Qataris love their cars. Living in a society with little public transport, an abundance of government help, a serious lack of evening entertainment outside of family and having a coffee with friends and a still very rural mindset, Qatari men in particular love their cars. They don’t simply play a functional role but provide an outlet for people to escape the stricture of society. A drive out for a coffee with friends (of the same-sex) is a vital pressure valve.
As you can imagine, with the money available here and the ridiculous salaries for locals, the cars are pretty flash. The car park at work (which I can’t photograph for you for security reasons) is full of high-end SUVs, Mercedes, Porsche and BMWs. At 5pm on a Thursday there is an unofficial parade of supercars along the Corniche. With petrol prices only just above cost and prestige found in status, having a few expensive cars is a given. As 5-star hotels are the only places to hang out in for the locals, the concierge has a decent job taking the keys.
It’s not only for Qataris though. The Lebanese men, the flashiest and most money-orientated of the Arabs are not far behind. The state of the roads would leave me with more concern. Women in Qatar can drive and often do. However they just as often have a family driver, usually an Indian or Sri Lankan who takes and picks them up from ‘work’ and waits outside shops as they peruse. The number plates seems adds prestige. The plates are simply in registration order. The older the registration, the lower the plate number dating some back to the 1960s. These now have an auction value to them. The lowest I’ve seen is #340 worth approximately 700,000r or 120,000 pounds! (update: I spotted 127 in the Ministry car park).
For a country with such an organised traffic system, so many lights and so much money, I’ve never seen such dangerous roads. The white pick-ups are the white vans of these roads. Driven by Indians from the lower echelons of society, cutting in or across lanes is done with looking. The sense is ambivalence is astonishing.The roads are dangerous for the usual obvious reasons of speed but mostly carelessness, non-wearing of seatbelts and non-enforcement of the law by the police.
Further, the sight of drivers on their mobiles, kids standing between the front seats, drivers simply pulling into lanes without indicating makes you wonder about the sanctity of life. I have heard the comment that it was God’s will. 200 people are killed a year out of 4,000 accidents. It doesn’t sound a lot but this is a country with one real city. I see an accident every day. Last night there were deaths just down the road. Blood on the road is not unusual. The price of dangerous roads to the whole economy can be found here but within the GCC road-deaths are the third highest cause of death. In Sweden last year one child under the age of 7 died in a road accident.
The sight of bike riders bring out nostalgia and admiration in myself and probably shock in the locals. The new Emir is trying to improve the situation by announcing that every child born in a hospital will be given a car seat. A good move but it’s the police that need to enforce it. Further the old roundabouts which added a bit of charm to the roads are being bulldozed to become American-style junctions. While roundabouts are actually more efficient, when careless drivers abound, it’s better to keep it simple. There are now fines for jumping red lights of 10,000r ($2,500) and a 45 day prison sentence. But guess what, Qataris only have to pay the fine!
There is public transport in Doha but it serves infrequently and irregularly. The buses stop in the early evening and after that taxis remain the only way of getting around. They are cheap but are sometimes selective about their destination. Your best bet is simply to jump in and say your destination giving little time for debate.
The country is busy building an underground system right now due to open well before the World Cup. Who will use it I don’t know. The segregation into levels means the lowest workers get bussed around from the cargo containers they live in to the construction sites. If you can afford a car, petrol is so cheap, you get one. The expats are well-taken care of and the Qataris will never use it. Subway systems allow to go out without needing the car. It means you can have a drink and still get home. But when 6 months of the year the weather is so hot, you try to avoid walking outside at all who is going to walk to and from the stations? Like the World Cup, it’s another white elephant.
The discomfort of walking or spending time outside here can be exaggerated but the utility of and prevalence of parks and pavements is a serious oversight. Despite the lovely weather right now, we’re unable to walk around. Parks remain empty. Pavements are potted or non-existent. But walking and self-health responsibility isn’t on the radar.
It’s important to state the Qatari Government is trying. They have many initiatives and events and excellent facilities are provided for a cheap price. The upcoming Sports Day is a nice touch but when you have to pay 20 euros to enter, it takes the motivation and fun out of the run. The lack of public swimming pools is an issue. They have to be segregated or you need to go to a hotel to use them. Gyms are available and women’s sport is especially encouraged but alas with such weather, little public transport and an ingrained sense of car, its not making much progress.
Hell I miss skateboarders.
And seeing a Ferrari being taken back to the garage on the back of a truck is very funny. The roads just aren’t built for them.