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Fri 14 Sep 2007 12:00 AM

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Qatar's bid to transform our soulless cities

Last week, Qatar announced plans to cut its expatriate workforce by more than two-thirds - placing a cap on foreign workers at 50% by 2025.

Last week, Qatar announced plans to cut its expatriate workforce by more than two-thirds - placing a cap on foreign workers at 50% by 2025. While many expats are probably asking whether the party is over, the implementation of the plan has the potential to radically transform the Gulf's soulless cities, or at least make Doha less of a drag.

So what does the make-up of a workforce have to do with the soul of a city? Everything. A quick look around the world will quickly illuminate how significant a permanent, visible local population is to the character of a city. People who live in a place where they have a stake tend to innovate and produce at much higher levels than those who are transients. The majority of workers and the population in the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain are foreign, and given their short-term agendas, they treat their host countries like rental cars - and few people in the history of mankind ever washed and took care of a rental. Reducing the percentage of the transient segment of the population can transform this reality. In the West, society is transformed through integration and assimilation, which are the tools that enable a melting pot: foreign workers enter a country, build a life, learn the language, and become part of the fabric of society. If the Qatar strategy is successful, the transformation occurs through reverse assimilation - the local population expels the workers and reclaims the economy and culture. Of course, a significant foreign population will survive, but it will make up the menial and hard labour force, and the elite professionals in the financial, IT and knowledge economy sectors.

The paradox is that the workers and talent are not here to build societies, but to build bank accounts.

There are two questions that should be asked: first, is expelling expats feasible, and second, is it a good idea to implement?

To pass the feasibility test, new jobs need to be provided, and it is unclear if Qatar will meet its goal in time. By setting the deadline in 2025, it definitely gave itself a pretty good window, but if we look at the Emiratisation and Saudisation programmes it is clear that achieving the goal will be difficult. Nationals in Gulf states are rich and happy now, and can choose not to work and at the same time maintain a comparatively high standard of living - the incentive to create the supply of new positions in the private sector is minimal because the demand doesn't exist. Qatar is allowing businesses to look at the long-term in setting its deadline, but is running the risk of foreign companies reaping maximum benefits before 2025, and packing up when spoils are slim.

I think that reducing the number of foreign workers (including myself) is a good move. Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are cities that were built by foreign labour and are pretty much run by foreigners. The locals are involved in setting guidelines, but do not interact with the workforce. This segregation is so blatant that a casual observer can tell people apart based on their uniform, the tawb or the dishdasha. Those wearing national dress are tangentially involved in the building of their societies, and given their minority status, display the same apathy towards their cities that the foreigners do. Why work when others will? Why study when you can buy talent? The paradox is that the workers and talent are not here to build societies, but to build bank accounts.

Basing an entire society and economy on the supply of transient workers could be the genesis of a new type of society, which may prove to be superior to all others. On the other hand, grand experiments in social engineering tend to fail, and given the development strategy typical in the Gulf, perhaps a return to a more conservative formulation of society is the way to go.

Locals need to be the majority in every industry to create sustainable, self-reliant economies. All eyes are now on Qatar.