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Qatar jumps the safety shark 15, June 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Regarding 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 temptation to ram through new but ultimately ineffective knee-jerk laws to assuage the need to ‘do something’.

I hope that I am wrong about all this but it looks like the plans in question are a vastly over ambitious, ill conceived, impractical, and likely ineffective reaction to recent events.

The front page of The Peninsula today ran with a story claiming that:

Plans are afoot to run checks on all buildings in the country, whether public or private, residential or commercial, to see their compliance with safety requirements as part of a nation-wide drive to ensure safety of life and property.

Once the amended law is in force, all buildings in the country, whether new or old, residential or commercial, public or private, will be required to have emergency fire exits, spacious passageways to these exits, emergency staircase and the walls must be fire-proof. Storage areas in buildings must be safe.

Buildings that do not comply with the new rules and do not rectify their situation even after warnings will be referred to court or they could even be seized.

Licenses of old buildings will not be renewed unless they amend their engineering designs to comply with safety requirements.

Where to start?

  • All buildings are to be inspected? Every building in the country? All of the tens of thousands of them? Who, exactly, will do these inspections? How many hundreds or thousands of inspectors that are – obviously enough – not currently trained or resident in Qatar will be needed? From where will these people be imported? Where does such a large number of trained inspectors reside, exactly? It’s not like there’s a whopping great pool of such people just sitting around in, say, India or Malaysia, surely.
  • So they’re going to mandate emergency fire exits on all buildings? So all houses will need exits with those emergency bars or something like that? Really? They’re going to tell Qataris to install ugly, commercial emergency fire exits in their houses? Are there enough emergency fire exit bars in the whole Middle East to cater for this demand? Are there enough qualified people to install these things in Qatar? Of course not. If they enforce this not only would it be just spectacular over-kill making all residential houses in Qatar install such emergency exits, but it will be an epically expensive affair: demand will outstrip supply exponentially, instantly. Emergency exit kits will become worth more than gold.
  • All walls must be fireproof? Again, the same logic applies: where will the supplies come from? I’m not an architect but it will surely be difficult and impractical (not to mention egregiously uneconomical) to retrofit all old buildings with such walls.

In short, there seems to be an utter lack of nuance in these new laws. There needs to be a discussion as to balancing the needs of safety with a practical and realistic assessment of what can actually be done.

I’m sure that the authorities would not be as cynical as to use this as a way to squeeze firms out of the old buildings in Qatar into the hugely under occupied and hugely expensive new commercial towers in Doha and are just being over zealous in their approach.Yet the concern is that in this desire to make Qatar a safer place, this kind of blanket approach will primarily result in onerous requirements for businesses and residents and an exponential rise in profits for fire-safety supply firms. The pay-offs involved need to be interrogated; for example, reducing the speed limits on the roads to 20mph would reduce deaths on the roads almost entirely but the knock-on consequences of this would clearly be severe. A similar realistic cost-benefit analysis needs to be undertaken.

Moreover, this ‘reaction’ appears to have missed out several key aspects. What about the procedures of the civil defence; how are they being modified? What about the training for the ‘security’ guards in malls and other public places? Will they be invested in? What about the intrinsic problems within the Ministries as a whole that led to the woeful lack of inspection into these concerns in the first place? Any changes there? Any responsibility being taken by anyone?

Lastly I would note that this is another sad day for journalism in Qatar without any of these points being raised. Surely someone at the Peninsula had some reservations about these policies?

What I write here is too often not seen in a Qatari context and, as I note, certainly not in the papers. This is not a personal or institutional attack; it is not malevolent or mean-spirited; it is a genuine critique of an emerging policy. I have little doubt that the key Sheikhs in question would not begrudge this small, insignificant effort to widen the debate; indeed, all the key Sheikhs and Ministers that I’ve met thus far have been really quite worldly and interested in discussion. When it comes to such important issues such musings are necessary to widen the debate, discuss ideas, and to try to plug the holes in policies that need to be plugged. Op-eds by experts in this field are needed in the local papers; this is a necessary service that they need to provide, not a nice optional extra.

Public policy by whim? Qatar University to teach in Arabic 6, February 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Qatar’s Supreme Education Council has announced that Arabic should be the official teaching language of Qatar University. This means that most courses in the Faculty of Law, International Studies, Mass Communication and the Faculty of Management, will need to be taught in Arabic from Fall 2012.

Whatever you think about this decision, it is border-line ridiculous to impose this and give the Departments only nine months to change their curriculum, their staffing levels not to mention the mundane but critical issues such as the books. Indeed, of course, this is impossible and there is little chance that a coherent Arabic only first year can be taught in these Faculties by September.

My instant reaction is that this another example of rule by whim in Qatar. The last great example of this was when it was summarily announced that most foreigners would need to obtain their visa before arriving in Qatar: a patently stupid decision that was never going to work and of course it was soon dropped. This Arabic decision, while there are certainly reasoned arguments for QU teaching in the country’s native language, nevertheless, does not make much sense to me.

Nothing about Qatar’s overall positioning on the international stage or its outlook suggests that this is a good idea. Qatar, if it has been about anything in recent years, has been about expanding its horizons, establishing relations across the world and fostering a name for itself as something of a global citizen; seeking to use its position, its abilities and its qualities to be a world hub or intermediary be it for sports tourism, diplomacy or business. All of this suggests (to me at least) that degrees taught in English might be of more relevance.

Some basic realities:

– This will be devastating for Qatari students who want to go and study abroad. IELTS aside, what self-respecting  university will accept a Qatari with a degree taught in Arabic onto, for example, an MA social studies-type course now?

– Particularly, this will hit Qatari girls the hardest. They, after all, make up the vast majority of the students at QU. Their horizons have just been diminished.

– The quality of teaching will plummet. While a sensitive topic, it is true enough to say that the teaching pedagogy in the West is light-years ahead of that in the Arab world. While this is clearly a generalization, I fully stand by it at all levels; primary, secondary and higher education. At a time when Qatar is overtly seeking to enhance its population’s education credentials to foster a knowledge economy, this is an ill-conceived move.

Had there been a reasoned debate about this issue, I think it could have been a positive move. Clearly, Qatar does not want to lose its Arabic heritage and to move to ‘shore this up’, so to speak, is a sensible idea. Yet, as ever, these knee-jerk, rule by whim policy decisions are just so profoundly ill-thought out it boggles the mind.

Incorporating ever greater portions of Arabic teaching requirements into degrees over a number of years would, for example, have been a sensible path to pursue. Then, instead of entirely changing the requirements and expectations for students looking to leave school soon (and it now being far too late to do much meaningful to prepare oneself) and allowing the University time to acquire some decent staff (as opposed to its current situation where some Departments will likely need to panic-buy any and all lecturers who can speak Arabic regardless of quality) such changes could have been made, perhaps, successfully.

And has anyone thought of the impact of this policy on the Qatari job market? Sure, this will be a great move for Qataris wanting to move directly to the public sector. Yet while such skills will obviously be of use in the private sector too – you know, that place that all Gulf countries are “trying” to encourage its workers to move into  – overall, this will further entrench the public sector-for-life mentality and make the transition to Qatar’s theoretical ‘new’ economy with a viable working population for a viable private sector all the more difficult to achieve.