DOHA // A small army of enumerators took to the streets of Qatar and other Gulf countries a couple weeks ago, knocking on doors and asking each head of household a battery of questions about personal technology use, health, employment, residential status and more.
Armed with handheld computers, these foot soldiers in an unprecedented regionally synchronised census are helping compile a detailed and potentially invaluable portrait of Gulf demographics.
“For the longest time in the GCC, we have had this problem with planning; we always seem to be caught by surprise," said Hatem Samman, a Saudi national and director of the Ideation Centre, a Dubai-based think tank run by Booz and Co.
“Given that the GCC is heading towards economic union, they want to know the make-up of their populations,” he added. “It’s very important, very helpful to have data of all sorts, to know the characteristics of your people. You can respond to whatever factors that affect you.”
Of late, those factors have been considerable. The population of the GCC has increased nearly 45 per cent in the past decade and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, is set to increase by an additional third within the next decade, tipping 53 million.
Qatar’s growth has been the most rapid. As of the end of March, the Qatar Statistics Authority estimated the country’s population at 1.68 million. If accurate, this would represent a 125 per cent increase from the most recent census – in 2004.
“Our country development moved very quickly,” said Hassan al Mohannadi, the director of the government’s permanent population committee. “We need frequently to readjust the levels of our development to cope with the surging needs.”
For the census, the QSA divided the country into more than 100 areas, each of which it then subdivided into a couple dozen blocks. In the past few months census takers gave every building in each of those blocks a number, then recorded the surnames and number of occupants in each unit and distributed pamphlets detailing the personal interviews to come.
Then they began knocking on doors and entering info into their specially programmed personal digital assistants. “If the enumerator tries to enter info that’s inconsistent, like a three-year-old female who is also a mother, it won’t allow him to do that,” said Mark Grice, a statistical expert from the United States who has been working with QSA for two years.
The survey includes questions about the number of wives and children, education and type of drinking water used.
“I have nothing to hide,” Rafik Boushlaka, a British national of Tunisian origin said after completing his census interview. He was standing outside the front door of his Doha home as his five-year-old daughter, Elaa, ducked under and out from his legs. “They will analyse the data and use it to make decisions. Any modern state needs information such as this.”
At the end of their shift, enumerators dump the data onto a desktop, which uploads it to a central server. As a result, preliminary data is available almost immediately. The entire census, from first phase to final results, is scheduled to take eight months.
Still there have been bumps in the road. One enumerator, Abdulaziz Abdulrahman, working in Doha’s Bin Mahmoud area, said residents are not home on the majority of his initial visits.
“I have to come back three, sometimes four, times,” he said, suggesting that the initial completion date of May 15 may not hold. “I don’t think even a month will be enough time to finish our work.”
Further, despite an official dictate mandating cooperation with the census, certain respondents have been less then forthcoming. “It’s been easy to get the information from foreigners,” said Naser Aideen Ahmed, a census inspector. “But the locals, sometimes they’re not telling us everything.”
Privacy of the family is a pillar of Qatari and Khaliji culture, so the withholding of some personal information may be understandable. Such hurdles are not unexpected.
“If anyone doing a census tells you there are no problems, they’re lying,” Mr Grice said. “But it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Mr Grice said home absences had been built in to the census plan and that inquiries and complaints could be made online or to a census hotline.
Barring major delay, a wealth of detailed information on nearly the entire population of the Gulf should be available to the public by the end of the year. The joint 2010 census, with each Gulf country taking part and using the same questionnaire, is the realisation of a commitment made by Gulf leaders at a GCC summit in Muscat in 2001.
Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain began surveying last week and Kuwait’s census is set to kick-off this month. The UAE scaled back its national census, which will now be done mostly at the federal level. But Abu Dhabi recently began recording the occupants of each residence, and will roll out the survey phase of its census in October.
Qatar plans to release its census data that same month, offering more than 130 tables and charts on its website. Ideally, businesses will use the data to move towards potential clients, developers will find and respond to the greatest housing needs and governments will provide better infrastructure and services, perhaps even before they are needed.
“This census will provide all of our various decision-makers with detailed information on demographic, economic, technological and social indicators, by block and by zone across the whole country,” Nasser al Mahdi, census director within the Qatar Statistics Authority, said in an interview. “This new data, inshallah, will inform and help them implement their plans in education, in health or any sector.”
Some of those plans are likely to embrace tradition. In the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, nationals represent less than 30 per cent of the population. Depending on the data, results from the current census may exacerbate Gulf concerns about the eroding of national culture and identity.
This week, the Qatar government ordered all private schools to teach Qatari history, Islam and Arabic. The UAE has launched a major effort to increase the use of Arabic. Qatari officials have also nurtured the Musheireb project, a downtown development costing US$5.5 billion (Dh20bn) that incorporates traditional architectural and social elements, as well as the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened last year, and the coming National Museum of Qatar.
“There has been a lot of talk lately about the identity of nationals and the Arabic language and the effect on culture,” Mr Samman said. “What you have to do is stress certain aspects of your culture that you can promote, perhaps a linguistic policy, or local-oriented education and development.”
originally appeared in the 7 May 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae