Opening burger restaurants; banning kids from cycling; closing for the school holidays and Ramadan – what’s wrong with Qatar’s parks?
There are any number of issues the socially-minded resident could champion here in Qatar, like recycling, or improving conditions for migrant labourers. For me though, it’s the health of the nation.
Like my teachers always said, I should be more ambitious.
I have never before felt enough righteous indignation about an issue – and yet at the same time the possibility of change – as I do about the day-to-day running of Qatar’s parks.
My family lives in Al Waab, near Aspire Park – Doha’s biggest – and yet the restrictions placed on us and families like ours by the park’s management on previous visits mean we don’t go there anywhere as much as we should.
The biggest kicker for us is that while my son Amnesiac (6) is allowed to ride his bike in the park (it’s where he learned to ride last autumn) my daughter, Kid A (9), isn’t – because of her age.
At least, I think that’s the reason. We’ve never had a consistent explanation from the security guards there as to why.
Yes, I said security guards. In a park.
For visitors to this blog from outside Qatar, the first thing you need to know is the parks here have security guards. Tons of them.
Don’t ask why. Asking why only leads to disappointment and frustration. Their job is to do what they’re told by park management. Which isn’t a problem in theory: it is a private park, after all.
Their place, their rules.
But it is the inconsistent arbitrary nature of what they enforce that grates. Ask any resident – I bet they’ve got a story about being stopped from doing something innocuous in one of the city’s parks.
In Aspire Park alone, there’s lying on the grass. Playing football. Kite flying (that would be notorious hooligan Mrs LC and her “unauthorised sporting activity”).
Even looking like my mate and I were about to wade into the city’s only lake to retrieve our wayward Aerobie got the guard out of his chair at a clip that would have Usain Bolt nodding in admiration.
And that’s without the whole dress code debacle from the end of last year.
So, let’s ask a simple question: can my daughter ride her bike in your massive park?
The conditions of entry make no mention of cycling being prohibited. On our visit there last week, we asked one guard who said the age limit was “5 or 6”, whilst another told us it was “under 10”.
That’s three different answers to the same question, none of them helpful.
My long-simmering frustration with the way the park treats its visitors (you can read about how the park got our National Day celebrations off to a terrible start here) was tipped over the edge by two pieces of news last week.
The first was that a new burger joint was opening in Aspire Park.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against burgers – far from it. And nor do I have a problem with local entrepreneurs working hard to build a business and a brand.
My complaint – as a cyclist, as a parent, as a local resident – is that the park’s management is saying my daughter is welcome to eat burgers in their park, but not to ride them off afterwards.
It’s not exactly sending out the right message.
The park is part of the wider Aspire Zone, which includes Khalifa Stadium, the Aquatic Centre and the Aspire Academy and promotes itself as an “international sports destination”. Athletes, swimmers, football clubs and many more visit all year round from all over the world to use its facilities. Just as long as they don’t get on a bike while they’re here.
MIA: Missing in Action
The second park-related facepalm came when the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) Park – in my view, the city’s best – announced with a week’s notice that it was going to close on 1 July for six weeks – smack in the middle of school holidays and Ramadan – for “routine” maintenance.
You can imagine the argument: it’s summer, it’s too hot, no one will be coming to the park, let’s close it. (Which would seem to be the Gulf Times’ theory).
But this is even flying in the face of medical advice. HMC’s top Diabetes doctor recommends a walk two hours after eating to reduce blood sugar levels. Which makes closing MIA Park for the whole of Ramadan, when people will be eating later and need somewhere to walk at night, all the more bizarre.
The real shame here is that, even though it is significantly smaller and more compact than Aspire, MIA Park is open to cyclists of all ages – and even rents bikes out to encourage the habit.
Just not in the school holidays.
So faced with all this lunacy, I did the natural thing and vented my frustration on Twitter – and was deluged with responses from fellow residents all of whom had fallen foul of the park’s ever-changing rules.
I suggested someone ask the park management why they allowed “burgers not bikes”, and next thing you know there’s a groundswell of frustration, a hashtag (#BikesNotBurgers) and a feeling that something might change.
Because let’s be clear: this is a country that needs to do all it can to encourage exercise. Qatar may be the richest country in the world, but it’s also one of the largest (and not in the geographical sense).
Qatar’s own National Health Strategy (2011-16) says that across the whole population, more than 50 per cent do not engage in any regular exercise.
Diabetes and obesity are endemic: 71% of all residents are overweight and 32% are obese or morbidly obese. A sedentary lifestyle and bad food choices are making a growing problem – pun very much intended – even worse.
This is a country where the exercise habit needs to be manually kickstarted, by creating an annual “Sports Day” – a public holiday, no less – to encourage people to get fit.
But when you’re talking about a country where McDonald’s delivers to your door, you know you’ve got a challenge on your hands.
So when my daughter asks me why she can’t ride her bike in the largest (and usually pretty empty) park in the country, what’s the alternative?
For us, if we want to cycle together as a family, we have to get in the car, and add to the traffic and pollution by driving 25 minutes across town to the brilliant Dhal Al Hammam park, where cyclists are always welcome and security guards are few and far between.
But that’s a real effort, and leaves much less time for actual cycling.
You’ve really got to want to do something like that. And I wouldn’t blame any other parents from this end of town who figured it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Maybe like the dress code issue, Aspire Park’s management will listen to their visitors and adopt a more flexible approach. I wouldn’t even mind if they just made one rule and ensured it was applied consistently.
Is that so much to ask?
PS All parks in Qatar are not the same. Check out some of the friendlier ones care of Christine Gerber Rutt’s Parks & Recs column for Just Here.
PPS November 2014 update: The fun doesn’t stop there, oh no. I wrote a sequel / continuing adventures of me vs. Aspire Park management, and you can read it right here.