x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Doha's old shops left behind by progress

Developers are taking advantage of Qatar's double-digit economic growth, forcing out low-end stores to build modern shopping malls and hotels.

Majed Ahmed sees Jaguar dealers and Prada stores opening all over the city and accepts that blue-collar shops such as Login Elektrician, which he runs with his brother, may be a dying breed in the Qatari capital. "You can't find shops like this anywhere else," said Mr Ahmed, 25, standing outside the auto and electronics repair shop in Doha's Bin Mahmoud neighbourhood on a recent evening. "They don't let people open shops like this anymore."

His and two dozen other shops on a 200-metre stretch of Qatari bin al Fujaah Street are set to meet the business end of a bulldozer next month, casualties of the natural gas-funded boom that has over the past decade transformed Doha from quiet backwater to gleaming metropolis. In 2010, Qatar's economy is expected to be the world's fastest growing, at around 18 per cent. As the five-star hotels, high-end malls and luxury housing developments rise, many older buildings, discount shops and lower-end outlets vanish.

"Removing wholesale many of the options for certain segments of society is rarely a good thing," said Rami el Samahy, an urban planning and architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar. He teaches a seminar on contemporary Middle Eastern cities and has watched Doha's ongoing evolution closely. "I'm truly concerned about the increasing homogenisation of use and the projected class of users," he added, pointing out that at least half of Qatar's residents are labourers. "I fear that there are increasingly fewer options for the middle and lower classes, with regard to housing, shopping and recreation."

On a recent evening on Al Fujaah Street, cars jostled for space under dusty, brightly coloured marquees as grease-stained workers leaned under hoods, bargained over tea and crossed their arms above aged air-conditioning units. "Business is good here," said Mr Ahmed. "It's the middle of the city and this area is growing fast." Mohammad Nusrat opened Arabian Modern Laundry in 1967, four years before Qatar became an independent state. Today his shop has contracts with the police and a nearby hotel. Business has never been better, but that is about to change. "All the people here are sad because our shops are finished," said Mr Nusrat, 73. "If the government tells us to do something, we just put our hands up."

Doha Immar, a development firm owned by Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Thani, a cousin of the Qatari emir, plans to build a six-storey commercial building on the 7,000-square-metre site, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and offices and apartments above. "Right now, Doha is a good environment for investment and we have to take this opportunity," said Elhamy Shafi, Doha Immar's chief accountant.

Early this year, the firm filed a request to evict the shops on the grounds that the one-storey structure housing them had aged beyond repair. The Doha municipal court agreed and notified the shops of the developer's plans in May, giving them two months to vacate before demolition. About a mile from Al Fujaah Street is the site of the Musheireb project, a widely praised US$5 billion (Dh18bn) plan to remake downtown Doha. For that project, dozens of shops and homes are being bulldozed.

But the handsomely endowed developer, Dohaland, is helping most relocate. The victims of the Bin Mahmoud project have no such benefactor. "We are trying to help them move to the Industrial Area," said Mr Shafi, of Doha Immar, referring to an area on the edge of Doha set aside for factories, industrial shops and labour camps. But none of the shopkeepers surveyed recently had received any assistance.

"Where will everybody go?" wondered Mr Nusrat, the laundry owner. Like most of the shopowners, he pays 3,000 riyals (Dh3,030) rent each month. Depending on size and location, smaller commercial spaces in Doha today generally go for 7,000 to 12,000 riyals per month, and most require a down payment of up to 180,000 riyals. "I won't be able to find something in two months," said Mohammed Riaz, 41, who manages a car and electronics repair shop on the street. He has five children in Lahore and expects to take out a loan and rely on friends until he finds an affordable space. "Not everybody has BMWs," said Mr Riaz. "There will always be a need for shops like this."

His appeared to be a minority opinion. "There is no money for mechanical and electrical shops nowadays," said Deepak Charles, 52, who has worked at Ali Auto Electrician for 30 years. Taking a longer view, Mr Samahy remained positive about Doha. "It's only when something is on the verge of disappearing that we want it back," he said. "In the end I am optimistic that Doha will grasp the importance of its architectural and demographic diversity."

Until that happens, shop closures are likely to continue. Across the street from the row of condemned shops is its mirror image - a single story stretch of ageing, discount repair shops and appliance stores. "I am worried the same thing might happen on this side," said Mohammed Asif, supervisor of Al Sari Auto. "Maybe I will have to move to the Industrial Area." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae