In a Better Mood: Clean & Friendly Doha

When I glance back at my recent entries, I see I was not in the optimum mood.  It really helps to get out and meet people.  

Below is the moon over Doha Islamic Center, a very interesting spiral building as you can see. 

I didn’t expect to get to see Doha, but fortunately some of the guys stationed on the base thought of a reason to get us out and so we went to a restaurant in town and got to walk around the market.   I could not see as much because it was dark, but I suspect there was not much in the market to see that wasn’t lit up anyway.  I regret not seeing more of Doha itself, although I don’t think there was more than a day’s worth of looking, it seemed a nice place. People who like to shop would like it here, IMO.

The streets were very clean and lively and prices were reasonable.  I paid about $15 for my meal at a nice restaurant.  Coffee at a place that looked like Starbucks was around $2.  

The market had all kinds of goods, not all of them directed at tourists. The most interesting shop sold falcons – yes, the birds – and falconer supplies. There are probably not many stores like that around. Falconry is a popular sport among the rich around the Arab world. The falcons hunt other birds and small animals like rabbits. The return in terms of meat per unit of input is low. It is a luxury, which is why it has always been the sport of nobles or people with lots of resources and time on their hands. It requires patience to train the birds and knowledge of the environment to deploy them to hunt and it probably becomes part of a whole lifestyle.

The falcons in the shop didn’t do anything interesting, although it was interesting to look at them for a short time.  I didn’t ask how much they cost and the store proprietor didn’t try to sell me anything.  I expect he could easily tell that I was just a looker and not a falcon enthusiast.   My guess is that most people who come through his shop don’t intend to buy anything and he has become accustomed to the gawking traffic.

It was good to get out of camp.  The whole trip will now have a better place in my memory.  Living in the cans is no fun.  The cans in Al Asad were better because they were outside and your window got natural light.  Beyond that, I have a roommate here.   He is a good guy, one of my coworkers, but I would prefer my own place. The cans here are stacked on top of each other and all of them are housed in an enormous warehouse.   It is like living in a giant steel hive. 

We also work inside a big steel warehouse with little tents or boxes set up as rooms.   It is sort of like an exhibition hall.  We don’t have enough computers to go around, so there are a few of us always made redundant.  W/o computers, you really cannot do much work in a modern office setting.  I am not sure why they brought us all the way here for this work.  I suppose it is cheaper than sending us to an offsite in W. Virginia or Florida, or even keeping us in Washington, where most of my colleagues have to be in TDY.  I am an extraordinarily good deal for them, since I live in N. Virginia and they don’t have to pay me for hotel or meals.  Once they pay the air fare, there is not much variable cost in having us work in Doha.  They already have the hives and the chow hall is cheaper than per Diem.  Actually they give us per Diem – $3.50 a day – for incidentals.  I would say that I shouldn’t spend it all in one spot, but I already did. 

I had to buy toothpaste and a couple pair of socks, which I forgot.  While I was there I got a nice shirt and some junk food.   Strictly speaking it did not take up the whole ten days per Diem, which comes to $35.00.   When you get to my level, you get the big bucks.

Flying to Doha

Another post out of chronological order. 


I dreaded the flight to Doha.  When I got to the ticket counter, they couldn’t find my reservation.   I had a momentary feeling of guilt mixed with relief that I could avoid the trip.   It would not really have helped, however, I would just have to go the next day and meanwhile it would have been a lot of trouble.  They found my reservation, but not my seat so I got an exit row with a lot of leg room.  Sometimes it pays to be oppressed and forgotten.   I got better than I expected.

I was listening to an audio book re expectations.  People enjoy more things that are more expensive or harder to get.  The placebo effect works because of expectations.  People get real fake drugs because they think they will.  And they get better relief from more expensive placebos because they perceive higher quality.  You get what you pay for.  Maybe it will never be possible to get really cheap drugs because people may get the relief they expect and they expect less when things cost less.

The mind makes it so.  I was telling Chrissy re conditions in Iraq.  As I described the sand, snakes, scorpions, heat, hardness, fumes, bouncing and hazards, I realized how objectively it was horrible.  But it was not that bad.   All these bad things were balanced by the sense of purpose, friendship, the experience and the fact that I chose to do it. The interesting distinction is that the hard parts are all objective.  It is hot, or not, sandy or not etc.   The things that mitigate it are all subjective.  Within broad bounds, the actual physical experience is a lot less important than how you chose to react. 

Doha 1:  Arabs Like America (When They Actually Experience It)

I talked to a young guy called Josef on the plane.   He is native to these parts but currently attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.    He confirmed some of what I heard about Doha.   He proudly told me that the natives all get things like free health care and scholarships.  Many attend university in foreign countries as he did.   They get this with the added benefit of not paying taxes.  All this largess is made possible by the hydrocarbons created by plants and animals in the days of the dinosaurs and before.   Talk about the luck of the draw.  

I am glad, BTW, that he brings some of this Doha money to Virginia paying out-of-state tuition.   It is still a good deal.  Education is a big deal of us in the U.S.   Last year we had more foreign students than ever in the U.S.  and the U.S. hosts more foreign students than any other country.    We had a little dip after 9/11, because of visa problems etc.  but we made up for it. 

Josef told me that he loved America.   Since he started the conversation and seemed so enthusiastic, I will accept that he didn’t say that only for my benefit.    Personal experience trumps the statistical study and he said that Americans all over our country (he travelled a lot) were nice to him and welcoming.   Now if we could just get all those other billion people to have a similar experience with real America, we wouldn’t have an image problem.

Doha 2:  Caste Systems

 It is an odd mix.   All the stewardesses (there seem to have been no men) on Qatar Airlines are Asian.   I think they were Indonesian.    All the people doing construction looked like South Asians and there people from the Philippines crowded the airport on their way to work as domestic laborers.    The population of native Doha people is small and they don’t seem to take part in the everyday work of the country.   

It is not so strange that immigrants do the less attractive jobs in a country as rich as this, but it is odd, IMO, how there seems to be such complete national specialization.    I understand that my observations are limited and I should not extrapolate to the general condition from the small sample I have seen, but I have never seen anything like it.   It is all very neat.  I don’t know if it results from a plan or is just self organizing and auto correlated.   Both things must be at work. 

I thought re alternative histories.  What if WWI had not sapped the power of the British and they had held onto their empire for a longer time.    Given the general trends, it probably would have developed into something more integrated and you may well have others from the empire making their way up the social and political latter.   It happened in the Roman Empire, as full citizenship was extended until it encompassed the entire empire, so much so that people from the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor, speaking Greek still called themselves Roman a thousand years after the German barbarians kicked out the last emperor in Rome itself.

Anyway, in the age of imperialism, a place like Qatar or the oil rich and easily defended deserts of Arabia would be controlled by some imperial power.   I figure the Brits would have it, but given the evolution mentioned above, it might be actually run by Indians, citizens of a British Empire with an increasingly Indian accent.   That integration of Arabia with South Asia may yet happen.   If they keep on coming, there will be more of them than the ostensible natives. 

Trails Around a Featureless Camp in a Featureless Desert

The dates of these posts are out of order.  I didn’t have Internet.  I could not take pictures of the buildings in camp or the running trails, but imagine a parking lot paved with crushed stone surrounding a maintenance facility and you got it.

Below is the hall outside my quarters.  This is how it looks day or night. I am on the second floor.

Yesterday and today I ran around the trail that follows the perimeter of the camp. It is five kilometers long.  (Although I doubt the veracity of that claim since it is obviously taking me too long to run around it). The surface is good for running and the terrain is phenomenally flat. It is not a hard run, but it is boring. You can only tell how far you have come by looking at your watch. I suppose after a while I will notice differences.  Maybe not, since I am running at night. Actually not night, but it gets dark at around 5pm. The trail is well lit, so there is no unusual falling hazard or chance of smacking into stationary objects. 

The full moon was out today, which made the run more pleasant, as far as it is possible. It gets warm during the day, but is nice and cool in the evening. The weather has been great. If the place was more interesting, it would be really nice. Compared with this place, however, Al Asad is paradise. Well, maybe not paradise but much nicer.  

Below is my room.

My discomfort is exacerbated by the jailhouse conditions of the cans. We are in a warehouse stacked on top of each other, literally. There is no connection to the outside and the window has the perpetual dull glow of artificial light. You cannot tell the nighttime from the day w/o looking at your watch. I like to be able to see the natural light.  I saw a Sci-Fi movie with Sean Connery. I think it was called “Outland” about a mining colony on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. It is that kind of place.

Oh Sleep, it is a gentle thing; beloved from pole to pole

I have given up sleeping, or put more correctly I don’t sleep much during the nights.   I still have not adjusted to the jet lag and the conditions.   I wake up during the night, impatient for the dawn.   Today I got up at yesterday I got up at 530 and went running.  Today I got up at 330 and wrote on the computer.   Actually, I went to the MWR where they have a wireless internet connection, which is why I can post this entry. 

This sleeping problem is unusual for me.   I am usually more adaptive.   But this is a weird place.  If I had to mention one problem it would be the air conditioning.   You cannot turn off the vent.  Cold air blows in unremittingly and there is a steady draft, more like a 5 mph wind, throughout the can.

Anyway, I have been sitting here for a couple of hours.  I have written some entries which I will post when I hitch them up with pictures.  

Later today I have to make a presentation.   Despite my fatigue, I am confident that it will go well. I am ready to go.   I feel tired all the time but not acutely so.  I can easily make it the next couple of days.   I will be glad to be out of here.  

I should leave the Middle East to those more in tune with its idiosyncracies.  I don’t understand its politics or habits.  Who builds a ski slope in one of the world’s hottest places?   It is unnatural in the most basic sense.  The pleasure palaces are like Las Vegas on steroids.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  There is a problem of unearned wealth all over, but there is so much more of it around here.  It is the classic rent seeking behavior.   The locals provide little of the management and almost none of the labor or technology that produces the resource.     

Wealth w/o effort is a moral hazard and the easy flow of oil explains lots of the troubles.   This is the only region of the world w/o any real democracies.   If the rulers can live off revenue pumped out of the sand through the efforts of others, they don’t have to consult the people who might actually produce something.   The wealth can  be used to placate or out flank opposition.  Even more perniciously, such easy wealth destroys initiative and honest work.   Why should anybody work for chump change when he can jump on the oil bandwagon of at least live off its droppings?

There will be momentary pinch now that the price of oil is falling off from it unsustainable highs, but we will not learn the lesson.   The low prices drive out alternative fuels and bankrupt innovators.  Then the price of oil goes up again.   We need a carbon tax and now is the time to put it on.   We have to take the pain in the short term for a better future.  

Well these are the extent of my predawn thoughts after the days and nights of poor sleep.  I believe I will wander over to the chow hall.  It opens soon for breakfast.  My IPOD has just begun playing “Hotel California.”  Fitting.

Flying to Doha

I am at home today getting ready to go to Doha tonight, where I will meet colleagues to work on our strategy paper.  I am unenthusiastic about the journey.    It is something like 16 hours on Qatar Airlines in an economy class middle seat.  It is officially a United flight, so I hoped that I could use my United miles to upgrade, but this is evidently not possible with a code share like this.

I don’t have many complaints about flying and I think that all that gnashing of teeth about passengers’ bills of rights is exaggerated.   Travel sucks by its very nature.  You just have to get used to it.  Most of us (me too) are unwilling to pay extra for business class seats, so we get stuck in the cattle car class.    In other words, we get what we pay for.    It will be an ordeal. 

Many people think diplomats travel first class. No, our government is not that generous. We fly economy unless we upgrade ourselves.  They used to have a rule that we could fly business class if we had to be on the plane for more than fourteen hours.  No more, except if you can claim that you have to go to work immediately on landing or you can assert a credible disability.   Being too tall to fit comfortably in the seats doesn’t qualify.   

I sat next to a fat guy on my last trip home.  He wanted to put up the arm rest so that he could flow into my seat too.   He complained about the injustice of air travel when I told him no.    Being fat is increasingly being classified as a disability.   A Canadian court has ruled that airlines have to give a free extra seat to the will-power challenged among us.   By that logic, they should have to give more leg room to anybody over 5’10” tall, maybe extra luggage space to those who just have to bring along more stuff than they can use.   Maybe a passenger bill of rights would handle all these permutations and produce a kind of Malthusian solution.  If we do it completely, it will drive the price of flying so high that almost nobody will be able to afford to fly anyway and it will be pleasant for the survivors. 

I don’t think Doha will be much fun.  We have to stay in the camp the whole time.   They say that there is a running trail around the camp that is around 3.5 miles.  The nice thing re Al Asad was that the base was big.   There was not much variety, but it spread over twenty-two square mile and I had more space than I could run over.   3.5 miles is actually enough for most of my runs these days, but the idea that there is no more bothers me.  I like to know I could go farther if the spirit moved me.   I can take the limited horizons for two weeks.    I hear that they have a pool in Doha.   It is like a holiday camp.   That is the way I am taking it.   The weather should be nice this time of year.