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On the Doha fire 29, May 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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A fire at one of Qatar’s largest malls – Villagio – has killed 19 people including 13 children. A tragedy of this scale has not been seen in Qatar in recent times and has been felt deeply by all communities.

While an incident of this size is never to be expected, there is a certain grim lack of surprise that there was such an incident. There have apparently been three fires in the last 18 months at Villagio and Qatar’s other large mall, City Centre, suffered severe damage from a fire only few weeks ago.

Apparently in this incident it seems that the fire alarms only went off in some places; no one was encouraged/told to evacuate; the sprinkler systems malfunctioned; there were no maps for Civil Defence to use to coordinate their efforts; the initial Civil Defence reaction was to send in people without gas masks (!); and the nursery which was so awfully affected was a death-trap waiting to happen on the first floor with only one staircase for access, which was soon burned down forcing the Civil Defence people to hack their way in through the roof.

Why are there such problems?

First it needs to be noted that such an incident, in my view, could have happened anywhere in the Gulf. I don’t believe that such procedures are that much better at, for example, malls in Kuwait or KSA. Nevertheless, this incident happened in Qatar and we must examine it.

Part of the culture of management in Qatar is overly deferential. Overall there is a profound lack of initiative and a box ticking culture pervades. Diktats from on high often come thick and fast with little systematic planning overall. Conflicting policies are common. Yet no one below the elite level would dare criticise such policies for fear of retribution or reputational ‘damage’.

Qatar is a young country. It has the accoutrements of a modern state which can be bought in whole-sale, but the boring, decidedly not interesting but essential rules, regulations, and oversight purviews are sorely lacking.

Moreover, it is a basic human trait that it often takes a tragedy to galvanise people into action. British authorities knew that they had a huge problem with football hooliganism and crowd control in the 70s and 80s but it took the awful events at Hillsborough in 1989 for authorities to actually act. This is just the way that it is.

Media

Qatar’s established media get an F- for their coverage. Late to the story and then patchy in their coverage, they have all been decidedly unimpressive. Believe it or not, QBS radio, Qatar’s key local station, did not lead with this story but with Sheikha Moza chairing a conference at the Convention Centre in its 18:00 bulletin the day after the fire. This is a profound indication of the levels of uselessness that pervade the local media, which are all but irrelevant to meaningful coverage of issues.

Instead it is Doha News, a ‘new media’ blog and twitter based news service, that has rightly received universal praise for its comprehensive coverage. Truly they have put all other news organisations however big or small to shame.

Reaction

An investigation committee has been announced specifically to look into this incident and into fire safety more generally. There are several counts of criminal negligence that need to be accounted for both in the Villagio management structure itself; in the nursery for its apparent [perhaps I should say, ‘presumed’ – for we don’t really know what happened there yet] lack of response; in the planning ministry for licensing such a nursery with such apparently poor evacuation procedures; in the Interior Ministry generally for its lack of oversight of basic fire safety procedures in such a key location; and in the Civil Defence and the other reaction forces for their seemingly chaotic response to an incident.

I hope that the reaction will not be the public arrest of some Philippine and Indian management-level people alone.

I also fear that there will be new misguided stringent rules. Don’t misunderstand me; tough new rules on fire alarm drills or procedure practice are welcome, but the authorities must resist the temptation to ram through new but ultimately ineffective knee-jerk laws to assuage the need to ‘do something’.

World Cup

Does this incident have any repercussions for World Cup 2022 in Qatar? Not really.

Firstly, it is over a decade away which ought to give authorities a long time to evaluate such procedures and systems. Hopefully a rigorous approach to this issue will be instilled and in every day usage.

Secondly (and somewhat confusingly) whatever issues were present before this incident will still be present. For example, the desire to simply ignore ticket holders in the Asian Cup final between Australia and Japan and to fill the stadium for cosmetic purposes with ticketless workers to potentially create a security incident out of nothing; that kind of single, absurd decision taken by ‘a Sheikh’ who cannot be questioned will remain for it is ingrained in the culture here. Such decision making – rule by whim as I have dubbed it – can be quick and decisive but intrinsically suffers from a lack of strategic understanding and its consequences can be wide-ranging.

__

Of course there is no satisfactory way to conclude such an article. Fiendishly bad luck coupled with a seemingly long list of violations of best practice have resulted in an immense tragedy in Qatar. The slimmest of silver linings can, as ever, potentially be seen on the horizon in terms of future improvements in safety, not that this could ever amount to a sliver of comfort to the bereaved. Everyone’s thoughts are with them.

 

 

 

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Comments»

1. Ellora Coupe - 29, May 2012

I thought you addressed the real undercurrent of issues and so true that major incidents push change, this was no more on the cards as the riots last summer in London were brewing but not completely preventable due to cultural habits engrained into society.
I was there yesterday in Villagio and even with procedures and training in place there are fundamental cultural differences between how an Indian man physically handles himself in a crowd versus a westerner. I’ve studied extensively the known fact that culturally the Indians don’t shout or command drama and attention it’s not engrained into their persona, they are fiercely hard workers but I watched them look more concerned about determining whether it was a false alarm than getting everyone out or interacting with the masses to instill control.
We mustn’t expect 120% and blame those who weren’t trained. It’s a transient work force in the middle east, no loyalty to care no incentive to invest long term in better ideas, people come and go and amongst many established security experts this is a cause for concern here as people cannot find the staff who see a future in investing their time into this country. But it will change because there’s more for us here than in many parts of the western world!

2. Ahmed Nadar (@ahmednadar) - 29, May 2012

Thanks for your thoughts which I couldn’t agree more.
More about qataries ignorant, some of English tweets and lots of Arabic tweets from qataries, they didn’t care at all about what happened, look at their media.
I was waiting for their arabic TV or Radio to mention anything about it, with no hope till around 6-7PM.

Here is a tweet from Qatari shows how happy he is that no qatari were killed.

https://twitter.com/otzi3312/status/207176504835186689

Shame on them.

3. RohanV - 29, May 2012

Agreed on most counts. What needs to be done is not bring in new stringent-sounding rules, but bring about a genuine level of accountability (owner/sponsor-manager-employee-customer; both upwards and downwards that line) and then find a way to enforce existing rules.

If it takes tragedy to galvanise action, then the government (and for that matter citizens) ought to be continuously reminded about this until it’s clear that sufficient, genuine action has been taken.

4. Louise B - 30, May 2012

Words can sound so trite at times like this, can’t they, but it truly is such a tragic and unneccessary loss of life. My thoughts are with all of you in the Doha community. I was in Bahrain in the aftermath of an accident with similar loss of life a few years ago and I remember well the impact on the wider community. A very concise and – i think – accurate summary of the culture of management in the region. Here’s hoping that lessons will be learned throughout the Gulf as a result of this and that those responsible will be held accountable, instead of blaming the more vulnerable scapegoats.

5. D - 30, May 2012

If security guards have no authority to even stop a smoker how can they be invested? This is not about them not doing something, it’s about them knowing that they can’t do some things at all! Case in point? All the people taking photos in a burning mall where children were dying…they aren’t permitted to demand evacuation any more than they can tell a smoker to stop or leave the mall. It isn’t allowed.

6. The Qatar fire, the World Cup and the Rule by Decree « The Old UAR - 31, May 2012

[…] Roberts has a terrific article on his blog, The Gulf Blog, about the fire at the Villagio mall in Qatar interesting tidbits about […]

7. Anonymous - 2, June 2012

What about the responsibility of the international corporations behind the engineering and construction? I know someone who was fired last year because he would not agree to the signing off fire designs without being reviewed!!!!!! The person allowed to sign off did not have the qualifications to do so!!! How’s that for ethical integrity?? Money first, safety second or not at all.

thegulfblog.com - 3, June 2012

I suspect that it’s far more an issue of fire safety training and such practice and procedures than it is a question of the intrinsic lack of safety in the design of the mall.

8. fahad m. - 3, June 2012

“Qatar is a young country. It has the accoutrements of a modern state which can be bought in whole-sale, but the boring, decidedly not interesting but essential rules, regulations, and oversight purviews are sorely lacking.”

Excellent line. Western media hailing Qatar as a futuristic place of untold riches MUST recognize this line and put things in perspective for readers. More importantly, until the qatari establishment grasps that line, they will continue being complacent and happy with being the “richest” country in the world.

9. lisag8 - 4, June 2012

Very well written spot on just hope the powers that be has this fast tracked and not put aside. We all know lack of safety/codes are normal practice.Whats more important is that the owners are taught a lesson and do not get off on charges.Usually they blame the manager or someone down the line.[an expat]

They need to be held accountable and be responsible for their actions/non actions. Hopefully Qatar will change for the better. May their deaths not be in vain.

10. lisa G - 4, June 2012

Dave Roberts,

Keep up with the fine work your doing to make sure this is fast tracked, not shoved under a rug as most issues tend to somehow too.

The responsibility lies with the OWNERS not the management. It’s time Qatar changes and has an open book….

Lead by example.May the victims make the change for a better Qatar.
Many are waiting and watching to see what will happen.

I also hope that there are laws to bring change and education to driving here.Do not PARK on roadabouts wear seatbelts it saves lives,don’t speed it kills,and indicate when changing lanes.

Hoping for a brighter and safer future for all people in Qatar.

thegulfblog.com - 4, June 2012

Thanks all for taking a few minutes to add your thoughts.

11. Melissa - 8, June 2012

I am sure heads will roll, just not the right ones. typical and as you said could happen anywhere in he Gulf, some poor indians or expats will be locked up – the qatari owners off scott free. Total injustice, check out http://www.bringadamhome.org/ – another great example in the gulf… glad I got out of there when I did…

12. Qatar jumps the safety shark « The Gulf blog - 15, June 2012

[…] the Qatari reaction to the fire at Villagio mall on the 29th May I wrote: I also fear that there will be new misguided stringent rules…the authorities must resist the […]


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