Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Qatar Rising; and A Productive Neeting at the Sheraton

Does this land (a few km south of Al Ruwais, at the northern tip of Qatar) look restless to you, heaving and straining to crowd out the cloudless but dusty sky?

I found out (re-reading Lonely Planet) that Qatar is not only the flattest, but indeed also literally one of the most upwardly mobile. According to the venerable guidebook (which however has a few other things a bit wrong, e.g. that major banks will readily cash traveller's cheques), the whole peninsula has risen 2 metres over the last 400 years. Actually due to tectonics, no doubt, but yer can't help wondering what will happen as they get all the gas out over the next 200. Or will the bubble burst? (etc etc, stop me). Meanwhile, it's handy if you want to reclaim some more coastal real estate, less so if you want a stable water table.

I was privileged to spend most of last weekend at the Sheraton in the role of Gordon, the irascible director and chairman of the mainly fictitious Little Doha Amateur Dramatic Society, wrapping up a very enjoyable short season of David Tristram's "Last Tango in Little Grimley (Doha)" for Doha Players. Due to the wet nature of the catering arrangements (lasagna, salads, dessert and a bar, plus the 45-minute show, QR175 thank you) and the (very) mildly risque content, it was officially a members-only function - no advertising, no door sales and no under-21's, on pain of heavy penalties if these conditions were not strictly adhered to (recent new regulations), so it was announced on the direction board in the foyer as "Al Maha Room: The Doha Players: Neeting". We had near-full houses, which allowed the production to break even, and all had a good time judging by the laughter. I did, anyway, and will treasure the experience as a highlight of my stay here.

Here's me, Helen Swan as Margaret, Sharon Cole as Joyce and Jack Rigg as Bernard bemoaning the dire state of the LDADS and cooking up a salacious and seat-filling last-ever production:

and disastrously (and hilariously for our audience, thanks more to the expert character turns supplied by my fellow cast members than my sub-Basil Fawlty incoherence) rehearsing it.

Thanks to our very relaxed director Sarah Jenkins for the photos, and to Doha Players for finding room for my flash-in-the-pan appearance. (For those who don't know, Angela has a new job lined up and it looks like we will be moving to Abu Dhabi in the UAE after the holidays, though yet to be confirmed, so Sarah will have to find a new, improved Gordon for the planned sequels.)

A Sheraton official told me a bit about the history of this esteemed edifice. It was in fact the very first of the pleasure palaces to spring up here, back in the early 80s, when West Bay was all dirt roads and greater Doha was about ten times smaller than now - as he said, "Someone had a vision - or too much money." The saga included the original concrete structure sinking 2 metres, and being replaced by a lighter and obviously (still looks OK after 30 years) more stable steel-framed one following a change of contractors.

Rumours I have heard include that construction has had to halt, due supposedly to subsidence, on more than one tower among the dozens currently rising in West Bay, a stone's throw from the Sheraton, and elsewhere in town; and that there were, at least until recently, plans for 200(!) of these 30 or 50 (or more) storey palaces of commerce to go up in the area (I estimate there are about 5o at present, completed or being built). Far from me be it to accord these whispers (just like the constant cross-undercurrents of knowledge that none of these towers has anything like full occupancy, and Qatar is next after Dubai to be dragged into the world economic maelstrom never mind the gas, or alternatively that they are all fully booked and Nothing Can Go Wrong) any evaluation further than 3-monkeys wisdom.

But it will be interesting to come back every 6 months or so (insh'allah) and gauge the rate of completi
on of projects. You can't really quite watch the growth happening before your eyes (like I have said, infrastructure seems to progress in fits and starts, and usually behind schedule just like anywhere), but neither can you see it grinding to a halt just yet. I hope we can keep returning to see it all keep on mushrooming according to the Plan - a few more well-maintained parks, The Pearl abuzz with full occupancy, the fabulous institutional edifices of Education City completed, the ambitious metro transport system in operation; even February 22nd St and the Al Rayyan flyover finished and functional would be nice.

On my tiki-tour up north (see below) I counted about 20 flyover/interchanges at various stages of incompleteness in the first 5okm of highway. The highway itself is a bit like a South Island braided river: dual carriageway nearly all the 100 or so km to the terminus at Al Ruwais, but the carriageways sort of meander - often taking a wide sweep around another junction under construction, or swopping duty with each other or a service lane to the side while surface reconstruction happens. So you sometimes find yourself travelling between the endless orange and white plastic barriers (like cranes, there must be more of these per square km here than anywhere) on a road with arrows marked on the pavement in the opposite direction, or in conflicting directions over a few km, which tends to sharpen the driver's attention.

Grinding is the word (or one of them), as far as the stormwater (I think) excavations that bedevilled our street for about a month up to a week or two ago. They were excavating abut 3 metres down, into bedrock, with a giant jackhammer mounted on a large digger (plus half a dozen guys with pick and shovel of course) inching up the street towards us at about half a metre a day, in half hour bursts with only five minutes' respite to clear the spoil, from sometimes as early as 6am and often until 6pm, even on Fridays and Saturdays. Here on the first floor it was a steadily growing un-ignorable background nuisance, but for the poor unfortunates on the ground floor it was enough to render them incapable of humour by the second week. The last 20 metres of the trench is still there, half full of green water and suspended telecoms conduits. Nothing unusual there; "Deep Excavation" is one of the most common signs you see on and among the ubiquitous roadside barriers.

We saw another intriguing hole in the ground one Friday morning on a reconnoitre of a Family Park a few blocks from here. There were guards on the gate, but we, two ladies and a gent of indeterminate age but with no family attached, were happily waved through into the large empty car park. Well, it was morning, when the mosques should be full; we should have returned in the afternoon to check if it was full of cavorting families, but we got caught up in the mass hysteria of the Trade Fair (another story, suffice to say a heaving mass of people, jewellery, perfumes, middle eastern couture, carpets, spicy sweets, etc etc, under the two-acre roof of the Expo Centre; not to mention the craziest car park mayhem yet seen - I preferred the more relaxed "Deplomatic Bazar" held two weeks earlier in half of the same hall, where many countries mainly from Africa and Asia showed their wares and cultures).

Anyway, we had a nice walk in the already baking heat around the two acre
s or so of well-tended lawns and flowering borders, looked at the extensive (empty) paddling pool with its two arched bridges too steep to walk across, the baking concrete amphitheatre with its circular flat concrete floor (ideal for skating except for a foot-wide drain across the middle) and the deserted half-pipe. Then we found a locked and fenced off area with a large, deep cave in the middle, with concrete steps disappearing down into the earth. Two security guards were having a quiet picnic under the trees nearby, and we were informed in halting Indonesian English that there are others like this around Doha, but no, he didn't really know if the fencing-off was for safety or to protect an archaeological site, or what. By this time the heat was really getting to us, but the cafeteria was nowhere near open yet, so we couldn't try the advertised "machine juice" and ended up instead at the Grand Hyatt (very, but somehow less opulent than the more compact but ever-stunning interior of the Sheraton), with its casually displayed Konigsegg supercar out the front, for a rather more expensive, but almost worth it, coffee.

That trip up north was one the completist in me just had to make, so with our 30 June ETD looming up, a week or two ago I grabbed water bottle, Pink Floyd CDs (why not), camera and Tiida and headed off up the main north road, which after all starts right outside our front door at the esteemed Al Gharrafa interchange. (To elaborate on the comment above about 22 Feb St: if you are heading south over the flyover towards central Doha, you are now on 22 Feb, but only for 200 metres; you can see the completed dual carriageway beyond the barriers, all the way to the curving, not yet tarsealed Al Rayyan flyover in the distance, which will replace a six-branched roundabout, but here the road stops for now and you have to fight a tangle of uncontrolled traffic heading to and from a bumpy single-lane bypass connecting the north road to our suburb and No-Rules Intersection (it's actually preferable to braving the Gharrafa roundabout, once you have gained enough confidence at the local art of pushing in). But the overhead direction signs on the motorway still tell you that the closed road is the way to Doha, Al Wakra and places between and beyond. You just have to know...)

I already described the road north, which apart from the constant detours is pretty much straight (and mainly devoid of traffic once you get past the Al Khor turnoff, but you still need to watch the mirror for occasional speedsters) all the way to Al Ruwais; the scenery is mainly just as you saw in the heading photo, with construction camps (rows of single barracks, each room with its airconditioner), half-built flyovers and occasional walled plantations or market gardens for variety. I wanted to press on and cover the western return route before the day got too late, and was digging "Interstellar Overdrive" and "Shine on You Crazy Diamond", in the context of the landscape, too much to bother with many photo stops, so there aren't too many to bore you with. The one up top of the page really is typical of a lot of the countryside.

Here's the fishing port of Al Ruwais, with a guy wading out to his boat (not the sunken one);

and here it is, the very northern tip of the country, looking west towards Bahrain (which will be connected to Qatar by the world's longest - 40km - causeway within a few years).

And here's another of my little vids, expanding on the three photos.

In Al Ruwais township, among the sprouting but mainly unoccupied smattering of condominiums and villas I followed a little boy towing a bike wheel behind his bike all over the road accompanied by a cat, found the shops all shut but managed to get camera batteries (and a free chewing gum bonus from the smiling Indian shopkeeper) at a grocery further down the road; and admired the huge fort-like building under construction half a km out of town (sports stadium? - it has a floodlight mast).

The return route via Al Zubara (Qatar's main port in centuries past, not a lot to see now) is on a wide straight utterly empty (two utes and an empty bus in 50 km) two-laner as in the top photo. Highlights were: getting confused at a t-junction not shown on my out-of-date map, but put back on the right road by some friendly Indians in a ute; and traversing half a km of thick tyre marks 30km from nowhere (a long way to go to do burnouts, bro). Back on the main highway I had a duel all the way back (50 km) to Doha with a dude towing a float with two slightly perturbed-looking horses at varying speeds between 60 and 140 km/h, never mind the potholes.

So next week we are off back to the known (NZ) and back into the unknown (awaiting final word on the year to come). Ange is coping with unabated challenges in the last week of school, I am packing our stuff ready to put into storage ready to be trucked to Abu Dhabi, or flown back to NZ if the contract isn't finally confirmed. There are dinner dates most evenings (Ange went to an Egyptian colleague's 8-year-old's birthday party last week, we are to be hosted by an Indian teacher and family on Friday), and we must get down to the souqs one more time to buy a few more presents for people back home (but have to watch riyals and dirhams until we know what's happening). Tonight we went to Cognition's end-of-contract knees-up at the Intercontinental - sumptuous catering, but atmosphere of uncertainty as hardly anyone has a signed contract for next year yet.

I have enjoyed getting into doing this blog, I know it's been a bit of a travelogue at times; I would have liked to find myself engaging with the locals a bit more and opening a window on the human side of Qatar; but considering my cautious and shy nature, I'm not too dissatisfied with what has been thrown together on these pages while I learned to make sense of the process, and we got acclimatised to a hugely different environment from that at home, while cocooned in a building full of kiwis. Now I've got a taste for the medium, I won't just let the blog fade away - coming up: "Al Gharaffa Interchange - Exit to Abu Dhabi" (or Pakuranga, as the case may be), or some such adjustment. Might even have another go at regular social netfacetwitting too, despite earlier recoilings.

Tomorrow I will take the last chance to get out and about and take a few more pix of cityscapes I had been intending to, and chuck some of them on line in a final gallery of Doha impressions fer yer edification along with some choice final comments and comparisons with faraway but rapidly approaching NZ. If there's time, that is...Will do it when we get back home if not (if there's time; there may be a shortage, as family, tax and other considerations may require us to be away again before the end of July - if we are indeed coming back to the Gulf, as expected, but not to be known until mid-month).

Meanwhile, to sign off, here is a crucial message from City Centre mall car park:

To be sure, I have seen cars shoehorned into some pretty inadequate places here. It's good to know the aesthetics of parking are not being overlooked in Qatar's ongoing quest for a tidy society.

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