An urban exemplar in the Middle East: Doha, Qatar
Spared the same degree of civil unrest as its neighbours elsewhere in the Middle East have witnessed, Doha is part of Qatar's push to become an urban exemplar for the region, diversifying away from an oil-based economy by investing in education, enterprise, sport, transport and the quality of the public realm.
Doha, the capital of Qatar, is rising out of the sands in its bid to become the first city in the Middle East to host the Olympic Games. Since gaining global recognition for hosting the Asian Games in 2006 and winning the 2022 World Cup, it has continued to set its sights higher by putting itself forward as an official bidder for the 2020 Summer Olympics. It is through such events that the Qatari government is keen to demonstrate to the world how the capital is evolving to become a smarter, healthier, greener, and more sustainable city exemplar for the Middle East region and wider global community.
A small desert peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, Qatar is renowned for its wealth derived from extensive oil and gas reserves and achieving the world's highest per capita GDP at purchasing power parity according to the International Monetary Fund. Over the past decade, Qatar has experienced rapid urban development, particularly within Doha. The city has witnessed a growing concentration of commercial skyscrapers on the West Bay Corniche, Doha's sea-facing central business district. This accelerated commercial growth has been accompanied by a sprawling of low density residential development spreading outwards and encroaching on the city limits as the population grows.
What makes the government-backed projects of Education City and Sports City stand out is that they will truly benefit the whole city's population.
It is evident that this rapid pace of development is having an adverse impact on Qatar's environment and contributing to wider climate change. Qatar is also recognised as having the world's highest per-capita CO2 emissions according to the World Bank. These high levels of emissions can be attributed in part to the dominant car culture, generous state subsidies for resident Qataris and low utility and petrol costs for all residents.
It is, however, not environmental but economic concern that has prompted a shift in the way the Qataris are managing their built environment. Whilst Qatar's economy is currently shaped by its vast energy reserves, the government has recognised that in the long-term the country will need to reduce its dependency on fossil fuel revenues. Qatar's overdependence on those revenues weakened its economy during the 1980s oil glut that caused a rapid decline in fossil fuel prices. But in current markets Qatar is in a stronger position and is now utilising its wealth to pursue economic diversification and reduce its exposure to this single market risk. To this end, the government has identified an intention to develop the local knowledge-based economy, to capitalise on this growth sector of the global economy.
Education, enterprise and sport
As the nation's administrative and financial capital, the government is seeking to focus large scale investments in Doha. As with elsewhere in the world, such as Cambridge and Silicon Valley, the intention is to cluster research and educational development. Flagship projects include Education City, which has taken an innovative approach by developing six branch campuses from different international universities. Close working is encouraged, for example, with University College London (UCL) partnering with the Qatar Foundation and Museums Authority in the fields of archaeology and conservation. The government is also fostering an environment for nurturing business-led partnerships. As well as providing a place for learning, Education City is encouraging innovations in business through the Qatar Science and Technology Hub that provides premises for technology based small and medium enterprises.
The government has also explored the tourism and leisure sectors as alternative drivers of economic growth. Qatar is setting itself apart from other Middle East states by proactively nurturing the sports market with consecutive success at hosting sporting events and developing facilities such as Sports City (also known as the Aspire Zone), a 250 hectare development intended to inspire more people across the region to participate in sporting as part of a healthier lifestyle.
Some may wonder whether these initiatives will effect real change, or are merely a marketing ploy to promote Qatar to foreign investors and sports committees. However, what makes the government-backed projects of Education City and Sports City stand out is that they will truly benefit the whole city's population. For example, whilst Sports City may have been developed for the 2006 Asian Games, its large parkland areas have created a widerange of recreational and sporting opportunities for Doha's entire population, that will become even more accessible once improvements to the City's public transport network are complete.
Public realm and infrastructure
Qatar's neighbours have been propelling large-scale development schemes, such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar City ... However, unlike its counterparts, the Qatari government has been supporting regenerative schemes directly within the existing city.
Whilst the development of knowledge clusters may not be unique to the Middle East, the Qatari government is keen to progress a long-term approach to urban development that takes into account the wider environment, culture and heritage context. Within Doha, a number of redevelopment and regenerative initiatives are already underway to promote healthier living through enhanced landscaped public realm, shaded walkways and cycle networks and natural parkland areas.
Again, some may wonder whether these improvements are more than just 'aesthetic' and reflect a real shift in the planning paradigm towards a 'greener' economy. It is evident that Qatar's neighbours have been propelling large-scale 'sustainability-driven' development schemes, such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, which fall short by being located far from the existing city centre.
However, unlike its counterparts, the Qatari government has been supporting regenerative schemes directly within the existing city. These include the Musheireb project, a sensitive regeneration of a historic area that is transforming it into a more walkable environment by narrowing and orienting the street pattern to the prevailing wind to capture the cooling sea breezes. The recently opened Museum of Islamic Art Park successfully fuses cultural, educational and recreational opportunities through the distribution of Islamic art around a 28-hectare park accessed by well-lit palm-shaded pathways. This widespread physical regeneration of Doha's public spaces clearly demonstrates the government's long-term ambition to enhance the city's liveability and safeguarding its environmental and cultural assets.
Qatar is also taking long-term action to address its overstretched infrastructure network. As part of a recent multi-billion dollar investment programme, the government is rationalising its existing and future transport system with a brand new metro comprising 4 metro lines, over 80 stations and over 300km along with a Light Rapid Transit System and streamlined bus services to be completed by 2026. The metro system will provide high-speed connectivity along corridors of high-activity throughout the wider Doha area, which may reduce pressure on car traffic in high density areas within Central Doha and the West Bay Corniche.
In 2022 Qatar will be back at the centre of the global stage and subject to scrutiny from the international community when it hosts the World Cup. By then the government wants the country to be recognised as a promising and future leading sustainable knowledge economy and the city of Doha as a sustainable city exemplar for the Middle East. The investments made so far are a clear step in the right direction; the real test will be whether they deliver lasting change once the games are over.