The buses arrive at dawn. They unload thousands of workers in a variety of uniforms. By the time its citizens wake, the city is functioning as usual. Buildings go up, roads are cleaned, grass gets watered, gas is pumped, goods are bagged in supermarket checkout lanes, gatemen and security guards monitor their designated spots. At sunset, the buses return. Crowds of men line up to board them, while smaller groups are unloaded for a night shift. Soon the buses drive off, to a destination unknown to any of the city dwellers.
This scene is not the setting for a dystopian novel. It’s a daily routine familiar to anyone living in Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates or almost any other Gulf region state. These desert countries have never been populous. Unprecedented economic development in the oil- and natural-gas-rich Gulf has required a massive influx of workers for management and sheer labor. How massive is mind-boggling. Statistics from 2007 (the most recent I could find) reveal that local nationals make up only 28 percent of Qatar’s population of about 1 million; the expatriate workforce amounts to 72 percent. In Dubai, the numbers are 12 percent and 88 percent. The result is a complex multinational society, where many different cultures seem to co-exist without much interference. “Live and let live” is a defining characteristic of the Gulf’s social mentality, according to researchers at Rem Koolhaas’s agency AMO, which has done extensive work in the area. Yet the ways of “living” could not be more different.
Ten to 15 percent of the expats, usually Caucasians, are involved in cultural and educational enterprises or business management. They inhabit Western-style apartments in high rises or gated compounds, with lots of space and standard modern amenities. The remainder are migrant workers, mostly from India, but also from Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. These are the men bused from the city at sunset. Where do they go? In my six months in Qatar I have managed to crisscross this small country by car, but I have never run across any camps or compounds where the laborers might be spending the night. It took a special effort to find them.
As it turns out, the workers’ lodging is invisible precisely because it is everywhere. Nothing unusual or picturesque distinguishes it from the outside. These are not the favelas of Rio. All around the city, people fill interstitial spaces: shacks, industrial sheds, old houses, even villas that have been subdivided to accommodate dozens. One telltale sign is a multitude of clothes lines overloaded with drying laundry and uniforms. Larger compounds exist in Doha’s industrial area on the far outskirts of the city, and deeper in the desert.
Inside any settlement, the conditions are predictably appalling. Men sleep in bunks, at least four per tiny, usually windowless, cubicle. In a climate with average July daytime temperatures of 106 degrees Farenheit, air conditioners exist, but they run at night only, forcing people to keep their doors tightly closed at all times, impeding ventilation. Primitive bathroom and kitchen facilities are located outdoors and are usually communal. In the absence of women and children, the places lack the life and interaction typical of a small village. Instead, there is an uneasy sense of confinement and congestion, as in an internment camp. This is especially noticeable on Fridays, when workers have the day off.
Even though migrant workers are employed by private companies, the Qatari government is investing in finding a solution to their plight. A 2007 student project at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, which proposed workers’ housing made of shipping containers, caught the attention of Sheikha Mozah, wife of the Emir of Qatar and chair of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Soon the university received generous funding for further development of the project.
Three years later, the first full-scale building prototype is about to break ground. The team, led by architect Roman Turczyn, envisions modular housing based on a hierarchy of spaces. Private sleeping compartments look out to a semi-private kitchen/eating area, which in turn open onto communal gardens where the workers can grow herbs and vegetables. The project’s natural cooling system borrows from traditional Middle Eastern methods of managing airflow through the interior.
One of my own students at VCUQ, Corby Elford, is working on a shelter where construction workers can spend a few quiet minutes on their lunch breaks, or while waiting for their buses. Made of flexible acoustical paneling, this shelter will provide shade along with protection from ever-present construction noise and dust.
Designing for migrant workers means thinking beyond purely functional improvements. There is a need to address the less defined problems of cultural understanding and integration. A project initiated at VCUQ by Pornprapha Phatanateacha and Diane Mikhael deals with overcoming the barrier. It is about communication, culture and ultimately the art of survival. Students are asked to re-interpret bus maps, emergency signage and first-aid kits so that these essential items are made accessible to people who speak little English and Arabic. One proposal offers a pictorial guide for an affordable recreational weekend in Doha, all-inclusive for 15 QR (about $4).
Projects like these can be a revelation for privileged Qatari students barely aware of the 72 percent who make their lifestyle possible. There is sad irony in young female students, prevented by codes of conduct from visiting male workers’ compounds, who send their drivers to take photos of the sites. Such projects build not only shelters but also awareness. The barrier gets eroded slowly, from both sides.