Doha The Post-Accumulation City

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Qatar National Convention Centre, Doha.

[An excerpt from an article published in Perspecta 47: Money. You can download the article here.]

It seemed, at least for a while, that cities (world cities, developing cities, instant cities, ghost cities, hub cities) were in an unfettered race to gain, or maintain, “world-class” status. For better or worse, no institution or group has yet to define what “world-class” means. However vague the term and its associated rating indices remain, pursuit of a definition has generated billions of dollars of development and countless unrealized skyline proposals. Architects continue to draw images for projects that are supposed to attract global capital or, in PR language, to put a city “on the map.” In every case of chasing world-class status, it is hoped that after so much new development, lifestyle experiences, and tourist attractions a tipping point will be reached; that some sort of global approbation will kick in and allow a city to rest on its laurels. But that moment is never reached.

As early as the mid-1980s, David Harvey grasped the role cities had defined for themselves for the coming decades:

Urban regions compete for employment, investment, new technologies, and the like by offering unique packages of physical and social infrastructures, qualities and quantities of labor power, input costs, life-styles, tax systems, environmental qualities and the like.1

Whereas cities might have also been once locales of production, Harvey describes the subsequent phase of cities wherein a survival scenario reduces the city to a repository for drifting global capital. Built or proposed skylines along with promised corporate services encapsulated a city’s means toward legitimacy through the attraction and absorption of that capital. Beyond just the physical forms of skyscrapers, office parks, and convention centers, Harvey also pointed to soft strategies that characterized any city’s pursuit of longevity. Even the most seemingly stable and permanent of cities, like New York and London, search for success by means of now too often recycled tactics. They line up with brochures of perks and freebies to attract the latest transnational looking for a bargain-price headquarters. Therefore one should contest Harvey’s use of the word “unique” as the competition has resulted in not many more ideas than increasing levels of tax breaks, zoning bonuses, and disingenuous panderings to the “creative class.”

Cities increasingly have had to define themselves in contrast to other ones, despite the fact they are almost all fixated on similar, if not the same, strategies. So while “new wealth” seemed to be created through ongoing urban development, city governments reacted as if there was less of it to go around. Global rankings and seemingly transparent competitions for hosting rights to countless conferences and global events consistently raised the stakes to which mayors had to respond. By 2008, this urbanism brinkmanship had reached its apparent endgame, with Dubai epitomizing for many the extravagances and platitudes of city score-card tallying (though Dubai arguably initiated its competitive edge much earlier than most other cities). Beginning in 2008, cities such as Dubai were exposed as excessive harborers of debt and glut real estate from over-leveraged attempts at global place-making. The global crisis exposed heady development scenarios which had been at best short-sighted endeavors in creating cities.2 Abandoned construction sites and spurned free zone deals throughout the developing world are some of the most easily discernible anecdotes of the global crisis, as if the world had run out of world-class vouchers.

It is no coincidence that Doha, the capital of Qatar, began its most watched and reported ascent onto the global stage of striding cities in the wake of the current global financial crisis. Doha’s leaders have announced and begun to deliver a series of development proposals that have been filling the vacuum for good-news stories in real estate and development media outlets since the global financial crisis began. The city has a modest population size at under 1.5 million people (comparable to Phoenix, Arizona), a great majority (about 90%) of whom are expatriates and are expected to leave eventually.3 The city is therefore inevitably international; it cannot exist without its overwhelmingly foreign majority, which is able to work there because of the country’s vast natural gas reserves. As the only city of note in “the world’s wealthiest country,” Doha’s development and ambitions represent those of Qatar, and vice versa. Therefore, there are few examples of where Doha’s municipal governance is demarcated from a national one. One might describe Doha as a city-state surrounded by a desert of villages that defer to it.4 News outlets like to add up Qatar’s investments: $18 billion (2009), $34 billion (2010), $60 billion (2011), and over $200 billion (2013). Thoughtful, if not overreaching, projects include an 85-station metro system, public parks, one of the world’s largest airports, and perhaps the world’s most influential Islamic Arts museum, followed by other bold museums, and the studiously urban Msheireb Project. These are all endeavors Doha’s leadership has pursued to withstand the criticism of global media just as eager to find a development miracle as to bring one down.

It has been argued before that Doha’s committed development schedule is in service of the same reasons why any city might add to its skyline or insert a new convention center: namely the ambition to compete in a regional or global set of cities for designation as the hub of (fill-in-the-blank). Several articles on Doha’s urban development have framed the pursuits of the city’s leaders as such.5 The recent and shifting situation in Doha, specifically the ever-increasing scale and altering direction of the urban development and how this multi-billion-dollar effort intertwines with other pursuits of the Qatari government, calls upon a reconsideration of the motivations for these pursuits. In the greater scheme of things, speculative development might distract from the potentially more significant developments at hand—namely that Doha could be departing from traditional notions of the city.

If one believed that a city’s overseers might pursue a brand, Doha’s brand might be described as one that aims to convince, rather than lure, a global audience. Beyond inordinate wealth that has imprinted its insignias on professional football teams, an airline, and other cities’ skylines, the city has become synonymous with an interminable (somber but serious) series of WTO talks; its revolving door of peace negotiations for such places as Lebanon, Sudan, and the West Bank; a problematic but entrenched role in the Arab Spring; a $250 million Cezanne painting; a high-profile losing bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics which is now a precursor for its next bid; and a game-changing procurement of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It might seem that these are all about building “Brand Doha”—that somehow they weave together the next CNN commercial asking you, the internationally incorporated, to invest in Doha. However, Doha isn’t so desperate for your retirement fund’s investments or your professional society’s next convention. Doha is not designing a stopover tourist hub (though there’s one included). Its brand campaign strives further.

Responding to the often asked question, why can’t Doha just be happy being small and rich, Mishaal Al Gergawi, a commentator on Gulf affairs, states clearly what he sees as Doha’s motivation:

Qataris have very existential concerns. The purpose of all this—of all the diplomatic efforts, the World Cup, the support of the Islamists, the Darfur mediations—all of this aims to do one thing only: to make Qatar globally important so that it cannot be invaded. They want to guarantee their borders, their sovereignty. You have to be globally important so that if somebody invaded you, there would be a global outcry. Doha is now trying to become that “only light in the Arab world.”6

In a similar vein, political analyst David Roberts explains that “anonymity [for Qatar is] a bad quality to have should something go catastrophically wrong.”7 Roberts signals that Qatar’s leaders pursue a foreign policy larger than roundtables. Within this framework, the country’s efforts on the international stage formulate a role for the city at once more complex and more basic than that of the traditional hub city. It is complex in the sense that urban development is directly linked to a nation’s global political ascendancy and simple in the sense that the city just needs to be recognized, not consumed, by a global public. Therefore the underwriting of Doha’s urban development must have in mind something broader than any hub economic theory. While there is not likely to be a grand narrative behind Qatar’s development of Doha, the country’s urban production signals an attempt to avoid any normative regional or global models. To understand this further, Qatar’s investments, both within the bounds of its own city and beyond, need to be considered in conjunction with its concerns beyond urbanism.

Since its first building boom, in the 1970s, Qatar has developed outward with an ever-increasing number of ring roads (now referred to as “orbital expressways”). Housing policy has historically offered Qataris residences farther out instead of creating a more dense center.8 In contrast, most recent projects might not bring all city residents back to the center but will at least start to suggest how megaprojects will generate delineated urbanism (“island urbanism”) as opposed to amorphous sprawl.9 Even with a population that is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, the city is the focal point of a development portfolio that surpasses any in the Gulf region. Here follows a brief index of some of the major ongoing projects: Education City, home to at least nine university campuses, has developed on an average of a billion dollars a year since opening in 2006. The $20 billion Pearl project extends into the Gulf waters an artificial curlicue peninsula decked with luxury towers, shopping, and vacation homes.10 Lusail City is perhaps the largest megaproject in the region, at 35 square kilometers (more than half the size of Washington, D.C.).

The recent surge in development investments has been attributed to the country’s selection to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, although officials claim Qatar would have been committed to most of these major infrastructure projects even without it. More than any previous World Cup host, Qatar faces unflagging criticism, including questions of how such a small state will utilize so many FIFA-sized soccer stadiums after the tournament. With most stadiums sited within the Doha conurbation, this will be the densest World Cup ever. Doha will also have one of the highest residents-per-professional-soccer-stadium-seat ratios in the world (almost 2.5).11 Plans, for example, continue for a stadium in the fishing village of Al Shamal, whose population could fill the stadium with views of the North Field platforms more than seventeen times. Ideas to dismantle and send some of the seating post-tournament to unnamed “developing countries” have not appeared in the press of late.

The 2022 World Cup would rely on a new rail system, among other new endeavors for urbanity. Deutsche Bahn has been hired to oversee the rail projects that will run through Doha and stitch the city to minor towns. Costs exceed the company’s own annual revenues from Europe’s largest rail network ($35 billion). Eight billion dollars in new highways will connect the sprawling reaches to the old center, part of which has been gutted and is undergoing urban development that would answer any urbanist’s wish list. The reclaimed district, Msheireb, now owned entirely by the monarchy’s private nonprofit Qatar Foundation, claims culturally and ecologically attuned architecture in its 226 buildings, a 13,700-car underground garage,12 pedestrian streets, trams (which might prove undoable), outdoor storefronts, downtown homes for locals, and cultural event spaces.13 Additionally Msheireb Properties, whose operating capital originates from sovereign funds, has no plans to put its $5.5 billion of new properties and infrastructure on the market; instead it will remain as manager of the 76-acre “heart of Doha.” The city will be its own landlord.14

Doha’s urbanization pursuits are impressive and almost always high-minded. The Msheireb project has been described as an example of city leaders demonstrating lessons learned from previous development mistakes, presumably including West Bay, the 165-acre tower development that makes a convincing skyline from the distance, but up-close is little more than vertical office space surrounded by surface parking that would prove insufficient if the towers were ever occupied at capacity. It was supposed to include 180 towers.15 Most of what has been built is sheathed in the glass, silicone, and steel planned for their exteriors. Beyond that, many towers stand unfinished, but not abandoned. For example, Burj Qatar, a tower designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, has already won industry awards and is prominently lit at night, but at the time of writing its interior still awaits finishes and a tenant. Left incomplete, these towers likely do not register in a vacancy census. Increased vacancy rates would sink rental rates and generate bad news stories. For now West Bay functions more as a skyline without function. It is not Potemkin, because it does not mask something less than it, but maybe something more.

Nevertheless vast new swaths of the city remain empty. The country’s population could fill only a fraction of the offices and housing proposed. Moreover, sufficient business-attraction campaigns are not in place to fill Doha’s office space.16 There are also predictions that Doha’s population growth will actually diminish around 2030, when infrastructural projects start to come to a close and the expatriates residing there for building up the gas extraction industries will start to leave. The World Cup and other events might give momentary jumps to the population count, but there are no clear signs of how Doha’s population would rise more sustainably.17 More obvious to Doha’s critics are the city’s stadiums and convention infrastructure, which will be impossible to keep filled, or make profitable, for that matter. Critics suggest that in due time the empty infrastructure will become dilapidated and then obsolete. If eventually disassembled for scrap, the structures will prove as wasteful and wasted as the fuel exported to fund them. Were these strategies at all sharp and prudent they should together form a survival strategy. For that to be true, Doha would be implementing all too familiar development models, but for other, less familiar reasons.

All of this development frenzy does not suggest Doha as a new model of a city. In fact, it seems like a rehash with a standard set of parts from headier days of global development. [to read more please find a copy of Perspecta 47 Money, information here]

1 David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 126.
2 See Todd Reisz, “Making Dubai: A Process in Crisis,” Architectural Design 80, no. 5 (2010): 38–43.
4 Qatar’s Ministry of Municipality & Urban Planning oversee planning for all of the country’s municipalities, including Doha.
5 See Khaled Adham, “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle,” in The Evolving Arab City (London: Routledge, 2008). Adham’s essay provides a concise history of Doha’s modern urban development up to 2008. One might argue this current article picks up on signals and events in Doha’s ongoing development since then.
6 Interview with Mishaal Al Gergawi, November 28, 2011, Dubai.
7 David B. Roberts (2012): “Understanding Qatar’s Foreign Policy Objectives,” Mediterranean Politics 17, no. 2 (2012): 239. Roberts’s article provides a summary of the international relationships that potentially influence if not threaten Qatar’s sovereignty.
8 Adham, 233.
9 Besides Adham, see Agatino Rizzo, “Metro Doha,” in Cities 31 (2012), and F. Wiedmann et al., “Urban Revolution of the City of Doha,” METU JFA 29, no. 2 (2012): 35-61.
10 “Prominent real estate projects,” Euromoney [serial online] 39 (February 2, 2008):13-22. Available from Business Source Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 21, 2013.
11 Based upon statistics in Middle East Economic Digest. Qatar Supplement, February, 2013, 24.
12 To provide a sense of how much parking that is, it’s about four times as many garage spaces as are provided to the public in Manhattan’s Financial District (
13 “Msheireb,” Middle East Economic Digest. Qatar Supplement, February, 2013, 22. See also
14 Interview with Issa Al Mohannadi, former CEO of Msheireb Properties, November 20, 2011, Doha.
15 Adham, 237.
16 Interview with Craig Plumb, Head of Research, MENA, at Jones Lang LaSalle, November 24, 2011, Dubai. When compared to Dubai (not known as a shining example of permanent residency policies, although it is where regional headquarters more often have based themselves because of the city’s long-term expatriate communities), Doha exhibits little apparent strategy in place to attract the people and businesses to fill it.
17 “Qatar census shows population boom as economy grows,” Reuters, July 1, 2010. HSBC’s chief economist in the Middle East is quoted as saying, “Many people are involved in the buildout of Qatar’s energy infrastructure. When the work is done, they will go home.”