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...

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