Modernist Planning and Segregation in The Desert: The Kafala System and Urban Construction in Qatar
Natasha Iskander Associate Professor of Public Policy, Wagner School of Public Service, New York University
Over ninety percent of Doha’s population is migrant, working or residing in Qatar under the kafala system in which they are bound to an employer or a sponsor as a condition for living in the country. Critiques of this system have focused on the labor violations that it has abetted, but the kafala system has consequences that are equally important for urban planning in Qatar. In most economies, urban plans purport to address the needs of residents; at the very least, they must contend with existing patterns of urban life and of economic production. In Qatar, however, foreigners have extremely limited political rights, with no right to purchase property, no right to shape the structure of the city – and in the case of blue collar workers, no right to choose where they live and segregated far from the city center. In this sense, foreigners have no right to the city. This dispossession has enabled Doha to function as a modernist tabula rasa, with the design visions issued by the government unencumbered by the lived experiences of residents.
The case of Doha points to the relationship between formal political rights of residents and the design of the city. It also points to the impact of political dispossession on the process of building the city. Unmoored from the needs of residents and the natural expansion of the city, urban plans have been driven by the design ambitions of the political class and by hydrocarbons revenues. This has created dramatic boom and bust cycles in the construction industry, which has in turn meant that the industry has been unable to create a stable labor demand. With more than half of Doha’s residents employed in construction during times of industry expansion, the turbulence in the industry has affected the population base of the city, leading to dramatic expansions of population followed by equally radical contractions. This volatility has further loosened the plan from the actual lived needs of residents. Doha is a city without citizens, where the plan, as Le Corbusier envisioned, can be dictator, and as a result, it reveals some of the political consequences of modernist ideology on the lived experience of residents and on the very process of building the city.
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