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Company House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Company House, Msheireb Museums

Four museums that chart Qatar’s ongoing transition from a sleepy pearl-diving town to an emerging world city are now fully open to the public.

The restored heritage houses are in the heart of the Msheireb Downtown project, and capture the massive changes Qatar has gone through in the last century.

They delve on topics like slavery, domestic living and the grueling labor of Qataris in the very early days of the oil industry in 1939.

Company House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Company House, Msheireb Museums

Originally scheduled to open in December 2013, the museums project hit a number of setbacks, including a fire. It soft-launched last October, although only for pre-arranged group tours.

Here are some key things to look for when you visit:

History of slavery

One of the highlights of the museum complex is Bin Jelmood House, which examines the history of slavery in the world, the Indian Ocean region and specifically in Qatar.

At the entrance of the renovated former home of the renowned trader Mohammed “Jelmood,” who lived there in the mid-20th Century, states the purpose of the museum:

“Bin Jelmood house exists to promote reflection and conversation on important truths about historical slavery in Qatar and the critical issue of contemporary slavery around the world.”

Inside, powerful audio-visual displays recount how a slave would have felt, being taken from their home country and brought across the sea, or by land, to Qatar in the past.

Bin Jelmood House at Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Bin Jelmood House at Msheireb Museums

Exhibits also describe how men and women, mostly from East Africa, were expected to adapt to what was harsh and basic living conditions. Many worked as domestic staff or in the pearling industry as divers.

“They might have sold my body, but my soul they can’t claim,” one of the first-person accounts say.

The final section of the museum examines modern manifestations of slavery globally, as well as at home.

Slavery exhibition at Bin Jelmood House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Slavery exhibition at Bin Jelmood House, Msheireb Museums

One display board for contractual enslavement features a photograph of construction workers in Doha.

It also shows some ways Qatar has aimed to combat people trafficking and slavery, including outlawing child camel jockeys in 2005 and establishing a safe-house and rehabilitative center for trafficked women.

Domestic life

Radwani House is a restored former home that shows what domestic life would have been like for a relatively well-off Qatari family through the decades.

Courtyard at Mohammed bin Jassim House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Courtyard at Mohammed bin Jassim House, Msheireb Museums

The courtyard house was originally built in the 1920s, then bought by Ali Akbar Radwani in 1936. It sits between two of Doha’s oldest districts of Mushereib and Al-Jasrah.

Radwani’s family left the home in 1971 and it lay derelict for decades until the Private Engineering Office (PEO) took it over in 2007 and began restoration work.

Situated around an open-air quadrangle, one wing examines the archeological work that went on underneath the house.

Experts from University College London Qatar excavated the ground between 2012 and 2013 and uncovered an old well and one of the walls of the original house.

uncovered well at Radwani House

Lesley Walker / Doha News

uncovered well at Radwani House

Some of the artifacts they found gives an interesting insight into domestic life then, including a 1920s coffee cup which would have been used for drinking tea.

Meanwhile, a limestone incense burner from the 1920s or 30s was uncovered, still containing ash from when it was last used.

Visitors can also tour round replica bedrooms, a kitchen and majlis, which takes them from the 1950s to modern-day.

Pioneering workers

Company House is the former headquarters of Qatar’s first oil company.

It features numerous first-hand accounts of the grueling life endured by Qatari workers in the very early days of the oil industry.

Lobby at Company House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Lobby at Company House, Msheireb Museums

The entrance has six life-size, white models showing the different jobs these men did during the middle of the 20th Century.

Interactive information tables include snippets of comments. One by Ibrahim Matar Al-Mohannadi stated:

“We lived in sort of barracks made of wood. We laborers lived 20 to a room and we slept in beds made of iron. Drivers were sometimes four to a room and had their own cook.”

There are also excerpts from the memoirs of the British company clerk Robert E. Hill, who came to Qatar in 1948 and worked there until 1955.

He describes first-hand how he traveled to Doha by sea from Bahrain, sharing his thoughts during the six-hour dhow trip, surrounded by food and provisions for the pioneer oil workers.

One section of the museum gives profiles of eight Qatari men who worked with the company, where terrible food nearly caused them to go on strike.

Many were injured in the perilous work and were made redundant from the company.

Hussein Bin Hussein Jaber, known as Bu Abbas, became one of the best-known employees of the firm. Despite injuries, the trained oarsman, who became a company driver, returned to his roots and bought 14 boats which he moored off Doha.

Getting electricity

The final building, Mohammed bin Jassim House, is near the mosque and Eid prayer ground. It was built by Sheikh Mohammed bin Jassim Al Thani – the son of the founder of modern Qatar.

Mohammed bin Jassim House courtyard, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Mohammed bin Jassim House courtyard, Msheireb Museums

Visitors here get a sense of the impact the sudden oil wealth had on everyday living in Qatar.

Life-size video screens feature Qataris talking about the importance of Kahraba Street in Musheireb. The commercial hub of the area, it was the first street to get electricity in Qatar.

The arrival of cars, air-conditioning and cement transformed the old Musheireb area. Many of these changes also transformed the architecture of the district.

Social development of Doha at Mohammed bin Jassim House, Msheireb Museums

Lesley Walker / Doha News

Social development of Doha at Mohammed bin Jassim House, Msheireb Museums

It also gives a sense of the sudden, initial population explosion. Doha quadrupled in size, from just 20,000 people in 1951 to 80,000 in 1975.

Then, as now, the city adapted, expanded and continued its development.

Msheireb Museums are behind the National Archives, on the corner of Al Rayyan Road and Al Asmakh Street.

They are closed Sundays and open Monday to Thursday from 9am until 5pm. On Fridays, they’re open from 3pm until 9pm, and Saturdays from 9am until 9pm. Admission is free. A map showing nearby parking is here.

Thoughts?

Msheireb construction site.

Msheireb / Facebook

Msheireb construction site.

In a rare work stoppage, several hundred men at the Msheireb Downtown Doha construction site went on strike over the weekend and continue to remain off the job in a dispute over unpaid wages, a labor representative has said.

The employer, subcontractor Drake & Scull, told Doha News that the issue stemmed from a one-time delay in paying salaries because of new requirements under Qatar’s wage protection system.

Witnesses told Doha News that between 200 and 400 men stopped working at approximately 7am on Saturday. While most described the incident as a peaceful protest, others said some individuals aggressively confronted their supervisors.

Some men smashed air conditioning units and broke doors, said a Qatar-based representative of Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI) – a trade union umbrella organization – who spoke to more than a half-dozen Drake & Scull employees who were involved in the protest.

The labor representative said the police were called in and helped mediate a temporary solution with managers by having the construction workers return to their accommodation in the Industrial Area.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

He said the workers – who hail from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines – were told they would be paid by Thursday and are receiving food at their labor camp since many have run out of money to purchase their own provisions.

During previous visits to Qatar, BWI officials visited Msheireb as well as other sites. At the time, delegates said during a press conference that they were generally pleased with what they saw at Msheireb but found a “disturbing evidence of wrong practices” and a general “climate of fear” among migrant workers in Qatar.

More recently, BWI published an article on its website this month about the formation of several “support networks” for migrant workers in Qatar.

Strikes

Strikes – especially those involving a larger number of workers – are uncommon in Qatar, where authorities are highly sensitive to dissent among its large foreign workforce.

They have previously responded to protests with a show of force, such as at a short-lived riot at the under-renovation Sheraton Hotel in June 2014.

Riot police arrive in buses to the Sheraton Hotel.

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Riot police arrive in buses to the Sheraton Hotel.

A handful of other work stoppages occurred that year, including a protest by Al Million taxi drivers and a strike by employees of two subcontracting firms that led to the deportation of some 100 construction workers.

This risk of punishment means a strike “is often a last resort” for expats in Qatar, Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri told Doha News.

Meanwhile, questions remain about whether the workers involved in this weekend’s strike will be disciplined.

“Their assumption is that (they will be paid) and be deported,” the BWI representative said.

In a statement to Doha News, Msheireb Properties confirmed that the incident caused work to be temporarily suspended on a small part of the 76.6-acre site on Saturday and Sunday.

The company added that while the strike did not involve any workers directly employed by the developer, the firm is working with its contractors to resolve the dispute.

Unpaid wages

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Lesley Walker

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Delayed or unpaid wages are one of the most common complaints of blue-collar expats in Qatar, whose treatment has come under scrutiny as the country constructs stadiums, infrastructure and real estate developments in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup.

However, Drake & Scull said this incident was an anomaly for the company caused by the new wage protection system, which took effect earlier this month and requires employers to pay their workers electronically. It also mandates firms create a digital record of the payments.

In a statement, the company – which has operations across the Middle East and further afield – told Doha News:

“The integration of workers’ records into the system faced certain technical issues and incompatibilities which resulted in a delay of the transfer of payments…

Drake & Scull management engaged with the workers to address their concerns immediately. The delay in payments was an unanticipated and unprecedented occurrence for Drake & Scull Qatar and we have taken the necessary steps to prevent such a situation from arising in the future.”

How long the workers went without a paycheck is still in dispute.

The BWI representative said the men he spoke to were being paid QR1,600 monthly, which includes a food allowance.

Msheireb Properties is a part of Qatar Foundation, which has published minimum worker welfare standards that require its contractors to go beyond what’s set out in the law. The company said it is investigating the incident and has already met with the main contractor and subcontractor to identify how the dispute arose:

“Msheireb Properties is working closely with parties involved to ensure that this situation is resolved as soon as possible and in a satisfactory manner,” it said, adding that it contractually requires all contractors and suppliers to abide by Qatar’s laws.

“Msheireb Properties is taking this incident seriously and is firmly committed to stand against any form of exploitation, abuse or injustice.”

Thoughts?

Msheireb construction site (September 13 2014)

Peter Kovessy

The opening date for a luxury hotel scheduled to open in Msheireb this year has been pushed back two years – the latest signal that the massive QR20 billion (US$5.5 billion) redevelopment project is slipping behind schedule.

The Mandarin Oriental is to be a high-end, 158-room hotel with 91 serviced apartments and is one of three hospitality projects under construction on the massive 31-hectare site in central Doha.

Mandarian Oriental - Msheireb

Msheireb Properties / Facebook

A spokesperson for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group told Doha News that the project, first announced in 2010, is now not scheduled for completion until 2016.

As the operator of the hotel, the spokesperson said her company was not involved in the actual construction of the project.

She directed questions about the revised timeline to the property’s owner, Amlak Hospitality, but that company could not be reached for comment.

Amlak is a member of the Qatar Foundation and is developing three Msheireb hotels. Once completed, the buildings will take up more than 15 percent of the 760,000sqm of the site’s eventual built-up space, which will also include homes, retail shops and cultural space.

The other two hotels are the Al Wadi Hotel, part of Accor’s M Gallery Collection, and a 181-room Park Hyatt. When they were initially announced, the projects aimed to open in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

However, representatives of those two chains could not be immediately reached for an update on the developments.

Msheireb plans

It’s common for major projects to fall behind schedule in Qatar, where countless road, rail, real estate and infrastructure projects are under construction in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup.

There are several theories about why this is the case, including supply bottlenecks in importing building materials and red tape for various approvals.

However, some argue the delays are a byproduct of Qatar’s overwhelmingly foreign workforce. Employee turnover is high, and it is a lengthy process to recruit and relocate new skilled workers.

Construction Week magazine, meanwhile, suggested earlier this year that an extremely competitive construction sector in Qatar forces contractors to accept unrealistic deadlines in order to land work.

It’s not clear what the delay in the opening of the Mandarin Oriental means for the overall Msheireb project, which is being constructed in several stages.

That property was supposed to be the first of the three hotels to open and is part of phase 1B/1C, which was slated for completion in 2015 and also includes offices, townhomes, apartments, amenities, government buildings, a school, cultural center and a mosque, according to a project update published last fall.

Future phases will include retail space, a cinema as well as more offices and residential units.

Msheireb construction site (September 13 2014)

Peter Kovessy

Meanwhile, the first section, phase 1A, includes the Diwan Amiri Quarter – made up of a Diwan Annex, National Archive and Amiri Guard building – and the Heritage Quarter, featuring four restored heritage houses that will serve as a museum, as well as an Eid prayer ground.

It was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013. The fall update pushed the expected completion date to mid-2014.

While the exterior of the buildings are completed, the site still appears to be an active construction zone. There is still extensive scaffolding in place and dozens of workers were visible on the property on Saturday.

Banana Island

Meanwhile, several kilometers away, it appears another delayed hospitality project may finally be nearing completion.

The website for the Banana Island Resort Doha appears to be accepting reservations for rooms after Nov. 1.

Construction on the Banana Island property – which will be operated by Thailand-based Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas – began in mid-2012.

A rendering of the under-construction resort on Banana Island.

Anantara

A rendering of the under-construction resort on Banana Island.

Last year, UrbaCon General Contracting – the firm responsible for building the resort – told Construction Week Qatar that the resort would be completed in the summer, and that there would likely be a soft opening by the end of 2013.

Guests will have to take boats to the resort, which officials previously told Doha News would not be licensed to sell alcohol.

When reached last week, the property’s sales and marketing director, Elias El Khoury, declined comment.

Thoughts?