In 2006 I moved to Qatar and things are not what many people in North America would expect.I'm also a fan of skepticism and science so wondered how this works here in Qatar. Since I'm here for a while I figured I'd use the time to get to know this country better and with this blog you can learn along with me
Yesterday I made my annual trip out to see the Ramadan Cannon. Every Ramadan the Government sets up a cannon next to the State Mosque, which is fired when the sun sets to tell everyone that the fasting period has ended.
So off to the mosque.
It's in a beautiful location, on a small hill with one of the nicest views of West Bay.
As usual plenty of families were there. The military guys overseeing the cannon let kids climb on it.
By the way if you ever want to know where to get those military uniforms for children I suggest Souq Al Ali, a number of shops there carry them.
So as the time approaches the soldiers move the spectators to a safe distance.
... ready . . .
And then everyone heads back to their vechicles to drink something, have some dates and snacks, then go to iftar.
I had packed some food and water, but then I forgot it (smh) so I raced home to have iftar.
If you live in Doha you still have a chance to see it. The cannon is fired every day of Ramadan at around 6:15-6:20 (depending on when the sun sets).
So we're half-way through Ramadan. The Qatari holiday of Garangao was yesterday. I was at a friend's house that evening but he is in a new neighbourhood under construction so only one set of kids showed up. My friend was not expecting anyone at all so he didn't have anything prepared, he wound up giving them some oreos (lol).
I've been really good about not going to tons of Ramadan buffets at hotels and restaurants. I've only been to one so far and while I won't say I was just sticking to salads I did cut back a lot more than I would normally do. The buffets are lavish and have so many options that it's difficult to not overeat.
That is not to say I'm losing a ton of weight. While my iftar has been pretty good most of my evenings are spent at friends' majlises, and temptation is always around. Every majlis has stuff like this on hand:
Chips, chocolates, cookies, biscuits, you name it. And inevitably people bring desserts like cakes and donuts.
Sometimes healthy options are available though.
Then it's sohour time. Even on a weekday we will be eating around 1am. A lot of time it's delivery fast food (burgers, pizza) or Arabic takeaways. Once it was a more traditional platter of chicken on rice (not always as healthy as it might sound, sometimes a lot of oil is used when cooking), and sometimes we get subs, which are a bit healthier if they don't use mayo or high-cal sauces. I try to be good but at the same time you're starving, and your next decent meal will be in 17 hours, so you tuck in.
Hopefully I've maintained my weight or lost a little bit of weight so far.
Last night I met friends at a restaurant at Katara. It had been a while since I had been there so I went early to wander around and see what had changed. A lot it turns out.
Katara had some beautiful decorations up across the roads for Ramadan.
And a new section had opened, sort of a small, upscale mall with buildings that to me look Italian.
Not all of it had opened yet, there were a few cafes and restaurants and a number of clothing shops, the heart of it being the French Department store Galeries Lafayette. I didn't have a chance to go in and wander around but I'm assuming that it's high-end luxury brands inside. A number of Qataris were there shopping and enjoying the cafes.
What was most surprising, and it took me a minute to notice, was that the temperature was surprisingly cool outside. This new section had air conditioning bulit into the walkways, so even though I was outdoors it was still cool. When I left the area to go to the rest of Katara the temperature increased sharply.
So with the new section there are a lot of restaurants and cafes at Katara now. Luckily there is a Metro station at Katara (opening soon), which will make it a lot easier for people to get there.
Also new, at the far end of Katara, on Shakespeare Street, the parking lot at the end now had a ton of small kiosks selling various food, similar to what is happening at Qatar Sports Club and Lekhwiya Club. So now there are even more food choices.
I left there and headed to the restaurant to meet my friends, walking along the beach to take in the view. Katara has developed into a really nice place. While some of it is underutilized (like the amphitheater) there is more to do there now and it has some of the best views in the city. Hopefully the Metro station will open soon and allow it to be busier.
I took the metro again on Thursday and the train was pretty busy with commuters, around 90% of the seats were occupied. This was good to see as it probably meant and just my train alone kept 50-70 cars off the road.
Staff at the stations were handing out pocket maps of the metro.
I took a look through it and it contained a lot of information about how the metro would run normally instead of during the soft opening, which was good as it allayed some of my worries about how this was going to work.
-- the full network of three lines (Red, Green and Gold) will be open by or during 2020
-- when the full network is open (hopefully sooner than that for the Red Line) it operating hours will be 05:00 until 01:00 (5am until 1am), except Fridays where it will be 09:00 - 01:00. -- while at standard times trains will run every 5 minutes during peak hours it will be every 3 minutes -- peak hours will be 6am to 8am, noon-2pm, and 5pm to 7pm -- late in the evenings the trains will only run every 7 1/2 minutes
-- you're allowed to bring luggage on the train. A maximum of two bags per person, no bigger than 85cm x 60cm x 30cm (the size of a large suitcase). Thumbs up to Doha Metro for allowing luggage, while you might think it would be common sense for a metro that goes to the Airport to allow luggage the Dubai metro does not allow luggage (or maybe it does now, it's been years since I've been).
-- no animals allowed. I assume that does not include service dogs but now that I think about it I have never seen a service dog here.
-- multi-line tram service will start in Lusail in 2020.
-- regular fares at QAR 2 for a one-way trip, there are no zones so you could go from Wakra to Mall of Qatar (about a 30km trip) for 2 riyal!
-- Gold fares, allowing you in the Gold (first-class) cars are QAR 10 for a one-way trip.
A couple of people mentioned to me that Qataris will probably not use the metro. Um, yeah, it was not meant for them. Most Qataris now live in homes in the suburbs, especially in the Northern areas of town, and the Metro will not have stations in those neighborhoods. The Metro targets high-density areas and commuter routes (such as Wakra to West Bay). The metro is primarily for low-middle income users. Qataris can enjoy the lighter traffic.
As for my commute to work on Thursday I timed how long it took from my apartment building to get to my office. Door-to-door was 37 minutes, and I just missed the train so I had to wait 5 minutes for the next one, so on average it should be 30-35 minutes.
That's pretty good because here's the alternative.
Hopefully, in time, crazy rush hour traffic will be a thing in the past.
Monday evening there was news going around that the Doha Metro was going to open its first line, the Red Line, on May 8, going from Wakra, extending up the Corniche/coast and into West Bay. And it so happens that my apartment is near a Red Line station, as is my office in West Bay, so I decided to take the Metro on its first day of operation.
I headed out to the station at around 8:20am.
There is still some construction to do. A multi-storey parking garage right next to the station is going to take a while yet, but it is a good idea to have a space where people can park close to the station. I hope people who might not be within walking distance of the station take advantage of these parkades to drive a short distance then take the Metro.
This is a soft opening so the hours are limited. At least I hope these hours are just for the soft opening. 8am is just too late for the first train for people trying to commute to an office in the morning. In Ramadan it might be okay, many offices open at 9am during the Holy Month, but outside of Ramadan people start and commute way earlier than 8am. I'm sure the hours and eventually change, and include the weekends.
Down a couple of escalators and onward to the spacious hall.
There were only two ticket machines, and one of them wasn't working when I tried it. Thankfully the other machine worked. There was a manned booth nearby where you can purchase cards (I'm guessing here) but having only two machines seems low, should have been at least three I think.
I bought a rechargeable pass. It costs QAR 10 to get the pass and you can charge it up with however much riyal you want. I bought QAR 50 worth of credit so in total I paid 60. The machine accepted cash without any problem. You then just tap the cards at the gate to enter/exit, similar to Oyster Cards in London.
Onward to the platform.
Trains were every 5 minutes. There was plenty of signage everywhere.
There are different classes of train car, in the front is "Gold Class", which had much nicer seats (I caught a glimpse on my way home but didn't get a picture). I think the second car might have been ladies or family only but I'm not sure. Dubai was like that but I might be projecting.
The seats were upholstered and reasonably comfortable, nothing too fancy. And there were electronic signs showing the stations on the route and where the car was.
Now for where the Metro really shines -- the speed. The train accelerates and decelerate smoothly but it is fast. I had to go three stations to get to the DECC stop in West Bay and from the moment the train started in took less than 7 minutes to get to DECC station, including the time stopping at the other two stations. 7 minutes!! My typical driving time in morning traffic to get there? 25-30 minutes. Wow! Make sure you're sitting down or holding on to something when the train moves though. Oh, and the price was QAR 2 (~US$0.54) for a one-way trip. I don't think the price depends on the distance either, none of the signs I saw had any kind of zoning typical for increased fares after a certain distance. I'm sure that can't be right though, QAR 2 to go from Wakra to West Bay would be an amazing deal.
So I got out at DECC station (the Exhibition Centre in West Bay). It will be a main station for the Metro and they are planning for cafes and other shops to be there.
The station is right next to City Centre Mall so I was hoping there would be some tunnel or quick connection to get into the mall. Instead I saw this:
That's not the Metro's fault though but it was a bit disappointing. City Centre should be building some kind of connection. As it was I had to walk through the heat to get to the mall, quickly pass through, then go back into the heat to cross the street to the office. It was not ideal and I was sweating a bit by the time I reached the building. I went on the Qatar Rail website and it looks like there will be busses that will go around West Bay and that you can reach your office building without hiking in the heat. I don't think it was operational yet though.
While the Metro wasn't too busy in the morning in the afternoon it was a different story. We'll see if this is typical or if this was people just trying out the Metro.
So all-in-all it was good. I do not have to worry about facing the morning traffic, finding parking on the street, and keeping my car in the hot sun all day. The Metro was faster than driving but with the additional walking time to and from the stations I figure that it evened out. But saving wear-and-tear on the car, being more environmentally friendly, and commuting for $1 a day? Amazing.
This is only the beginning though for the Metro. There are more stations to open (especially looking forward to the opening of the one at the Airport) and two more Metro lines, which will open in the next year. Until the parking garages are built I can see that only people living very close to a station, like me, will use it, and only then if their destination is very close to a station, but in time ridership will increase. I will continue to use it during Ramadan, but won't be able to for the rest of the summer unless the starting hours shift and the Metro starts earlier.
Ramadan started off with an alarm ringing at 3:10am, so that I could get up and have my sohour meal before first light appeared to inform the world that it was time to fast. Being roused from a deep sleep was annoying but I got up and ate the meal on the nightstand. It took me a while to get back to sleep though.
What I forgot about was how bad the traffic would be in the morning. Almost everywhere is on reduced hours and they all start at the same time (at least it appeared to be that way) so everyone is driving to work together. Usually there are staggered hours, most Ministries and Government offices start at 7 or 7:30, other offices at 8 or 9, but now the Ministries are on 9 to 2 as is everyone else. Traffic was worse than usual, yet when I looked out the office windows an hour-and-a-half later the streets had only light traffic. Repeat when work finishes. I came in a half-hour early so that I could leave a half-hour early and beat the rush. It didn't help. Still took double the usual time to get home. Combine that with the fact that everyone is hungry, thirsty, and possibly craving a smoke, and it makes for a bit of tension on the roads. You need to be extra careful as people are more impatient and more likely to quickly switch lanes and speed around.
Got home, and despite having a decent night's sleep I still felt lethargic and wound up napping for an hour. Wasn't feeling great after waking up, a little headachey, which I'm guessing is residual caffeine withdrawal.
Got my iftar prepared:
Vegetable soup with pasta, apple, dates, a hard-boiled egg, slice of wheat bread and two rice cakes, and lots of water of course. No nuts this time, I'm going to try to replace high-calorie nuts with eggs or tuna as the protein. As for dates Muslims will eat an odd number of them when breaking the fast -- it's a hadith that the Prophet would eat an odd number.
It's a bigger meal than most Muslims will eat, they have to go to prayer so they will usually eat a lighter meal, go to prayer, then eat a bigger meal when they return.
It's almost time, just waiting for the call from the mosques to indicate when you can break the fast. If there isn't much noise I can also hear the Ramadan Cannon. I'm sure I'll feel fine after eating.
The month of Ramadan has officially started. I happened to be playing padel tennis with some friends as the sun was setting when suddenly we heard a series of thundering booms. It was the Ramadan Cannon at the State Mosque, which happened to be nearby. The Cannon was fired four or five times to tell everyone that Ramadan has arrived and the Holy Month has begun.
So time to get meals prepared. The first prayer of the day is at 3:32am so you have to eat the final meal a bit before that, then you fast for the rest of the day, until just after 6pm. No food, not even water. What I always do is keep a meal on my nightstand (dry cereal, nuts, fruit, anything easy to grab and eat in the dark) along with two big glasses of water and a glass of laban. I will be setting an alarm for 3:10am, eat the meal, then go back to bed. Muslims won't be going to sleep, they've got to go pray, hopefully getting a bit more sleep after they return from prayers before heading off to work.
Work hours are reduced because Muslims are fasting. My office has 5-hour work days during Ramadan, but naturally no lunch break. Not that a lunch break would matter much, all the restaurants are closed during the day and eating or drinking in public during the day is a major faux pas. It can be serious, if police are around they'll ask you to stop.
While fasting you can't smoke either so smokers can really suffer, and like food & drink you can't smoke in public during the day. You would think more people would take this opportunity to quit smoking but it seems like smokers just bear with it. Here's hoping for a great Holy Month. Ramadan Kareem everyone!
Another year, and another Ramadan is upon us. My understanding is that the Ministry will be looking for the Moon tonight (which will signify the beginning of the new month in the Islamic calendar). If they spot it then Ramadan begins and fasting starts tomorrow. Otherwise they will look for it the following night and fasting will start on Monday.
As usual I will be fasting like most people here. The first couple of days will be a challenge but after that you get into a groove and it's not so difficult to manage. I've already been working on decaffinating and now I barely drink any caffeinated beverages. Going cold-turkey on caffeine would be the worst and I'm not sure how many people do it. Some of my friends have said, "You get headaches for a couple of days then it's fine", ummm, that's not fine, going through caffeine withdrawal is not my idea of a good time when you're not allowed to eat or drink anything during the day.
Just need to do a bit of shopping to stock up on supplies. If I can keep the Iftar's small, and get out of the apartment so that I'm not tempted to snack, I might actually lose a bit of weight this month. We'll see.
Hard to believe but the 1st of May will mark my 13th year in Qatar. 13 years! I never would have guessed that I would have been here this long.
Coming here was a straight-forward expat story. I was looking for a new job and it so happened that a former colleague had moved to Qatar so when his office was looking for someone with my background he sent me an email to see if I would be interested in applying. A couple of interviews later and I had the job so I packed up and moved to Qatar. Aside from flying in for the interview (and for that I was here less than 24 hours) I had never been to the Middle East before. But it wasn’t the first time I packed up my life and moved somewhere I wasn’t familiar with, when I took a job in Bermuda I hadn’t even been flown in for the interview so I already had accepted the job when I moved there. I like travelling and seeing new places so it wasn’t as intimidating as it might be for many. Being single helped too.
When I arrived Qatar was already in the grips of large-scale change as the Emir was ambitiously transforming the country. Skyscrapers were going up, roads were being built, new malls and museums were under construction, new apartment buildings and compounds were going up everywhere, and Qatar Airways was growing like crazy. When I arrived the population was something like 850,000 people, now it’s 2.7 million. It’s a staggering average growth of 9% a year, and that’s through the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 slowdown due to the oil price drop so in fact most years it was more, I think in the early days 15% population growth was fairly standard. Construction couldn’t keep up with demand and for a long time the rental prices for homes and offices were sky-high. Everything was challenged by the growth. Ever been to a car dealership where staff didn’t bother you? I have. They didn’t need to bother you, the cars were selling as fast as they were bringing them in so if you weren’t buying it didn’t matter, someone would.
Thankfully the pressure has eased and population growth has slowed somewhat, with the population growing only 50,000 or so a year (only!). Vacancies are up and rents have been easing to a more affordable range. Traffic is still bad though, hopefully when the Metro is finished it will ease things a bit.
Being in Qatar this long has made me an ‘old-timer’ amongst a lot of expats. I actually get gasps of disbelief sometimes when I tell someone how long I’ve been here. I think it’s odd, plenty of expats have been here longer than I have, but in expat circles it seems like 3-5 years is the norm before you move on. My office has something like 100 employees and only two of them have been there longer than I have so I suppose frequent turnover does happen. I think some of the issue has to do with how in the early days there was not a lot to do. Most of the amenities and shopping areas that people use now did not exist when I first arrived: three-quarters of the buildings, 80% of the hotels, most of the malls, Souq Waqif, Katara, the Pearl, Aspire Zone, the museums, they weren’t here. I remember when a new hotel would open, EVERYONE went there (if it served alcohol as hotels were the only new things to get a liquor license), and for the next month it would pretty much be the only place anyone wanted to go. It was somewhere new! Now a new hotel opens and it’s just not an event, there’s tons of hotels so a new one is lost under the radar. I just found out a new 5-star hotel opened months ago. In the early days everyone would be talking weeks in advance of its opening. Not that I go to bars much anymore.
It's surprising how over time my friend group had fewer and fewer Western expats and instead it slowly became more Muslim and Arab. Hence why I do not go to bars anymore, none of my friends drink. I count myself fortunate to have a lot of local friends now, I think it really helped me to settle in and stay for the long-term. In the early days I probably would not have had an issue leaving after 4-5 years if a good enough opportunity came along, now it is not as easy, why abandon a comfortable life to start anew? In other words, I’m not in a rush to go anywhere. Not saying it’s not impossible, life happens and circumstances change, but so far the plan is to be here for anniversary number 14.
In the last few weeks I’ve noticed that cafes are now displaying nutritional information, including calorie counts, of their food and drinks. When I saw Tim Hortons doing it I thought it was a nice thing for them to be doing, but when I noticed a second cafe, then a third, also displaying it that’s when I knew it must have been a change in the law.
I didn’t recall hearing an announcement about that so a quick internet search showed that it wasn’t a recent change. The Ministry of Economy had announced it in mid-2018 but first did a six-month pilot project before it would roll out the new requirements. Looks like the pilot phase is finished and cafes have started putting up signs.
I definitely welcome this change. Trying to figure out the calories in prepared foods can be a real challenge and most times people watching calories tend to under-estimate the amount of calories in a meal. Sometimes logic and instinct don’t work – you’d think that vegetarian falafel sandwich would have fewer calories than the steak and cheese, right? Nope, the falafel is deep-fried and (I’m guessing) comes with high-calorie tahini sauce. Displaying calories and other information has definitely been a wake-up call about some of the things I used to order and I’ve switched to other lower-calorie items.
There are still some challenges with the new rules that the Ministry should issue clarification on. One place gave the nutrition information ‘per 100 grams’, but then doesn’t tell you the weight of the sandwich or muffin. Why not just tell you how many calories are in the entire sandwich? Another cafe displayed calories counts of around 220-280 for most of their sandwiches, I’m a bit skeptical about that and I’m betting that’s for ½ a sandwich or per 100 grams or something like that. The Ministry should tighten the guidelines on this and just tell you the calories in the entire item.
And as far as I can tell it’s only cafes that have been displaying the nutritional information. In the past few weeks I’ve been to three restaurants that I frequent and so far none of them have changed the menus to display the calories. Maybe they have a longer time to phase it in, or maybe it’s optional. Nandos just announced updated menus, hopefully others will follow suit shortly. [update: apparently the rules are different for franchise restaurants vs single-owned places]
The next step would be more education around nutrition. Qataris and other Gulf Arabs have some of the highest obesity rates in the world so need to be more mindful about calories, salt and other issues around food nutrition. Telling someone a meal is 1000 calories doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how many calories you should be eating in a day.