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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Recession in Qatar: Jobs, Beggars and Traffic

As I approached my car, the man fixed me in his gaze and approached me. Lifting up his shirt to display a bloody wound, he pleaded with me for money.

"Please sir, I have car accident, need to go home to India..."

I gave him a few riyals and he started crying, pleading for more.

An increase in the number of beggars seems to be one effect of the recession in Qatar. Although against the law - beggars run the risk of being arrested - I have also seen women with their heads covered asking for money; in one case entering the restaurant I was eating and going round the tables despite the protests of the waiter.

Other friends, particularly those who walk a lot, also tell of being approached by beggars. One reported being approached by the same beggar as me. This time the beggar complained after receiving 50 riyals - "more, more" he said.

Beggars may do quite well here. Locals often feel it is their Islamic duty to help those less fortunate, while expats whose hearts have not been hardened by the frequency of beggers in other countries are more likely to give. With many people stranded here, and with those who are here on an illegal basis unable to access the public healthcare system, it's an obvious choice for those who are desperate.

It's not without risk, though. Begging is illegal, and transgressors risk arrest, imprisonment and deportation.

Perhaps another cause in the increase in beggers is the increasing trend to not paying workers recently highlighted by Al Jazeera. Contractors are increasingly holding back wages, sometimes for months. Heartbreakingly, the workers have often borrowed heavily to come out, sometimes even mortgaging their land. With no shortage of labourers desperate for work, complaining has little effect.

At the other end of the scale, I knew one gentleman who came out to work here and was given a nice car, a great house to live in and the latest mobile phone - but no money. "I've given you everything you need - what do you need money for?" his boss asked him.

Another aspect of the recession - a positive one for a change - seems to be a very welcome decrease in traffic. This is something I have noticed on the school run, with the time from the school to my office dropping by ten minutes. With, apparently, 60,000 expats leaving Qatar to return home in the last few months that's perhaps no surprise. It's not likely to last long - when the economy picks up and the Qatar economy, aided by vast government projects, resumes expansion, the traffic is likely to get worse than ever!

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