Life without an overcoat, Corniche pasties in Doha and an email from Carl Bernstein

Sholto Byrnes, editor of Think., on diversity, "Corniche pasties" and setting up shop in Doha.

“What’s it really like?” ask friends, former colleagues and authors, when they know I’m calling from Qatar. The curiosity is intense, which is not surprising, given the state’s international involvement in everything from investment, property and football to the UN and the geopolitics of Arab spring countries.
 
This curiosity served me well when I arrived in Doha in December 2011. Being the launch editor of a new publication, Think. – the global trends, international affairs and thought leadership quarterly of Qatar Foundation – was both exciting and daunting.
 
When I was commissioning for the NS, it used to be easy. Everyone knew of the magazine and most regarded it as an honour to be asked to contribute. Getting writers from across the globe to write a 3,000-word essay for a title that didn’t yet exist might, I feared, be different. Not so much. We soon secured Nobel Prizewinners, former and current prime ministers and presidents, garlanded novelists, and interviews with leading figures from across the arts. I even woke up one morning to find an email from the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, happy to discuss a commission. Everyone’s heard of Qatar. And they’re very, very interested.
 

Movers and sheikhas

 
Clearing away a cloud of misconceptions is the first task. Take the role of women. Increasingly prevalent in the west seems to be the notion that the act of wearing a headscarf deprives a Muslim woman of her agency and ability to think for herself. Well, not in Qatar. The chair of Qatar Foundation, under whose umbrella come full degree-awarding branch campuses of American and European universities, extensive science and research programmes, community development agencies and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, to name but a few, is the new emir’s mother, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Qatar Museums Authority (which is about to mount the biggest ever exhibition of work by Damien Hirst) is led by her daughter, Sheikha Mayassa.
 
At Qatar Foundation, I answer to a nearly unbroken line of female executives, most of whom cover their heads. Anyone who doubts that these are powerful women would find their opinion swiftly refreshed on meeting them. Last year I went to the filming of one of the last in the series Doha Debates (it was chaired by Tim Sebastian, broadcast on BBC World and reached audiences of up to 350 million). As an abaya-clad student berated half the panel, making the most forceful point of the night, I thought: “If this woman is subjugated, someone forgot to tell her.”
 

Gulf of misunderstanding

 
Qatar’s role in the region’s politics is also misunderstood. The state’s past and present involvement in Libya and Syria is particularly well known, although relations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban have raised some startling suggestions from that corps of western commentators who are obsessed with the “perils” of Islamism.
 
“A lot of what Qatar was doing was because it had a vision, not necessarily an Islamist one, but based on the view that what had preceded it, for instance in Egypt and Tunisia, had not served the Arab region well,” my friend Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha, told me. It’s about “pragmatism and building bridges”, he says. Although he concedes that aiding the opposition in Syria has not so far had the desired result, it is equally true that the search for a hidden Islamist agenda has been fruitless, simply because there isn’t one – hard though that may be for right-wing or liberal-fundamentalist conspiracy theorists to admit.
 

The difference is Doha

 
Yes, it’s hot here: it can reach 50°C in the summer. (However, I dismiss any doubts about Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup in such heat. If one of the most arid countries on the planet can plan to produce 90 per cent of its own food by 2024, attending to a little airconditioning issue should be a bagatelle.) But there are chilly months, too. I had occasion to wear an overcoat three times last winter. There are public parks, galleries and museums, malls, cinemas and familiar shops such as M&S and Debenhams. Yet it is not Dubai. Qatar is keen to preserve its own culture and has no need to become as liberal as its Emirati near-neighbour. The strong sense of local history and practice can be catching.
 
Another friend, Patrick Forbes, recently hosted his first majlis, a traditional Gulf event where guests gather to recline on cushions, eat, chat and smoke shishas until the early hours. A speech was given by Tim Makower, the architectural language adviser to Msheireb Properties, which is redeveloping a swath of Doha close to the Amiri Diwan (the emir’s court) and the curve of the Corniche, drawing on the Islamic architecture of the past and reimagining it for the 21st century.
 
That sums up much of what makes Qatar’s vision so distinctive. But it may have been lost on the vendor near my seafront office who sells “Corniche pasties”. I’m not sure if the joke’s on him or us.
 

Majority minorities

 
One of the most positive aspects of life in Qatar is its diversity. This is manifest not only in the array of cuisine available but also in the people. Qataris make up just 15 per cent of the 1.7 million population: over 50 per cent are from south Asia, 13 per cent come from other Arab countries and 11 per cent from the Philippines, while “others”, including those from Europe, the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, constitute 7 per cent. It sometimes feels as though Britain, even London, can be a little grudging in its acceptance of difference (those disgraceful Home Office vans being the latest case in point). Here, it is the norm.
 
I’m glad that our three-year-old son, in whose veins course Irish, English, French, Italian, Malay, Indian and Cocos Islander blood, should be growing up to think that natural. His friends have names like Yahya, Yagiz and Sheikha, as well as Matteo, Raffaella and Leonidas. My colleagues come from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Ireland, Australia and Britain.
 
As it says in a verse from the Quran that I find particularly moving: “Lo! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”
 
Sholto Byrnes is the editor of Think.
The view from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.