Alive in Gaza, a feature documentary about Palestinian youth that JCC co-produced, will screen at the Berlin International Film Festival next month.

JCC also offers special programming for Ramadan and a show on the Quran, but does not allow religious ideals to dominate. “Islam is part of our daily life, it’s our religion, and it should be integrated into our content,” said Mr Bouneb. “But we are not a dogmatic channel.”

Nor is JCC a commercial venture. Its US$100 million (Dh367m) annual budget is provided mostly by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

Even with minimal marketing, the network has made an impact. “Everything that contributes to the compounding of knowledge in the region is a positive," said Hatem Samman, a director of Booz and Company’s Ideation Center, a Dubai-based think tank.

Yet he questioned the breadth of the station’s influence. “How do you compete with sources from the West and the US in particular?” asked Mr Samman, pointing out that his own children mostly watched English-language stations such as the Disney channel. “You need to have a comparative advantage. One way to do that is if you cannot beat them, you join them, with joint ventures and the like.”

Thus, JCC’s two main objectives are more in-house content and greater reach. It has signed partnership agreements with production firms in the UK, Canada and Japan, among others. An animated show about the Arabic hero Salahaddin and Richard the Lionheart, co-produced with a Malaysian firm, will begin airing this summer.

Within two years, Mr Bouneb hopes to create an English-language version of Baraem and move into the North American market.

Later this month, JCC will launch a video-on-demand platform on its website, where visitors will be able to access detailed programming information and watch their favourite shows at any time.

Mr Bouneb wants “to increase the local flavour, the local identity”, in JCC’s programming. “We are just a television channel which is trying to bring beauty into the lives of the Arabic children,” he said, “to make a difference in their lives and to give them a better future.”

originally appeared in 8 Jan, 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae


A new urban paradigm in Doha

Doha // Tim Makower recalls the moment he and the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, came up with the central theme for a government-backed, US$5.9billion (Dh21.6bn) plan to remake Doha’s city centre into a pedestrian-friendly urban idyll.

“We were discussing this whole issue of how can we bring Qatari families back into the city centre,” said Mr Makower, a partner with the UK-based Allies & Morrison and among the project’s lead architects. “We told her Highness we think we should be creating town houses, we should be clustering them around communal, private gardens and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a fereej’.”

By mingling modern architectural ideas with Qatari traditions, such as crossing the contemporary town house with the Gulf fereej, or courtyard village, “the Heart of Doha” aims to create a rooted yet original sensibility. “That’s a fundamental part of this,” said Mr Makower. “Learning from the past, reflecting the past, but doing it in a new way.”

Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and his wife Sheikha Mozah first conceived the idea to rebuild central Doha around 2004. Within months they selected a 35-hectare downtown site and hired international architecture and design firms including Arup, Aecom (formerly Edaw) and Allies & Morrison to devise a master plan.

For more than three years, professors from Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the Aga Khan Professoriate of Islamic Architecture reviewed, challenged and finally approved the plan. After months of razing buildings to prepare the site, Heart of Doha’s official groundbreaking arrives later this month. Construction is to take place in five phases and should be completed in 2016.

In a quarter set between the Emiri Diwan, or ruler’s palace, and the recently rebuilt Souq Waqif, Heart of Doha will coalesce around two main thoroughfares: Kahraba, or “electricity” Street, which was Doha’s first high street, and the old wadi.

Computer renderings of the completed project offer a glimpse into an ultra-modern Gulf future: solid, stone-clad fa├žades give way to secluded courtyard gardens; pretty shopping arcades lead to pleasant green plazas; and sleek streetcars glide past smart-looking residents strolling though compact neighbourhoods.

The development, an endowment for Qatar Foundation, is being managed by Dohaland, a Qatar Foundation subsidiary. To many involved, the Heart of Doha is not a simple construction project but a blueprint for contemporary urban living in Doha and beyond.

“The Heart of Doha aspires to regenerate the historic core of the city and to act as a stimulus for future wider city renaissance,” said Issa Mohannadi, executive director of Dohaland. “The ultimate objective, however, is to propose a new paradigm of architecture and planning for the cities of the Arabian Gulf.”

In creating that paradigm, Mr Makower and his fellow architects laid out seven key steps to create a Qatari architectural language. The first is timelessness, or linking Qatar's past to its present and its future. The second step is coherence. Rather than dominate and divide, the buildings, streets and spaces should link and build communities, as well as integrate with a vast underground infrastructure of roads, parking areas, and utilities.

A team of engineers, planners and architects, including Allies and Morrison, Porphyrios Associates, the Jordanian firm Dar Al Omran and Adjaye Associates, has had to set personal goals aside. “There are some disharmonies,” said Mr Makower. “It’s like a choir. We all want to sing different parts and hopefully it will work well together at the end.”

Another step focuses on building a home. “The home is very important because we are building the Qatari family back into the city centre,” said Mr Makower. The completed project includes housing for up to 10,000, including fereej-style town houses allocated to Qataris. These include a majlis and courtyard, but also a gym and underground parking.

The fifth step is the street. Unlike many urban settings in the Gulf, the Heart of Doha will welcome pedestrians with retail and store fronts, streetcars, open plazas and shade. Much of the vehicular traffic will be kept underground. “You will be able to cross the street without being run over,” said Mr Makower.

Most homes will be within walking distance of schools, shops, mosques and public spaces. But since Doha is too hot for street activity for much of the year, step six focuses on adapting to climate.

Most major streets run north-south to take advantage of Qatar’s northerly breezes. Buildings, some of which are certified by the environmental building standard LEED, are designed to keep sunlight out and to catch and scoop wind down into spaces. Many roofs have solar-panelled canopies that provide shade, create terraces and provide energy.

Even the grand civic space at the heart of the Heart of Doha incorporates concerns for climate, with a shading structure than can be raised and lowered to allow more or less sun in.

Barahat Al-Naseem Square, designed by Michel Mossessian, is an urban version of the majlis, with a carpeted floor and sides faced inward.

Though far from fruition, the project has drawn raves. “The plan and the architecture appear intelligent, restrained and distinctive,” the architecture critic of the Financial Times wrote in November.

He compared Heart of Doha favourably to regional efforts like the Burj Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island and Masdar City. “If there is one scheme in the region to keep an eye on,” he wrote, “this is it.”

-- this story originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae)