Skyscraper city of thirst, traffic and tax-free jobs

Tue, Dec 11, 2012, 00:00

Doha Letter:Even with its roads clogged by monster gas-guzzling SUVs devouring diesel at the shocking giveaway price of 21 cents per litre, Qatar is apparently looking towards a more environmentally sustainable future as it prepares to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022.

During last week’s UN climate talks, a series of announcements flagged new initiatives such as using solar energy to power Doha’s al-Sadd stadium or setting up a test facility to pick the best technology to generate 16 per cent of Qatar’s electricity from solar by 2018.

With the World Bank warning that the Gulf region could be among the hardest hit by soaring temperatures, the Qatar Foundation for Science, Education and Community Development has teamed up with the Potsdam Institute to set up a climate change research centre.

Doha, with its clusters of skyscrapers resembling a mini-Dubai, racked up a boiling-hot high of 55 degrees last summer – and this could be the norm in future years. No wonder there’s no construction work permitted from 11am to 3pm between April and September.

“You could fry an egg on the bonnet of your car, as in that classic Harp commercial,” quipped one Irish expatriate. The lure for architects, engineers and other professionals is no income tax; the figure on the bottom of your pay slip is the same as at the top.

Richest country

Oil- and gas-rich Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country, with an average income of €67,000; the wages paid to thousands of migrant workers, mainly from South Asia, are paltry by comparison. It also has the world’s highest carbon footprint, at 44 tonnes per capita.

Practically the only way of getting around is by car, so traffic is terrible. Last Tuesday, invitations to ministers to a banquet at the Islamic Art Museum hosted by the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said to allow an hour-and-a-half to get there.

Located some 18km from the magnificent museum, the Qatar National Convention Centre is a vast complex conceived by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Its emblematic facade features a projecting flat roof supported by outsized organic steel-sculpted Sidra trees.

At 150,000sq m, including a 4,000-seat conference hall and 2,300-seat theatre, it is the largest such facility in the Middle East and forms part of an emerging Educational City that will house 30 institutions, including outposts of six American universities.

Work is to start next year on the €27 billion Doha Metro, using 20 tunnel-boring machines, as much of it will be underground. The emir didn’t like the idea of public transport on elevated lines, as in Dubai. A new airport, costing €12 billion, is also being planned.

Some €15 billion is to be spent upgrading the roads in and around Doha, with flyovers, ramps and all the accoutrements of a highway culture. A total of 12 stadiums are planned, of which three have already been built, and most will be air-conditioned.

But football fans will have trouble getting a drink, as there are no pubs. Many of the hotels are “dry” and those with bars expensive – a pint of beer costs at least €7 and a glass of wine €10 or more. There’s only one off-licence and expats need “liquor permits” to use it.

Expats living in Qatar are limited to spending no more than 10 per cent of their monthly salary on alcohol – quite a generous allowance that some are alleged to abuse by purchasing beer, wine or spirts on behalf of Qataris.

The most popular diversions include going “dune-bashing” in the desert in their SUVs or watching the bizarre spectacle of camel-racing in big corals, using remote-control robot jockeys. “It gets pretty hairy”, one expat architect told me.

He explained that everyone who comes to work in Qatar goes through two phases. “The first phase is ‘WTF!’ because everything drives you mad. The second phase is ‘Why?’, and this phase never ends because it’s so difficult to get things done.”

Qatar is the home of al-Jazeera, the source of news for everyone in the region, but you can be jailed for criticising the emir or calling for an Arab Spring. The land is unique for having no surface water and its ruler and several dozen other notables were pictured last week praying for rain.

There was no sign their prayers would be answered.