Friday, September 28, 2007

Food, Water, the Internet and Other Essentials

Some things are so much the same (availability of certain foods such as Special K, Philadelphia brand cream cheese, diet pepsi, fresh fruits and vegetables) and so much different: Fresh tomatoes from Jordan, apples from Lebanon, and others fruits and vegetables from South Africa. Fresh fruit and vegetable costs are nominal, American brands naturally almost always at prices we’d see in the States but not all. Dish soap sells for 5QR, less than $1.50, screw top plastic containers for approximately $0.75, diet Pepsi can be purchased as a six-pack for 5.5 QR, approximately $1.61. Non-alcohoic beer as cheap as 8 QR for a 6-pack or $2.35 (the more expensive non-alcoholic beer at 17 QR tastes indistinguishable). Drinking water is naturally purchased but delivered large jugs are of nominal cost.

But water in general is a problem. Qatar is a desert peninsular country surrounded by water for much of its circumference; only the short southern border with Saudi Arabia is land. It lacks any good sources of non-saline water. In fact, from a review of a United Nations publication, we learn that

WATER crisis in Qatar, as indeed in the Gulf and the rest of the world, threatens future progress and impedes efforts to alleviate poverty. To drive this point home, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Doha office has brought out a book called Policy Perspectives for Ecosystem and Water Management in the Arabian Peninsula. Fresh water resources in the region are extremely limited, and yet the demand for them is increasing. As a consequence, much of the available freshwater resources have been depleted, and in some cases polluted. Ground water levels are falling in many areas, and often lead to seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers, the book says. "In view of these stresses on existing freshwater resources, seawater and brackish groundwater are now considered essential resources for freshwater production through desalination", the editors of the book say.

And yet the air is thick with moisture and when we move from air conditioned car or building to the humid outdoors (or humid underground garage), sunglasses immediately fog up removing any visibility. In order to see, sunglasses must be removed until they warm to the outside temperature leaving eyes to the mercy of the blazing sun.

Apartments and houses have water collected on the roofs for bathing, dish washing, laundry etc. (This is a typical strategy in the Mediterranean and indeed buildings in New York City above 6 floors bring water to the roof to facilitate flow. Regarding NYC buildings, Wikipedia relates that “a distinctive feature of many of the city's buildings is the presence of wooden roof-mounted water towers. In the 1800s, the city required their installation on buildings higher than six stories to prevent the need for excessively high water pressures at lower elevations, which could burst municipal water pipes.”) I learned this week that my towers cool the water; residences in villas do not and often during the summer months, showering is unbearable due to the temperature of the water coming from the faucets or showers via the collection stations on the roof. At lunch today it was noted that the temperature has gotten mild enough (ca. 80-90 Fahrenheit peak) that it is about time to turn on the water heaters. (I recall our similar system in southern Sicily where we showered by garden hose from water on the roof – the first to shower got warm water, those after got cooler to cold.) I had thought the outdoor pool between the two towers in my Qatar apartment building would be unusable during June-July-August when the temperatures routinely reach 120-130 Fahrenheit. The pool water, I was told, is cooled making for very comfortable swimming.

An absolutely critical requirement these days is access to the internet. As I have related, I am fortunate to have DSL within my building and excellent connections at work. Yet the DSL takes longer than cable access in the States and the access at work here in Educaton City, routinely unable to find the site and having to be refreshed numerous times. In addition, working from my apartment I am recognized as coming from Qatar and have found that Sony eBooks thinks I am not a U.S. resident (I am but on the go) and will not allow me to download. I have been told that my laptop in the office will access the wireless there and present me as from New York State, home of Weill Cornell. We’ll see. Sony’s approach means of course that travelers and non-U.S. citizens in the States are free to down load eBooks. Again, go figure.

An article in this week’s issue of Arabian Business, Life in the slow lane, Andrew White, relates the size of the penetration of internet business in the mid-East – the fastest growing , yet in total it hosts only 4.5% of the world’s 772 million internet population (Qatar accounts for 1.1% of mid-East internet use). The author quotes Phil Reynolds, chief legal officer of virtual network operator Friendi Mobile, and former head of technology at international law firm DentonWildeSapte, who relates that

this weakness is largely a result of the region's high prices, which are "way, way above the European, US and Asia-Pacific benchmarks," and kept there by a lack of real competition in Middle East telecoms markets."The bottomline is that there's now scope for further competition in the market - however, the reality is that prices have not fallen, and operators are admitting that prices are relatively stable at the moment," he explains. "That indicates that full competition is not happening, as in a fully competitive environment, prices do tend towards cost."

Reynolds argues that as a result of a dearth of true competition, innovation has suffered and services have not advanced as quickly as they were expected to. Governments have focused so closely on introducing second or third operators into the market, that the region has merely seen the introduction of "cosy oligopolies, with a lot of price following occurring". Consumers are not getting the deal they deserve, and it will take the intervention of regulatory authorities around the Gulf, to kick-start the revolution."The next phase of competition has to occur where service-based competition comes in, as a layer underneath facilities-based competition," Reynolds suggests. "What we will see is regulators becoming frustrated with pricing and services, saying ‘we want some more competition, so you guys need to open your networks now to independent service providers, so we can get more innovation, and get the prices down a bit more'. The key is to move towards services-based competition, as opposed to network and facilities-based competition.

"This issue is strongly linked to the take-up of computers, so there could be a lot more activity with regards to making computers more affordable, and putting them into schools and other places," offers Reynolds, picking up the education theme. "Prices need to come down, and governments can provide subsidies and schemes, to educational institutions in particular, to encourage further take-up of PCs."

The article continues with a discussion of the market in the mid-East and interest from the IT giants:

Earlier this year, Arabian Business met Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in Qatar as he signed an agreement that will form the basis of a strategic partnership with ictQatar, the country's policymaking and regulatory body for information and communication technology, to transform the emirate into a successful knowledge-based economy and increase the impact ICT has on its GDP."We're serious about this region and want to showcase what technology can do to improve services within government, education, healthcare, society and the business world," Ballmer told this magazine, adding that Microsoft was preparing to invest "significant effort" into the Middle East.

So it appears, on one hand, that until there is a demand for good access, that is, a reason to have it driven more than likely by business needs first and foremost, there won’t be strong competition and users will continue to suffer. My thoughts naturally turn to the recent discussion of many Gulf citizens who are well cared for and have no real reason to work or drive the economy. On the other hand, the recognition of the market, especially in the Gulf States where great concentrations of wealth are available, bodes well for far better access in the near future.

Finally, leaving behind weighty thoughts of the future of the internet in Qatar and the mid-East, onto other essentials. The goods that I shipped arrived this week and among the mundane items of clothing and extra supplies, I was pleased to find and install the Bose Sound Dock for my iPod. I only started using the iPod when I knew I was leaving the country and now use it as a very handy way to transport my music and play in my living room or bedroom or where-ever. Evan in NYC I found myself using this player rather than the CD player. The sound dock and the four pieces for the walls (not yet hung) begin to make this place a bit more home.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


My fascination with the roundabout – I go through seven in the space of 15-20 minutes on the way to work – has led me to delve into the subject a bit. It is clear to me, when traffic is light, that the roundabout is an enormously efficient way of keeping traffic moving. My brief but intense involvement with them suggests that at a certain point traffic reaches a critical mass and traffic lights become more efficient and far less dangerous. It is clear that Doha is replacing a number of roundabouts with traffic signal controlled intersections. In other cases, they have created and are continuing to construct by-pass lanes for those wishing to simply go right. This allows those vehicles to bypass entering the roundabout and then simply merge with traffic coming off the roundabout. In Wikipedia one reads that a roundabout is a type of road junction at which traffic enters a one-way stream around a central island. In the United States it is technically called a modern roundabout, to emphasize the distinction from the older, larger type of traffic circle.
The first roundabout was technically square. Constructed in
Paris around the Arc de Triomphe in 1901, closely followed by Columbus Circle in New York City in 1904. The first British roundabout was five years later, in Letchworth Garden City in 1909 - originally intended partly as a traffic island for pedestrian. However, the widespread use of roundabouts began when British engineers re-engineered the traffic circle in the mid-1960s to overcome its limitations of capacity and for safety issues. Unlike traffic circles, roundabouts operate with yield control to give priority to circulating traffic and eliminate much of the driver confusion associated with traffic circles and driver wait associated with junctions that have traffic lights. Roughly the same size as signaled intersections with the same capacity, roundabouts also are significantly smaller in diameter than traffic circles, separate incoming and outgoing traffic with pedestrian islands and therefore encourage slower and safer speeds (see traffic calming). I have not seen one pedestrian island in Doha to date nor can I concur that roundabouts encourage slower speeds and traffic calming.

…… roundabouts do not cope well with the traffic on motorways or similar roads, leading to long queues. Britain's strategic road network has many isolated roundabouts on otherwise almost motorway-like roads (for example, A1/A421) and even on a few motorways (for example, the A601(M), A627(M), and M271 have roundabouts on the main line). Some of these roundabouts, as well as other busy roundabouts, have had traffic lights added and are termed "signal controlled roundabouts".
And here’s the most obvious thing for me: Roundabouts are not suitable for junctions where the exits suffer from traffic congestion. Congestion on one exit commonly blocks a roundabout and spreads to all entering directions. The roundabout of Kwai Tsing Interchange in Hong Kong was replaced by a large box junction with traffic lights after recurring area traffic congestion when numerous container trucks journeyed to Kwai Chung Container Port after a typhoon.

The Wikipedia piece continues with descriptions of various types of roundabouts (gyratory system, mini roundabouts, raindrop or pear shaped roundabouts, controlled roundabouts, roundabouts with trams, hamburger roundabouts and my favorite, whose description is reproduced here, magic roundabouts, the image at the top left of the post is a magic roundabout. ).

"Magic" roundabouts
Swindon's "Magic roundabout": Map in GoogleMaps (click for image).
The town of
Swindon in Wiltshire, England is known for its "Magic Roundabout". This roundabout is at an intersection of five roads and consists of a two-way road around the central island with five mini-roundabouts where it meets the incoming roads. Traffic may proceed around the main roundabout either clockwise via the outer lanes, or anti-clockwise using the inner lanes next to the central island. At each mini-roundabout the usual clockwise flow applies. Please do click on the image above for the full effect; written description pales beside the image under Google Maps.
Similar systems are found in various places in England, most famously the Moor End roundabout in Hemel Hempstead (Hertfordshire), which has six intersections; but also one in High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire) and the Denham Roundabout in Denham (Buckinghamshire), the Greenstead Roundabout in Colchester (Essex) and the Sadler's Farm Roundabout in Benfleet (Essex); "The Egg" in Tamworth, (Staffordshire); and the Hatton Cross Roundabout in London. Magic roundabouts are also known as "Ring Junctions".

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Arabian Business

I picked up a copy of Arabian Business (this region’s Business Week) and read with some interest an article on Qatar’s plan to place a cap on foreign workers at 50% by 2025. The article suggests that “the plan has the potential to radically transform the Gulf’s soulless cities.” The argument is that a significant, permanent and visible local population creates the character of the city since those having a “stake tend to innovate and produce at much higher levels than those who are transients.” Nonetheless, the Qataris have to be able and willing to take on the jobs held by expats. “Nationals in the Gulf states are rich and happy now, and choose not to work and at the same time maintain a comparatively high standard of living – the incentive to create the supply of new positions is minimal because the demand doesn’t exist.” This is an interesting sociological question and I don’t believe the article has begun to approach what needs to be considered. Another article, Future Art Capital, discusses “two top financiers who invest in local artists through an elaborate pension scheme.” In addition to looking at the issue of the investment strategy, the article focuses on the possibilities of Dubai emerging as the hub for contemporary art in the Middle East, quoting the specialists who do not believe it will be Istanbul or Beirut. They also believe that “if Dubai has an ambition to establish itself as an international financial market then contemporary art will be very important.” Both articles revealed to me another avenue to explore in understanding this world I have joined. Not surprisingly, there is a web site on Arabian Business tied directly to the magazine. Two articles on the web site discuss the news I saw reported yesterday of Qatar and Dubai’s purchase of part of the London Stock Exchange, “extraordinary day on world's financial markets ends with Dubai & Qatar owning half of LSE” as well the U.S government’s investigation of “whether Dubai's acquisition of 20 percent of Nasdaq is a threat to national security.” And how little did I previously pay attention to the mid-East except for the killings and strife!


The topmost view is of the construction site behind my tower, taken from my balcony. I've also attached some examples of the buildings close to the Corniche. Much is under development and in six months or so I'll post similar pictures to mark the construction progress.

Friday, September 21, 2007

First Week in Doha

16 Sept 2007

Today is the first day of the work week (Sunday) and my 3rd day on the job. It was the day to begin tests for immigration processing at the Medical Commission where I met a fellow American, married to the new medical librarian, with her two small children, ages 3 and 7. (As always, women and children proceed through one line, men through another.) Although just coming from the California Bay area, the family was originally from Bali. We went through one line to hand over materials (prepared by the School) and our passports and then proceeded to the cashier line – a set of 80 chairs in four rows and we moved slowly forward to the cashier, to all appearances playing a slow-moving game of musical chairs, absent the music. There were a couple cases of people slipping into line as we moved forward, pretending innocence. The matron (in full garb) seemed o know this and singled for some to move to the cashier before others. At the cashier’s window we were met by women in full veil who spoke inaudibly with an accent through the black face veil. After that, we were on to the next room for more scrutiny of the paperwork and thence to the blood work station where a full vial of blood was removed. On to the x-ray station where we were required to strip our tops off and put on a hospital top – the School had fortunately given us clean smocks to use so we didn’t need to reuse the ones provided. Who knows how often they were washed? There were three changing rooms for which many Muslims patiently waited , the rest just stripped in the small entry room. X-rays were taken in the next room with little heed for protection from the radiation. After an interminable wait, I was x-rayed, released and got dressed. As I was about to leave the room, one of the attendants rushed in frantically – the doctor requested another x-ray, and then another. My father must be turning over in his grave at the amount exposure to x-rays I had; he refused to allow us to have our feet x-rayed in shoe shops over 50 years ago, in vogue when I was quite young, realizing well before others the problems of exposure, however small.

Chitra and I left the procedures at the same time to discover that the driver had elected to take the two men back to campus rather than wait for us. He returned 45 minutes later although Chitra left in a taxi for home with the kids who were getting quite restless and I returned alone, berated by the driver for letting Chitra go with her paperwork and passport. Passports are retained by the School’s immigration officer until we receive our permanent resident status. Until then, I am unable to travel anywhere requiring a passport – confined as it were to the peninsula of Qatar.

17 Sept 2007
Today my car was delivered to the campus by the rental company, a Hyundai Terracat, mid-sized SUV. At lunch (or break as we call it in deference to the Muslims who are fasting during Ramadan and cannot be reminded of food, let alone eat it until sun-down which mercifully comes early here), I ventured out to go to the bank, with my freshly minted bank account and an advance check to deposit. My colleague traveled with me for moral support and the traffic was light – Ramadan keeps many folks home. We found the bank but ran out of time (it closed as all banks do at 1:00) so I will return tomorrow.

The Qatar road system was designed with the British model in mind – far more round-abouts then traffic signals and with the Qatari traveling at high speeds a most unnerving proposition. Some close calls but I seemed a bit surrounded by an aura of protection – false assumption I am sure. Directions are routinely given by reference to round-abouts – most bearing some name, often with apparent little relation to the round-about; slope or tilt round-about, Rainbow Arch roundabout, one that I have nicknamed flat, and others named for an object no longer present. The route to the campus from my apartment travels through at least a half dozen of these and passes by a half-mile strip of fast-food places, and then on to a similar strip of car washes. Turn at the Burger King, prominently marked on the map, and head toward the roundabout to the Landmark Mall, one of three large ones also clearly on the map. There are a few boulevards lined with palm trees and some will one day be quite impressive. Otherwise it appears that almost everything is under construction: high rise office buildings and hotels in the city center, heavy duty construction completely surrounding my residential tower (one of the ASAS Twin Towers in the West Bay area, a 10-minute walk from the City Center Mall), low residential compounds, and mostly certainly the area of the American colleges, Education City.

18 Sept. 2007

I ventured out on my maiden car trip driving alone to the bank and with a few missed turns made it, deposited a check and took out cash. The bureaucracy of the bank although high was not nearly as bad as the Italians: two stops to have the records checked and preliminary deposit and withdrawal checks issued, then on to the cashier who flourished numerous stamps, only after verifying that I am who I purported to be. The check I was depositing came from their bank so they had to know it was good, but double checking always helps. My request for timing of receipt of my ATM card and checks was met with more discussion and then the odd question, “you want checks?” I prefer not to pay my monthly car rental bill in cash … it is close to $900. Petrol on the other hand is cheap – it cost me approximately $15 to fill the tank of a mid-sized SUV.

Coming home this evening, my first maiden run for that, I stopped at the Landmark Mall where all that was open was the MegaMarket because it is Ramadan and food must be purchased for Iftar, the breaking of the fast. I stopped for gas, having been left a car with barely fumes. Traffic was extremely light at this time of day, most Muslims were still napping preparatory to preparing the evening feasts. Then they head to the road and the rest of us stay off the roads. I got lost coming home but kept my eyes on the city towers and soon found myself in known territory. I did get lost in the parking garage and wandered around with two heavy bags, knowing that my cell phone couldn’t rescue me with a call to a neighbor.

19 Sept 2007

I found myself lost again in the parking garage this morning before I could find my car and got thoroughly lost on the way to work and found myself on the road to the airport. Brief thoughts of catching a plane – I had my credit card – left as soon as I realized my passport was in the office of the College immigration officer. When I got to some recognizable landmarks, I called my office colleague on the cell phone. She handed me over to our office native born Qatari who walked me through the appropriate roundabouts and got me to where I knew how to go. I found myself with heavy traffic flowing quickly around the roundabouts with a phone in one hand, my eyes trying to watch my flanks and attempting to listen to the instructions. The instructions worked and I arrived without a scratch. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t had an accident so it is simply a matter of time. How fortunate I had filled the gas tank – imagine the horror of being lost at rush hour to run out of gas. Imagine I hadn’t had my cell phone – I might have driven in circles all day! Of course, by now everyone knows what happened and they all relate their stories of getting lost. I left the car at school and came home again with my colleague who lives in the building. I will go in with him tomorrow and learn an even easier but slightly slower route to school. Tomorrow will be Thursday, the last day of our work week, and Friday morning when all Qatari are in bed I’ll drive the empty city and find out some more of the possibilities.

Thomas Friedman’s NYTimes column today discusses the energy consumption of Doha and Dalian (China) referring specifically to the high-rises whose energy consumption far offsets any savings we Americans think we are gaining by going to fluorescent lights or hybrid cars. He doesn’t mention the additional CO2 released from the thousands of vehicles rushing through the city, whether to work or to coffee and friends in the evening; these vehicles are generally large SUVs. I rented a mid-sized SUV (Hyundai Terracat, rental cost close $900/mo, tank of gas $15, go figure) so I could feel a bit safer. There are few city buses used almost exclusively by the immigrant construction laborers from India and Pakistan; and of course no subways. Taxis and personal cars are the main and very necessary mode of transportation. For sport, Qataris take their cars pulling trailers into the desert. For a New Yorker who has commuted by public transportation for over 20 years and carefully separated garbage for recycling, Doha is an eye-opener. All trash goes down one huge chute at the end of the apartment hallway. From there I am told it is trucked to a large hole in the desert. Saudi Arabia has been disposing of trash and sewage in a similar manner for decades and today we can view a huge black ‘swamp’ in Saudi Arabia from outer space. All of this isn’t to suggest we give up on fluorescent lights, hybrid cars, alternative energy sources and recycling, but to suggest that huge parts of the developing world need guidance on more than construction, financial investment and education. Sooner rather than later they should begin environmentally sound practices.

21 Sept 2007
I learned a new way to work yesterday; now that I have gotten lost, an easier way is revealed. Go figure – I accused my colleagues of freshman hazing. This morning (Friday, 1st day of week-end) it eluded me so I came home, read the map and armed with multiple maps and camera retried. It worked with few people on the road. I then attempted to find the place where I need to get my blood typed. Couldn’t get there despite instructions and two maps: construction. I’ve restudied and will try again tomorrow when the place may be open and thus finish the task.
I did manage to get some good shots of buildings from the Corniche. Will need to keep traveling with the camera to capture what I can. Week-ends are better since the travel is lighter.