Where the streets may soon have names...

Doha // The directions for a recent party at the residence of Edward Noriega ran to nine sentences and included references to a furniture store, three roundabouts, two fast food restaurants, a Montessori school and a speed bump.

“It’s a nightmare telling people how to get to my apartment,” said Mr Noriega, an investment manager from New York who moved to Doha in December. “I’d much rather say 75 West 20th street.”

He may get his wish.

In Qatar, as in much of the Gulf, most streets have no name, postal services require PO boxes and residents identify their location via landmarks and other topographical points of reference.

But a decision by the Qatari cabinet last week empowers the Central Municipal Council to name all streets, avenues and public parks. The move should ultimately simplify party hosting, pizza delivery and parcel distribution and pave the way for a western-style addressing system throughout the country.

“Its all part of the desire to become a world-class city,” said Rami el Samahy, an architecture and urban design professor at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar.

Prof el Samahy, who teaches a seminar on contemporary Middle Eastern cities, pointed out that the population of Doha is estimated to have doubled since 2004. The challenge now, he said, is "to make sense of it all.”

While the streets of Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman remain mostly nameless, Qatar’s initiative dovetails with addressing systems being considered or implemented in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

The reasons for the trend are clear. Western expatriates see the lack of a street system – being made to draw a map on a delivery form, rather than write an address, is a popular reference – as a time-consuming throwback from the Middle Ages. Businesses suffer as a result of slow or failed parcel deliveries and daily trips to the post office to retrieve mail.

Taxi drivers suffer, too. “My dispatchers tell me backside, but it’s not backside – it’s beside,” said Daniel Ali Mukhtar, an Indonesian who has been driving a taxi in Doha for four years. “They give incorrect directions all the time.”

More seriously, firefighters and police often have to navigate unfamiliar areas to find their destination, inevitably putting lives at risk.

Yet addressing systems are time-consuming and expensive. The Abu Dhabi initiative is costing an estimated Dh200 million and completion is set for mid-2012. The Dubai programme, now on hold, is said to have been budgeted at Dh900m.

No estimate has been made for the Qatar initiative as it is still in its early stages. The ministry of municipal affairs and urban planning will soon create a street naming committee, comprised of representatives from the Supreme Education Council, the ministry of culture, arts, and heritage, the Public Works Authority and the private sector.

With help from the Central Municipal Council, that panel will build a list of thousands of possible street names appropriate for Qatari culture, history and geography. Finally, municipal constituencies will hold public hearings to review and approve the new names.

That’s just the first step. After naming more than 9,000 roadways, for instance, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipal Affairs, which is overseeing the address programme, must install uniform signage. It has hired the Australian Road Research Board Group to develop a street signs manual to determine where signs will be placed, their lettering, coloring and other specifics.

Qatar authorities have yet to decide how each building might be numbered and whether to adapt the postal system. “Are they going to deliver mail?” asked Prof el Samahy. “That could be a boon.”

In the end, the system may fail to take root. Prof el Samahy cited an address system in Caracas installed several years ago. Locals never learned the street names and the system fell out of use.

Juma Mubarak al Junaibi, the director general of Abu Dhabi Municipality, has acknowledged that the main challenge is getting the public to make use of the new system.

Indeed, navigation by landmark appears deeply ingrained into the Gulf psyche. More than two years into Saudi Arabia’s programme, which incorporates geographic co-ordinates and mail sorting systems that can read English and Arabic, businesses still use PO boxes and residents generally navigate by topographical references and large thoroughfares.

Most Abu Dhabi streets have had names or numbers for years, but locals generally prefer to use landmarks because the names are little-known. Doha, where some 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the streets have names, has a similar problem.

“If the customer gives us street names and numbers than it’s very, very difficult to find their place,” said Mohammad Shabab, the sales manager at the Garden Centre, a popular Doha flower shop. “But if he gives us landmarks and good directions than we are fine.”

Mr Mukhtar, the taxi driver, recalled incidents in which the use of a street name proved more difficult than topographical navigation. The transplanted New Yorker, meanwhile, felt confident.

“People are not used to addresses here, so there’s going to be a process of education,” said Mr Noriega. “In the end it’ll be a much safer, more efficient way to get from Point A to Point B.”

an edited version ran in the 30 April The National, www.thenational.ae

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