Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Twofold Summer Climate

I had my first taste of Middle East summer weather almost exactly 24 years ago, en route with my mother to Thailand.  We flew with Gulf Air and landed at Doha to pick up passengers before continuing to Muscat, where we changed planes.  Stepping out from the aircraft at around midnight we were confronted with heat of about 32 degrees and I quickly removed a pullover. 

That, as every local will tell you, is really quite mild, as in July during the daytime most Gulf countries can usually expect the temperature to soar into the mid and high 40s, and commonly surpass this.  Hence a newspaper weather forecast summary might read: "clear: High 44; Low 32".  Sure enough this is how it has been since I came here a little over 2 weeks ago; at first I was struck by the intensity of this heat and felt a strong resistance to even stepping outside, but after a while the perception changes.  I find that I have to walk much more slowly than normal and pace myself and then it's not so severe - this was especially so when wandering around Katara cultural village for the first time.  In the evening, shortly after sunset it may well be still be around 40 degrees, so an evening meal on a terrace is best accompanies by plenty of water!

However, there are other aspects that are quite distinct from the UK or even SE Asia.  About a week after my arrival, there were dust storms (this term seems more common than sand storm and probably more descriptive in that the particles are very fine and now they are mixed up with other kinds of dust) swept into town - the wind got up to quite some knots.  From the QMA building visibility across the water decreases to a peachy haze, with the West Bay skyscrapers fading away.  From inside at around 3pm can be heard very clearly the mid-afternoon call of prayer and when there's a dust storm it is superimposed on the wailing sound of wind howling through the building; it feels very evocative of a rather bleak desert landscape.  Outside the wide-brimmed floppy hat I had brought in preparation has a drawstring tie to secure under the chin and it's necessary! The only downside to is that the wind lifts up the brim so there's less cover for the face - so a pointed hat may work better.  It's also practical to wear light sand-coloured shoes - dark ones soon attract dusty decoration. 

Vehicles are also exposed: whereas in the UK you might sometimes see snow drifting onto the bonnet or windscreen, in Qatar you can expect sand!  So more traditional modes of transport may fare better - a few days ago I saw some camels for the first time as I was driven past the Emiri Diwan (Emir's Palace) - making their way around the perimeter fence were seven men riding camels - were they palace staff on patrol, perhaps?  The Diwan has an imposing presence, I could generally perceive no movement apart from its cascading waterfalls.

The other climate, which doesn't receive so much attention, is the indoor climate, i.e. air conditioning (or simply "A C"), which is ubiquitous - from cars to restaurants and shopping malls, to homes and offices, even in stairwells.  In this respect for office workers exposure to heat is really minimised and is generally a lot less than what I've encountered in Thailand, where many places still rely on electric fans for air circulation.  And in the hotel room there is a thermostat to control the temperature in 0.5 degree increments, together with an adjustable fan.  The systems are generally more modern than in Thailand, and a bit less intrusive.

For construction workers it's another story; if ever I feel hot, then I should reflect on their tough conditions.  At least there is widespread awareness of the issues with measures that limit working hours, particularly in the middle of the day.  Perhaps one day there will be artificial clouds and cool breezes to protect us all...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Qatar win 13th Asian Men's Junior Handball Championship

[updated: 14 July 2012]

I've just come back from the Qatar Sports Club where I watched the final of this year's Asian Men's Junior (Under 21) Handball Championship  and it was a close-fought victory for Qatar over South Korea, 25-22.  Qatar had nudged ahead right from the start and retained a lead for most of the game, but there was a spell towards the end of the second period when the Koreans came back and it was level-pegging.  They lost their momentum, however, when a player got sent off for a careless challenge that resulted in a hand hitting an opponent in the face. Within a couple of minutes the Qatar side had taken advantage of the numerical superiority and established a cushion that saw them through.

In attendance in this compact indoor arena (the pitch is only 40m by 20m), were coach loads of boys, accompanied by guardians (parents?)  They were all dressed in the thawb, and also brought along ghutra and egal, though one youngster sitting next to me seemed to have a bit of difficulty putting them on.   So the stands were predominantly white and there was hardly any sign of a phone or camera - when one appeared it was spotted and its owner got told off and threatened with confiscation of the device!  There was no snacking and not a bottle in sight, so visually really different from scenes you'd expect at sports stadia in the West.

Yet there was certainly no lack of energy among the fans for down at the foot of the stand were two men: one was a hailer with a megaphone and the other played on a line of African drums; they seemed to spend most of their time with their backs to the action and facing the spectators, urging them on, orchestrating their clapping, whistling, singing, jumping up, swaying from side to side and generally vocalising their support!  This "vociferous" crowd were sometimes cheering their team so much that I'm not sure they were that focused on the details of the game.   It wasn't just the Qataris who made all the noise though - the Korean supporters were also energetic with their rattle shakers.

Suspended high over the goal area on one side was a net full of marooon and white balloons.  It was evidently strategically placed and expectant of only one result!  When the wards were made within a couple of minutes that area was transformed into podiums, red carpets and VIP seating.  When the trophy was presented to the winning team, the balloons were duly released over the heads of the Qatar players, accompanied by an arrangement of the anthem "We are the Champions".  Apart from the trophy, the top three teams are rewarded with qualification for next year's World Junior Championship.

I had learnt about the championship from some other guests at the hotel; the first guest I spoke to was a young man called Osama.  He was a member of the Iraq team.  It's not a game that is much heard of in the UK (other sports seem to have marginalised it), but it's very popular in many other countries around the world.  Later on I had the privilege of meeting Mr Muhammad Shafiq, Director of Sports, University of Agriculture Faisalbad, Pakistan.  He introduced the game into Pakistan in the early 80s  and was in Doha as a member of the International Handball Federation, which oversees such events, with Doha acting as the local organiser on this occasion.  And it was one of his colleagues, Mr. Mahmoud, who kindly invited me to go and watch the final.

If this area contest was anything to go by, the 2013 World Championship will be pretty lively!

See also: News report from The Peninsula online newspaper.

First Impressions of Qatar

I started work on the 1st July and two days later received this memento:

It is from a party I attended along with colleagues to congratulate a senior member on their new appointment. The occasion seemed more akin to a wedding reception - complete with guest book - and illustrates, I feel, the kind of welcome that local people like to offer. :-) I think hospitality has been a long-standing custom in this area, a tradition expounded in the recent exhibition called The Gift of the Sultans . (I'm particularly interested in gift exchange as I think its importance is growing in wider economic development.)

If my copious notes are anything to go by, there's been a lot to interest, perplex and marvel in my first few days.  At the party I did not escape having a microphone shoved into my hands, and all I could really say is that it's been somewhat overwhelming experience to take everything in, but it has been actually quite wonderful - that is, there are many things to wonder at. Before I arrived I had been reading a little bit about the geography and history and had a sense of very quiet and simple existences - of Bedouin tribes and pearl fishing villages.  So when I see all the development, the contrast is striking; it seems even more marked than the modern urbanisation of Bangkok in the '80s and '90s because here in Doha 10 years seems already a long time ago.  This is especially so in terms of staffing: having just come from Oxford, where departments could have half a dozen staff with 150 or more years service between them.   In Doha, I guess this would be unheard of, so you really feel the newness of this incarnation!   In such a short timescale without really knowing what the future will bring it's inevitable that some construction plans are made somewhat hastily, but the overall direction towards a 'knowledge economy' and the investments in arts, culture and education seem laudable and I think will bear fruit.

I've seen or met quite a few people, yet I've hardly made any excursions.  When I asked about getting out and about on foot or by bus, I got a doubtful look; it does seem that most people just drive or use drivers, though I did see a few Mowasalat and other buses go by, particularly US-style yellow school buses.  It's really the multitude of people who have been passing through the hotel and whom I've met at the workplace.  For instance, some reception staff are from countries in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and Belorus; many Filipinos act as drivers and also room service staff; there are also Indonesians, particularly from Bali.   I met one staff member from Nepal and he had relatives in the UK (and knew about Joanna Lumley's support for the Gurkhas!)  Other drivers are from North Africa - e.g. Sudan - and South Asia, e.g. India and Pakistan; you soon realize that there are several continents and many nationalities within 3 hours flying time.   This is also reflected in the hotel laundry list, which for men includes items such as dish dash, gutra, Gahfia cap, and serwal.

At the office my colleagues (some of whom are on LinkedIn ) are from states/countries such as Qatar, US, Canada, India, Syria, Egypt, and Eritrea.  Several of my non-Qatari colleagues that they were born or brought up in Qatar, which initially surprised me, but then on reflection that is to be expected because, I think, for several decades the expat community has outnumbered the Qatari citizens.  Now the population of Qatar has exceeded 1.7 million, about 80% of whom are expats, many from other Arab countries, plus South Asia and the Philippines, whilst Westerners make up only a small minority.   However, I've not encountered so many people who are like myself of mixed ethnicity, at least not many in comparison with the UK, whose diversity has come from long-term immigration especially through Europe and Commonwealth connections.  I think that reflects the Islamic code of conduct around marriage, which is stricter than in secular society, plus the fact that many immigrants come here for relatively short contracts and ethnic communities here may be quite self-contained, though I don't know.

I work fairly standard office hours - compared with my previous jobs I start  early and finish early leaving plenty of time for the rest of the day.  However, some hours of work are evidently much longer: I was concerned to hear one driver declare that he offered a 24 hour service - "you can ring me at 2am and a driver will be there within 15 minutes."   "When do you sleep?" I asked.  "During my holidays!" came the reply.  In effect, when not driving, he's on call all the time.  Yet he was recommended to me because he has a reputation for being reliable.  I hope he doesn't get so many night time calls.

The Qatar Museums Authority is a quite large organisation with headquarters in a tower block; I use the staircase to get some exercise (10 flights of stairs to the floor where I work); so far I just walk, but one of my colleagues has been running and can race up them in 2 minutes or even less!

Here is a promotional video made in-house with QMA staff, aimed particularly at University students.

QMA has some UK links, particularly with University College London.  Here is another video, describing the partnership with the Qatar Foundation, Department of Culture and QMA:

The fields of cultural heritage and archeology seem to me a good match!

I never thought that I would become an expat - but somehow it happened.  You get a few reminders of your new offshore status, such as visiting UK news sites which display adverts offering super-charged pensions and salary schemes, trying to entice with "Free Report for BBC Readers in Qatar" or "Create your own personalised high interest offshore savings and investment design today!"  I think I'll stick to something simple, though I shall need to open a bank account soon, now that my residency permit and ID card have come through.

So far my experiences have been very positive - the Qatar I've experienced is buzzing with optimism, a 'can do' attitude.  And lest I get too busy, I can recall the words of Desiderata.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Arrival in Doha

Several people remarked ahead of my departure from the UK - especially those living in Doha - that the end of June was a surprising time to come to Qatar.  They made it patently clear that it's rather hot and with the month of Ramadan starting just 3 weeks after I arrived, access to facilities would be more limited during daylight hours.  So suitably forewarned and feeling daunted, I duly prepared by bringing with me factor 50 sun cream, a certified wide-brimmed hat, and my first ever pair of prescription sun glasses.

Perhaps that's why there was no queue at the airport (Heathrow terminal 4), though I had already checked in online, so it was just a baggage drop.  Actually the plane seemed to have plenty of passengers, though as far as I could tell most of them were carrying on from Doha to various other destinations in Africa and Asia.  My prospective employers, the QMA, had booked the flight for me and at my suggestion chose a flight during the day - it as the 13.15 departure and it arrived a few minutes early in Doha at 21.45. 

According to my uncle, when he was living in Doha about twenty years ago there was just the one hotel and it's still a familiar landmark:

Doha Sheraton
(photo shared by Viju Jose)

The pyramidal Doha Sheraton is now situated in what I'd like to call the foothills of the growing skyscraper mountain on the West Bay, buildings that would befit a huge city, perhaps a predictor of future growth (current population of Doha is less than 1 million according to some official statistics published in December 2011 by the Qatar Statistics Authority). Now there are dozens of hotels dotted around and I was booked to provisionally stay in one of them whilst my residency permit is being processed and then government accommodation will be allocated.

As a recent indication of the pace of growth, I purchased the latest 4th edition of the Explorer Guide to Living and Working in Qatar , which was out of stock in most places, but I somehow found one through Oxfam.  A new edition has appeared roughly each year since it was first published in 2006 with the next edition due in September this year.  It's a substantial tome, more in the style of a tourist guide; there are other books that are more revealing about the culture, such as Donna Marsh's The Middle East Unveiled: A cultural and practical guide for all Western business professionals   And, of course, there are many online sources of information of which appears very popular and informative.

The flight in was along the Gulf, over the water right the way from Kuwait, and when arriving at Doha it was really simple - the plane banked and then descended to touch down moments later, arriving early at 9.45pm (local) [=GMT+03.00 hrs].  We taxied a little way until we were near the transits/departure terminal.  A few minutes later we disembarked, stepped onto the tarmac and made our way to a shuttle bus which was ferrying passengers to departures for transits, and then to arrivals.  My father had reminded me that this would actually be my second touch-down at Doha airport since I had previously been there in 1988 with my mother en route to Bangkok, when the plane stopped to pick up some more passengers before proceeding to Muscat.

The queue at immigration was moderately long, but arriving passengers were being checked pretty quickly.  It was a chance to observe the various nationalities and dress - staff at the entry point to the queue were wearing western-style uniforms and looked oriental, whilst those at and around the immigration desk were wearing [I think] thawb (Arab robe garment), ghutra (headdress) and black egal (headband) and I guess they were Qataris.  Those queueing (mainly men) were probably, like me, coming to work, but were largely from the Middle East and South Asia.  After collecting baggage, and emerging from Customs, I soon found the hotel booth and was met by a representative from the hotel. 

As a stranger I was naturally keen to strike up a bit of conversation with anyone I met so I asked the rep about his background and he related that he was from Colombo and had been in Doha a couple of years.   The driver to the hotel was from Bangladesh and had been in Doha for 4 years, so he was able to describe some of the landscape for me, now lit up at night; it was now about 10.30pm and there was a lot of traffic as this was a day off for most people with many locals liking to walk along the Corniche after sunset.  (He confirmed that the Sheraton was the hotel back in '92.)  And then arriving at the hotel, I was received by reception staff were from Ukraine and Belorus respectively; it seemed different roles or strata in the services were typically represented by particular nationalities.

I had finally reached my destination and soon felt very comfortable in the hotel.   After some unpacking it was time to collapse into bed and sleep ...!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Opportunity knocks in the Middle East

It was with some reluctance that I left my post at the Museum of the History of Science, so why did I move on?

At the start of the year I was wondering where I might travel in 2012 (being credit crunched did not seem to prevent me from long distance travel in previous years :-).  Just a few weeks later, towards the end of January I received a message via LinkedIn inviting me to consider a career in Qatar.  After some discussion,  I established that this was concerning work in the I.T. department at the Qatar Museums Authority particularly in support of the KE EMu collections management software.  I then had an interview and afterwards a job offer.  It was a hard decision to make, to move away from the comforts and cultural delights of Oxford, but I felt I couldn't ignore this opportunity to explore another culture, gain experience, and potentially build up some savings. I also was reassured that I would have time to write my mother's biography.  So I accepted!

Not having worked abroad before I was unfamiliar with the steps needed to undertake the mobilisation and in this post I wish mainly to share some of what I learnt.  The main thing is to produce legalised copies of the highest level educational certificates (i.e. degree certificates) and similarly for the 'police clearance certificate'.  It took me about 2 months altogether to get these sorted, but I think this could have been reduced to about half that time.  Even then there is still for most people the need to give existing employers notice, which in my case was only 1 month.

Here is how I understand the process now I've been through it, together with a few tips in hindsight, but I make no claims about the accuracy of the information.

For certificates there are three basic steps:

Step 1: Certificates are notarised - notaries have legal powers to verify the authenticity of certificates.  In this case they confirm that a given certificate really was issued by such and such an institution.

Step 2: Legalisation.  The certificates are then sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth who confirm that a notary is duly authorised to act in that capacity.  I think in effect it means that all they are confirming is the authenticity of the notarial stamp and signature; they are not saying anything about the certificate itself!

Tip: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issue apostilles and charge per apostille.  In correspondence with them I learnt that a single apostille can apply to a notarial note that covers multiple documents, but this is only useful if the respective embassy accepts such an arrangement.  So to save cost, it may be worth checking this with the embassy in question before contacting the notary.

Step 3: Attesting by the embassy.  Once the documents have been legalised, they then need to be checked by the embassy of the state or country where you are moving to.

Some further notes and experiences:

re: Step 1: Degree certificates need to be notarised, which notaries typically carry out by contacting the registry for the respective institutions to seek confirmation from them.  Some solicitors have notarial authority also.

Tip: If the notary carries out these requests only infrequently and you have - as I had - several different universities to consult then to minimise the expense you can do most of the donkeywork beforehand by establishing the contact details and verification process (most universities have a set procedure).  Otherwise the notary will probably charge for the time it takes them to establish this; in my case having obtained these details I could arrange a fixed fee.

The response times varied quite a bit; the University web sites sometimes give an indication of how long it takes to process requests and during exam periods it can be several weeks.  In my case kudos to the University of Glasgow, Kingston University and the University of Oxford for not charging fees and promptly giving helpful respsonses.  The other university was the only  one that charged a fee and happened to be by far the slowest to respond - it took a pincer movement from the notary and myself to eventually extract the required information!  

re: Step 2: Legalisation.  If you follow to the letter the instructions on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Web site it's not difficult to complete the form and the response is pretty quick, but you do have to allow a few days as it can only be carried out by surface mail.  I had no problems.

re: Step 3: Embassy stamp.  I phoned up the Qatar Embassy and received a courteous and helpful response.  I was able to establish that I could send the documents in the post and didn't have to appear in person.  So I used Royal Mail Special Delivery both ways (return was prepaid - it requires, though, that embassy arranges for it to be handed over to Post Office staff).  The Qatar Embassy processed this very swiftly too.

What took me longer than expected was the 'police clearance certificate' (i.e. the criminal records check).  Being in Oxford I followed some instructions on the the Thames Valley Police Web site and sent off a completed form.  I received a prompt reply saying that the site was out of date and that I should go to another site.  In the meantime, the QMA directed me to Disclosures Scotland, which must have received a contract for handling such requests for the UK generally.  It's another form to fill in, which can be submitted online, together with supporting evidence of your address and identity.  However, curiously there didn't seem to be a way of submitting supporting evidence with the form - that had to be sent in a separate email, which seemed disjointed.

They say about 2 weeks should be allowed and that was about how long it took for me.

Tip: Give multiple instructions about having an authorised stamp and signature on the certificate so as to present for legalisation by the F&CO (and be prepared to phone to confirm that they will stamp and sign).

It may seem quite a lot of hassle (I had 'flu whilst filling in one form so I sent that one off more in hope than assurance!)  The QMA staff were very helpful and supportive; they didn't pressurise me, so it was fine just to proceed step by step.  By May I had submitted the required documents, handed in my notice, and was well into preparations for the move.  

Final tip: When making preparations to move to somewhere unusual or exotic, be ready for an increased social life (friends and relatives may naturally want to know more as well as say "Cheerio!")...!