Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Home Comforts in Doha?

This week I’ve been fighting battles over sub-standard accommodation.  Oh, what fun it’s been!

I was back in Poland last week, working on a training course I have to deliver and spending quality time with Ania and the kids.  Unfortunately, one of them brought home an appalling stomach virus that of course we all went down with on successive days.  It was most unpleasant, what with projectile vomiting and worse, hot and cold flushes, and enough gas to refloat the Titanic…….  Not the best preparation for Kuba’s birthday either, what with the planned bowling party, complete with pizza, snacks and a rather nice cake.  Luckily by the time Saturday came around, he and Ally and Ania had recovered, so I was the only one still suffering (in part with nerves: I was flying down to Doha immediately after the party, and a six hour flight is not recommended when you have residual Montezuma’s Revenge……).  But the party was fun, everyone had a great time, especially Kuba and his mates who only managed to break one lane by bowling multiple balls in a kind of Let’s See Who Hits The Pins First Competition…..  The staff were not happy, I can tell you.  And despite the illness, I thoroughly enjoyed being back in my little home, with my family and all the comforts that go with it.

Which brings me back nicely to my battles this week.

Now one of the more entertaining and at times challenging things about This Travelling Life is where you end up lying your head when you’re on site.
Normally of course that means a decent (more or less) hotel, and regular readers of these epistles will have seen already that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some really good quarters provided (my original apartment in Warsaw springs to mind, various Hiltons in London and Luxembourg, a couple of superb spa hotels – one in particular where I had a private pool and sundeck that alas I never got to use – in Malta).  I’ve also had some, shall we say, less than satisfactory billets too – creatures running around the room after dark in Bucharest, cockroaches in the apartment in Trinidad (although to be fair, the damned things are endemic out there and I think everybody suffered from that to a greater or lesser degree)….probably the worst was the first one I had in Almaty – check out Go East Old Man from September 2010 on here for much more about the place (the apartment, and for that matter the city and country).  I still have bad dreams about that one.

Anyway, Qatar is one of the richest nations on Earth, courtesy of King Oil, so my expectations on first coming here last month were pretty high that this time (my first trip for a year, remember) I would be fortunate on the accommodation front.  I wasn’t disappointed – although not perfect, the Wyndham Grand Regency Hotel in Doha is pretty good (take a look on TripAdvisor: I posted a review of it last week), well-appointed rooms, decent food, a good gym and outside pool, and loads of Premier League footie on the box – with English commentary and punditry to boot.   But as we are going to be here some months, and the Wyndham is quite pricy, the bank decided to place us in apartments.  Which is fine by me.

There was a bit of an issue, in that their idea was that we three project team blokes would all share one gaff..…far from ideal, and none of us were keen on that one.  Nevertheless, we were taken to view one particular complex, fairly close to the airport (but not obtrusively so), and a bit of investigation on TripAdvisor showed it to be rather good.  It was.  The complex is pretty new, and very well decorated – the size and quality of the apartment and its fixtures and fittings is much better than home – and the amenities included a very good outside pool, well equipped gym and – whoopee – a pool and snooker centre for residents.  So that was all good then.

It turned out that the place is pretty much fully booked – which makes you wonder why they bothered to show it to us in the first place! – and besides very expensive at QAR33,000 per MONTH.  Hmmmm………  So the day before we flew home for our breaks, we were told we had been booked into an alternative, Le Park Hotel.  It’s next door to the Wyndham, so close to the office, and cheaper so that we get an apartment each – much better.  On the face of it…..

TripAdvisor was less optimistic.  The place advertises itself as a “four star luxury hotel and apartment centre with rooftop pool and sun terrace, well equipped fitness centre and comfortable, well decorated suites with kitchen units”.  But of the 9 visitor reviews, no less than 8 rated it as 1 Star, and “appalling” (to quote one of the more polite comments).  The only positive review was by a Japanese guy, and that could have been a Lost in Translation moment.  So we weren’t too hopeful when we flew in Saturday night – and even less so when the hotel driver (booked by the bank) was conspicuous by his absence.  We caught a cab – and the driver had never heard of the place.  We found the Wyndham and drove around the block…..and again….and a third time.  We stopped and asked directions.  It turned out the entrance is down a dimly lit side street.

We checked in, and by half past midnight I was in my Executive Suite with kitchenette, taking pictures of all that was wrong.   First up, the kitchen with no crockery, no cutlery, no cooking pots or saucepans.   Oh, and the fridge you have to unplug to use the microwave.  The holes in the bathroom ceiling, and grubby poorly cleaned bath.  The shelf over the sink so badly screwed to the wall that it slopes down over the tap so you can’t use it.  The wardrobe with no coat hangers.  The lounge area is actually ok, with a cheap and nasty (but comfortable) three piece suite and an equally cheap and nasty flat screen tv that works fine but has limited English tv channels (the usual news suspects and that’s about it).

We complained the next day at work, and someone from the bank came out to inspect it.  She was not too impressed either, and insisted that the hotel made some improvements.  It seems there have been some negotiations, but the hotel have dug their heels in about certain things – like kitchen ware.  A compromise was reached whereby the hotel provided a couple of plates, glasses, cups and saucers, plus cutlery, but the bank have to supply the (more expensive) cookware.  Which makes you wonder why they have suites with kitchens in the first place, it they’re not going to properly equip them……

Anyway, over the past couple of days, things have gradually improved.  At least the place is cleaner and the bed is comfortable, and I can brew up a cup of coffee (after sweet-talking the waitress in the restaurant to flog me a carton of milk and donate a bowl of sugar sachets).  I went out yesterday evening and bought bread and butter and Nutella, and some biscuits and KitKats, so it’s a start.   The bank people are still dragging their heels a bit on the cooking front, so I can’t do anything ambitious, but the hotel grub is ok – nothing to write home about (as you would expect, given the rest of the place), but edible and cheap enough.
But then we come to facilities.  The tv first.  It turned out that my mate’s 2000 odd channels far outstripped my 30 or so, suggesting somewhere there must be lot more English stuff available.  Then the Internet……BIG fail: neither the wifi nor cable connection worked.  What about the gym?  Well, it’s there, but very tatty – my colleague has used it and reckons half of the machinery doesn’t actually work.  Haven’t tried it myself yet.  So – the pool and rooftop sun terrace (as it’s still hot and sunny here).  Now comes the biggest joke of all.  I went to look, and came out of the lift onto the roof, where there is no signage nor lighting.  To the left is a bloody great air conditioning unit and a satellite dish about six feet across.   Back to the right a flight of steps leads up between too old toolshed-like buildings.  At the top – a building site.  A pile of sand waist high and about 15 feet across.  Scaffolding.  A little crane.  A cement mixer…..and beside that – the pool: or at least, where the thing will be when it’s finished.  Right now it’s a concrete shell with a deep end and a shallow end, but not tiled, no terrace surrounding it, and most certainly no water.  If there is such a thing as an advertising standards authority here, these guys are there for the taking – the website is no more nor less than a pack of lies.

But let me be fair, now.

On my way out this morning, I delivered a list of 7 things I needed sorted out in my room – the internet, the plumbing, tv.  I told the girl I expected them fixed today and offered to discuss the matter face to face with the manager tonight if they hadn’t been done.  I passed a copy on to the bank for information.

To my amazement, when I got back this evening, every one had been addressed.  The internet now works fine (hence this post).  I now have the best part of a thousand tv channels to enjoy, including at least 10 English language news and movie channels.  Unfortunately sport is still an issue – the ones showing Premier League and Champions League matches are subscription only so I’ll miss out on them – but I’ve located an Irish bar here (as I’ve said elsewhere, they are everywhere….) that covers them so my Saturday is taken care of.  The plumbing is fixed.  I have coat hangers.  I have all my crockery and cutlery so all I need to do is give the bank a nudge for the cooking gear and I’m all set. 

It is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I would certainly not recommend Le Park Hotel to anyone – I will add a TripAdvisor review saying as much at some point.  But as a base for work here, it will do – close to the office, shops nearby to buy food and supplies (I went exploring yesterday evening) and within walking distance – a long walk admittedly – from the touristy bits like the Corniche and fishing harbor and various malls.

Bit light on home comforts – but then, it’s not home.

Friday, 4 October 2013

World Cup 2022 - Can Qatar really deliver?

Qatar has been all over the news the last few days, and not in a good way.

As I'm sure you've all seen, there are continuing concerns about the country's ability to deliver a successful World Cup in 9 years time, and some pretty appalling allegations about the way migrant workers, mostly Nepali, are treated here.  There have been calls for investigations from Human Rights Watch and the International Trades Unions Organizations, which went so far as to accuse Qatar of being a slave state.  Football people - players, managers and journalists - have expressed concerns about playing the tournament in the summer, and have called for it to be moved away from Qatar to an alternative (and cooler) venue.  Proposals to move it to winter months have largely met resistance because that would mean massive changes to league schedules across the world, and cost billions of dollars in lost revenues - something the English Premier League have been particularly vociferous about.

So what is the truth?  Is the tournament doomed, at least for that year?  Or will this oil rich little desert nation actually pull it off?

After spending the past couple of weeks in a still scorching Doha, let me give you my five penn'orth.

First of all, let's deal with the climate issue.  Yes, it is bloody hot here.  When I landed, at midnight a couple of Saturdays ago, the temperature was still in the high 30s.  During the day, for most of the last two weeks, it's been over 40 (though cooler the last three days at around 37 - 38) - but then today, it's shot up again.  As I write, it's 4:30 in the afternoon, it's early October, and it's 42C in the city centre.  Today, as in all Muslim countries, it's the first day of the weekend, a day of prayer, so no work....for me, a good opportunity to do a bit more sightseeing.

Last weekend, I walked the three kilometres from the hotel to the Corniche (that's like Southend Promenade only without the beach or fish and chip shops or amusement arcades).  It was hot and sunny and I had forgotten to take water with me, but after risking life and limb through the roadworks - of which more in a minute - I got there.  I even managed to find a patch of sand about the size of the interior of a BMW 7 series saloon, and had a paddle in the bath-warm Gulf waters.  I needed a coffee or an ice cream after that, so headed along the path towards the modern part of the city, expecting to find somewhere along the way.  I didn't, and ended up exhausted in a Starbucks in the huge (and really rather good) City Centre Mall.  I guess in total I walked a good 7km, during the hottest part of the day - and felt terrible.  I caught a taxi back to the hotel.  Today, I went in the opposite direction, again strolling along, but left earlier, hoping to catch cooler weather.  I found the Corniche, this time along near the old traditional fishing harbour at the far end of the bay from the shining new business district and the City Mall.  Again, I got caught up in roadworks, and again found nowhere to get a drink.  Forewarned is forearmed, and I took a couple of bottles of water with me, but by this time the water was warm verging on hot - you could probably shave in it - where I had carried it in my pocket.  Most unpleasant.  There were few taxis around, so I walked back to the hotel.  Probably I did another 7 km, and I felt even worse this time when I got back.

Now I like the sunshine and hot weather.  Give me a sandy beach, factor 30, some sea to cool off in, and I'm a happy chappy.  Well, here there is sunshine.  I have my factor 30.  But there is no beach (unless you're staying in the Hilton or the Sheraton or one of the other luxury hotels, all of which have their own private ones, but my budget doesn't run that far, I'm afraid).  But basically, it is just TOO hot.  And again, we are in October here......  I'm reasonably fit and healthy, better than many people my age, and active enough to go on expeditions like this without keeling over (and thank God for that!), so if I'm having issues with the climate what is the average English or German or Norwegian fan (assuming their countries qualify in 2022) - or anyone else from outside of Africa really - going to feel about it, in the height of summer, when temperatures can reach (and sometimes exceed) a killing 50C?

The Qatari's official answer to this is air conditioning.  They plan to install state-of-the-art aircon plants at all venues and fan zones and training grounds, to keep everyone cool.  It sounds the stuff of science fiction, but if the air conditioning at the hotel and office is anything to go by, they will do it quite comfortably.  They have 9 years to perfect the system, after all.

My hotel is perhaps half a kilometre from the office.  I've walked it a couple of times, in the relative cool of the evening, but I wouldn't want to do it during the day - especially after the experience of the past two weekends, and in a suit and tie to boot.  So the bank pick us up in either a BMW 7 series or a Mitsubishi Shogun 4 track, depending on which is available.  Both ferry us to and from our destinations in air conditioned comfort.  The hotel is cool and comfortable, and of course each room has its own temperature control.  Sometimes the cleaners seem to fiddle about with the controls while I'm at work, so I come back to an ice box.  The project room at the bank is also comfortably cool - indeed, one of the guys keeps his jacket on all day (which seems a bit much to me) - so clearly, Qatar are Air Conditioning Masters.  So if they say they can build 60 or 70,000 capacity stadia that are fully air conditioned so that pitch temperatures for the players are in the mid 20s, even when the atmosphere outside is twice that, then I for one am not going to argue.  They will do it, I have no doubt.  And if they can manage that, then equally I'm sure they will be able to provide outdoor Fan Zones that are equally cool and comfortable.  (I take it as a matter of course that all the hotels will be fine).

But what will they be able to do outside of these areas?  If you assume there will be off-days, when there are no matches (and that will certainly be the case, especially after the group stages are over and the knock out rounds commenced) then will these air conditioned Fan Zones still be open for use?  Because during these times the punters will still be in town, in their thousands, and will want somewhere to go and something to do. What are you going to do, when there is no match and a day or two to kill, in 50C temperatures?  From experience, I know hanging around in hotels can be soul destroyingly boring, and it will be even worse here, because alcohol is prohibited in the country - so no sitting in the bar necking chilled Heineken or whatever. That will go down well with the average football fan, of any nationality......

I'm assuming the organizers are aware of this and will plan accordingly.  One condition that FIFA insist on for any host country is that the approved beer sponsor (currently Heineken) is able to sell its wares in vast quantities, so Qatar must have agreed to comply with this clause, and relax their licencing laws at least for the duration of the tournament.  Who knows, Blatter and his merry men may just have opened a Pandora's Box in this region - and everyone knows how hard it is to close that, once it's been prised open.....just ask any ex-Communist Bloc country that allowed free (or at least less weighted) elections back in the 80s and 90s, or more recently the string of countries that overthrew their governments in favour of some form of democracy during the Arab Spring a couple of years ago.

The issue of workers' rights is less easy for me to write about.

The country (or at least Doha) is a massive building site.  There are cranes and building plots and roadworks everywhere.  Not all of it is directly related to the World Cup - no construction work has started on the new stadia yet, for instance - but there are many hotel projects under way, many new residential and office buildings going up, and many long term transport improvements.  A metro system is under construction, to ease the appalling traffic congestion around the city.  New roads are being built too, and existing ones improved, with traffic light controlled intersections replacing roundabouts.  Major work in this respect is taking place along the Corniche, hence the gauntlet I've run the past two weekends getting there.  Qatari drivers are typical of many others in this part of the world - which is to say generally poor - and the situation is made worse by the cars.  Now in Lebanon and Egypt, for instance, most vehicles seem to be rust bucket Asian motors from Hyundai and Kia, Nissan and Toyota, or else old Mercedes barges.  Here, the vehicle of choice is a big white Toyota Land Cruiser (usually with some really nifty pastel shaded go-faster stripe patterns along both sides - some of them are really cool).  Or BMW 7s.  Or Mercs.  Just along from the hotel I saw today three car dealerships, side by side: first came Bentley, then McLaren, then Lamborghini.  Very nice.  I saw a Lambo and Mustang having a drag race away from traffic lights last weekend (the Lambo won easily).  So in this ludicrously rich country, the locals do love their cars, and do love to drive them fast.  Hence the high accident rates.

Equally, someone who drives a Porsche or a Land Cruiser is not going to be working on a building site. Which is why something like 80% of the workforce (at least that outside of offices and shops) is imported labour.  This is not at all unusual - the same is true in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and many other countries across the world, not only in the Middle East.  What is also not at all unusual is that the construction companies who hire the labour want to get away with the minimum they can manage to provide, both on wages and all the ancillary bits that go with it - the accident insurance, accommodation and so on - in order to maximize their profits.   I'm not sure the concept of a minimum wage, so beloved of human rights and labour groups world wide, has really permeated the construction industry as it has elsewhere.  It's not unusual for migrant workers to live in below standard barracks, work long hours for peanuts, and lose their limbs (or tragically lives) in avoidable accidents.  What makes the situation worse here, it seems, are two factors.

First the weather.  If it's uncomfortable enough to go for a stroll during the day here in October, how much worse is it digging holes to lay new water mains, or building a new hotel, or whatever?   There have been many deaths on the construction sites across Qatar and many of them have been attributed to heart failure caused by working outside, for long hours, in these intolerably hot conditions.

Second is the way workers have allegedly been treated,  The papers and news services have run many stories in the past week, ahead of FIFA's meeting this weekend, highlighting abuses that range from the abnormally high death rates (65 from the Nepali community alone in the past two months - that's one a day) to workers being forced to live seven or eight to a room in squalid barracks in the middle of the desert with rudimentary facilities, to passports being held by employers to prevent people who have had enough jumping on the next boat out of here.

I have no idea how much of this has been exaggerated by the press for the sake of a good story - the pictures on CNN have been pretty convincing.  But it is a fact that most of the workers on these sites come from countries like India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and (particularly) Nepal where even the allegedly slave wages earned here exceed anything they are likely to earn back home.  It's also true that across the Gulf region, the oil-rich Arab does look at the migrant worker as very much a second class citizen, somehow sub-human.   It could be argued that, to a lesser extent, this casual racism exists in other cultures and circumstances too - look at the vitriol that pours out from the disgusting I'm British and Proud website every day, the hate that shows in the message boards on Yahoo News aimed at (mostly honest and hard-working) Eastern Europeans, or French plans to round up all 30,000 Roma - including many born in the country and holding citizenship (out of a total population of France of over 65 million)  - and dumping them back in Bulgaria and Romania.  So sadly this sort of thing is not confined to Qatar.

To its credit, the government has pledged to set up an independent commission, headed by an international lawyer, to investigate the situation and make whatever changes are needed to improve it.  That will be interesting: let's see what punishments (if any) are dished out in the months to come.

But back to my headline question - can Qatar deliver a successful World Cup in 2022?

My belief is that if any country in this region can do so, then Qatar is that country.  The place is sitting on a seemingly bottomless pit of petrodollars, so money is no object.  Nothing can be done about the climate (arguably global warming could make matters worse before a ball is kicked), but if the cutting edge technology is there to make things more comfortable for everybody, then the authorities here seem more than ready to embrace it.  The organizing committee is certainly committed to the project, and is happy to provide a change to a winter tournament if that is what FIFA decide they want to do - it makes no difference to them whether the matches are held in January and February or June and July 2022: the same facilities will be built and provided in either case, for the same cost.  For that, I applaud them.

So it really comes back to FIFA.  Blatter and others have already admitted that they may have been a little hasty in awarding the tournament to Qatar, but at their annual meeting in Zurich today insisted that no decision would be made until after Brazil's 2014 tournament.  Ever the showman, Blatter also announced separately (and probably unofficially) on his Twitter feed that the tournament "would be held in Qatar" - only the date, summer or winter, is to be decided.

Which is a typical FIFA fudge.