Qatar Coworks

The newly discovered scarcity of power and internet away from home made the idea of joining a cowork space even more appealing. Rubbing elbows with a variety of local residents being the big draw.

My search turned up 4 cowork-ish things to check out. I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the 2 located in downtown high rise buildings. But there was also a startup incubator plus my prime candidate, a normal looking cowork space in an inexpensive part of town.

I checked out the startup incubator first. They had an event the same day I arrived but I didn’t find out about it until later. They don’t have any more events on this year’s calendar. I figured I would drop by and chat up whomever happened to be there and see what kind of things they had going on. Turns out that dropping by isn’t something they want.

From the west, Commercial Bank Plaza is the one with the spire and the face of Sheikh al-Thani. The shorter of the two matching green buildings is Tower B where the incubator is:

from the west
Figure 1. Commercial Bank Plaza and Tower B from the West

Inside Tower B you need a security badge to get to the elevator area. Unlike other buildings in the area, you can’t get a temp badge at the security desk by turning in your ID. The coworking space provided for free to the accepted startups comes with desk minders but no one important. So there’s no one there with whom to make an appointment, and you aren’t permitted to wander on your own.

However, they kindly invited me to apply to the startup incubator. I went through all their application materials and the whole program is like a set of railroad tracks for how to do a cliché California (MIT?) startup. Year 1 do x, y, z and end up with a company. Year 2 do a, b, c and get your first round of funding. It includes mandatory classes on writing your pitch, making your slide deck and public speaking. Oh, and if you aren’t a permanent resident of Qatar then you are ineligible to apply. So this turned into a dead end.

from below
Figure 2. Tower B from below

Next I went to the coworks in the adjacent Commercial Bank building. The name of the company is Servcorp and they have the 18th and 19th floors. These buildings have fancy exteriors. Shiny marble walkway all around, that had obviously been cleaned and polished to a ballroom finish the same morning. A security gate prevented random cars from even getting close and there was a red carpet between the parking and the lobby door.

from the east
Figure 3. Commercial Bank Plaza from the East

While waiting on the 19th floor for a tour, I took a picture of the incubator building:

b above
Figure 4. Tower B from the 19th Floor

Servcorp claims to operate in 165 cities. I got the tour from Laura Jamal "Team Leader". They are in the virtual office business. They rent you a package of high end office spaces complete with fiber internet, furniture, cleaning service, phone service where you customize the operator’s script for your company, physical phones and forwarding service. They also have no Servcorp branding in sight and the (gay male) receptionists greet guests in such a way so as to fool them into believing their host has rented the whole floor.

Laura told me that all you have to do is show up with your computers and you’re ready to go. The cost is in the neighborhood of 8000 to 20000 QR ($2200 - $5500 or 4-10 high end hooker hours) per month per person for interior offices and more for offices with windows. They see themselves as the premium executive space for small companies. They even have a fully stocked kitchen where they charge you for each individual item you take in the style of a hotel room mini-bar (prices posted above the fridge).

When I asked her about the coworking space she gleefully informed me that I wouldn’t be able to use it because new companies require a business address in order to have a trade license and they only provide business addresses to office renters, not coworkers. I asked her about using it now, before I start a company.

If I want to do that, the cost is 40 USD / month for a membership then an additional 210 USD / month for the cheapest plan "hot desk", which gives you 8-5 access Sunday thru Thursday. Or for 355 USD (plus the 40 for membership) you can get a dedicated desk. The prices are high but not completely outrageous: about double what I was paying in Austin Texas for 24/7 access to a hot desk at a lower end place. For the same money as a month of hot desking here, you could only get one hour with a hooker two blocks over at the Marriott. So, price adjusted, you might consider it practically a steal.

But to go there and sit alone every day.. not that appealing. I can do that in my room. Here are some pics of the coworking space:

helo helo helo
Figure 5. Ghost Town to the Left of Me
echo echo echo
Figure 6. Ghost Town to the Right

Next I went the the second high rise cowork space, this one run by Regus. They wouldn’t let me up without an appointment. I called to make an appointment but in asking some questions on the phone I was able to determine that they were running the exact same business as Servcorp but with slightly lower class offices. Since they also admitted to having a totally empty coworks, I didn’t bother to schedule a tour.

Finally, I visited my last best hope, some miles away on a street of commercial villas near Doha Expressway. It turned out to be closed down for some years and the space now houses Queen Dental Associates.

The reality is that there isn’t a demographic here that would use a coworks. The vast majority are foreigners here for a job. A job which necessarily already has a physical location. Some percentage of them are between jobs, but are in the country on a transferable work visa and need to find a new employer in order to remain in the country.

The local Qataris are rarely doing startups. Since Qataris own 51% of every company here, they get preferential access to executive positions. Fathers pressure their sons to take executive jobs to extend their family influence. It is not uncommon for sons to take the jobs and then show up for work one hour a day 3 days a week just to keep dad happy, without actually doing anything.

When they do want to start a business, they normally just rent or buy the space they actually want to use with no thought for some strange coworks. And the ones who are infatuated with "startups" have the incubator to walk them through a few years of starting up.

There is no aspirational class. There is no "startup culture". If there are any shoe-string entrepreneurs, they’re not hanging out anywhere together that I’ve been able to find. There are no tele-commuters looking for a desk. There are no home based business people looking to socialize.

The best sign I’ve seen of anyone starting something is that small cowork space that is no longer in business. They were hosting events and speakers as recently as 2014. But I wasn’t able to track down an owner to confirm what actually happened to the venture.

S. - 2018-11-04 02:33:11

Good write-up. Quite a nice look at a slice of Qatari culture; almost alien compared to the U.S. (esp. Austinite, lol—​long live 6th Street). The wall art in Fig. 5 compares favourably to a screenshot of Kumppa. I spent some time in Qatar as a soldier but never really got to see this side of it. Thanks for posting.

Cheers, S.

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