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The development of apartments in Qatar

A view over Doha’s West Bay of the 216 Intermediate Staff housing, 1983

Much of this site takes a historical view of Qatar, so the pages are not intended to be up-to-date due to the pace of change in the peninsula. In particular the housing that is looked at on other pages tends to be traditional and of the villa type. The reason for this is simply stated: most, if not all, Qataris live in housing of this type. For this reason, consideration of villa or, especially, courtyard housing is little more than a development of the Qataris’ history of the peninsula.

The physical and infrastructural development of the peninsula has introduced a large number of expatriates who require housing. While it is not possible to guess the length of time each stays in Qatar, it is evident that most if not all will eventually return to their homes in different parts of the world.

The present population of Qatar – January 2017 – is over two-and-a-half million, of which it is guessed that somewhere between an eighth and a tenth are Qataris. A small proportion of the expatriates will live in accommodation within Qatari residential developments as maids, drivers, guards and the like, but the rest will be housed in a variety of residential types depending on their work status.

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Numbers of residential units

It is difficult to understand the number and distribution of residential buildings there are in the peninsula as the statistics are not easy to interpret. However, according to the statistics given in Table 6-1, of the Summary Results of 2010 Population, Housing and Establishments Census, these are the relevant numbers at that year and month for housing units by type and municipality:

Housing units by type and municipality – Table 6-1 – 2010


Arabic / Popular / Elderly

Palaces / villas



93,376 29,006 62,496 74,184 259,066

The category of ‘Other’ being composed of:

Other types


37,104 37,084

* A Housing unit is defined by the Census as being ‘a building or part of a building originally intended to accommodate one family’.

Five years later, according to the statistics given in Table 23, page 76 of the Simplified Census of Population, Housing and Establishments, 2015, these are the relevant numbers at that year and month for Housing units by type, current use and municipality:

Housing units by type, current use and municipality – Table 23 – 2015


Arabic / Popular / Elderly

Palaces / villas



141,324 25,198 105,976 41,383 313,881

The category of ‘Other’ being composed of:

Marginal Beach house / Other

Part of Establishment

Part of unit / Building

Room in unit

Separate room

Additional building

1,671 13,473 12,826 4,934 4,234 4,245

However, the same document gives information that is difficult to reconcile with the above figures:

Occupied housing units by type of unit and municipality – Table 20


Arabic / Popular / Elderly

Palaces / villas



103,159 19,136 87,581 36,515 246,391

unless this means that there is a significant amount of unoccupied residential units – around 27% of the apartments, 24% of the Arabic and Public houses, 17% of the Palaces and villas, and 25% of the total.

It should also be borne in mind that at the end of April 2015, the population of the peninsula was recorded as being 2,342,725

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The need to house expatriates

Mid-century apartment housing, late 1960s

The late nineteen-fifties saw the beginnings of a need for housing expatriates. At first the scale was relatively small and provided for middle-management and above, workers being housed in barasti development, mainly on the outskirts of urban developments. Both villa and apartment residential units were constructed, mainly by the private sector where there was a need to house those being brought into the country to design and implement the country’s infrastructural works, as well as provide the human resources for the administrative, management and retail operations that Qataris were developing as a natural consequence of the increasing wealth of the State. These buildings were often relatively generous in their spatial organisation, lending some prestige to those accommodated within them. Note in this example how unsuited it is to the local environmental conditions.

In response to pressure from Qataris who were seeking to move out of their traditional housing, the government instituted a system giving them land it either owned or acquired. In the first instance this was in what was termed the ‘Popular’ house, of which there were two basic styles. and located on a plot thirty metres square with a villa style house in the The houses were designed in what was considered to be an Arabic or traditional style.

For expatriate accommodation, this created a need for at least three types or categories of housing:

  • villas for professionals,
  • villas or apartments for middle-managers, and
  • multiple-occupancy housing for workers.
Early 1970s apartment block, Rumaillah, 1972

Villas are looked at elsewhere on these pages, but it is interesting to note that the first apartment blocks constructed by the private sector were necessarily small due, in the main, to the amount of disposable income the new developers had at their disposal, the sizes of the plots of land to which they had access, and the profits they foresaw – either by renting the blocks out to the government or other private entrepreneurs in need of housing their new staff, or using it to house their own workers.

Early 1970s apartment block, Rumaillah, 2002

This particular block was used to house four families of ex-patriate staff working for government, the equivalent of senior staff grade employees. Each of the apartments contained a living and dining room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms with a large circulation area. Access was from the central stairway by which there was also access from all apartments to the roof. Significantly, it was not suited by its layout to Muslim families. Thirty years later the building was still in use as apartments but downgraded to accommodate a less expensive group of workers. The whole of this area of Rumaillah was demolished by 2005.

Early 1970s apartment blocks in the inner ring of Doha

This style of accommodation was very typical of the apartment blocks that sprang up towards the outskirts of Doha. Consisting in the main of two storey blocks they were arranged in the same way as the example above, and shown here – two apartments at ground floor level and two at first floor with a central staircase serving the four units and providing access to the roof. In both examples it is possible to note the steel water tanks provided at ground floor level with pumps to take the water onto tanks on the roof. Plumbing was basic, the steel tanks rusted and disease vectors were a problem for some time as the government attempted to construct the necessary infrastructure to match the pace of building development.

Washing drying on an apartment balcony in Doha

As can be seen in this and the photographs above, washing was hung out generally at balcony level and rarely on roofs. This may have been for security reasons but, as you might expect, washing dried very quickly, though the process was complicated by the amount of dust in the atmosphere – though the higher the level, the less or smaller the particles.

Note too, in these photographs, that the depth of the balconies militated against any useful activities. Much the same can be seen all over the world even today. The balconies, particularly in older buildings, were often incorporated into the internal spaces where it would be possible to air condition them with the ubiquitous wall-mounted air-conditioning units, one of which can be seen in the photograph above, but for which all rooms were provided with a hole in the wall in which to mount them.

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Apartment layout and conflict with Qatari culture

A pair of Senior Staff Qatari houses in the mid-1980s

As was stated in the first paragraph on this page, Qatari villa and courtyard housing was, and continues to be, very different in concept from the apartments designed and constructed for the expatriates of different social status and nationalities who were rapidly moving into the peninsula to carry out the work emanating from the State’s increasing wealth and the Qataris’ disposable income.

The diagram on one of the Gulf architecture pages illustrates the preferred relationships between the different parts of a Qatari residence and the importance of visual separation. But even though the design of many Qatari houses does not incorporate these principles, the diagram can be seen to vary significantly from the theoretical layout for an apartment dwelling. The essential difference lies in the difficulty of providing separate access for the male and female sides of the family and their friends and visitors, as well as keeping them visually and physically apart within and adjacent to the apartment.

Here are two rough plans of two, two-storey blocks, each of four apartments. The first was constructed in the early 1960s, the second around 1970. Both were in Doha. These, together with similar designs, were the type of apartment accommodation provided for the expatriates entering the country in increasing numbers. The apartments had little or no thought put into the relationships between rooms suited to Muslims, and even for others there were serious drawbacks caused by the layout and detailing. This character of layout was a standard pattern for two-bedroomed apartments, varying only in small details. At best it was suited to families with little concern for family privacy. It is difficult to say which is the better of the two designs.

Rough plan of a floor of a 1960s two storey apartment block

This first apartment was built around the beginning of the 1960s. It was taken over by government and used to house professional expatriates brought in to carry out the first of the major infrastructural works required for the country to expand and develop in its relationships with the external world. These professionals came mostly from the United Kingdom, parts of the Arab world and the Indian sub-continent so comprised a number of different religions. One of the consequences of this was that the apartments were not suited to many of the families allocated to them.

It is evident that the apartment makes no provision for a family room or space, suggesting that, if needed, one of the bedrooms could be used for that function.

In this layout the kitchens and bathroom were located at different ends of the apartment, though it did have the advantage that the kitchens of the two apartments were located back to back. In those early days there was no main drainage, sewage being led directly into septic tanks, with this block requiring septic tanks at both ends of the structure. Consideration might have been given to switching the location of kitchens and bathrooms, but that might have been at the price of creating rooms with cranked walls. One great benefit of this layout is the amount of storage provided for within the hall area, but at the disbenefit of creating a relatively narrow and dark corridor.

Rough plan of a floor of a two storey 1970s apartment block

In this second apartment, built around ten years later, the kitchens and bathroom were located nearer to each other, and the building was able to benefit from a single septic tank. Water tanks to both buildings were situated on the ground outside the buildings. From these tanks water was pumped up to holding tanks on the roof, from which the hot and cold water services were fed by gravity.

Here no storage was provided, this being left to bedroom furniture items dispensed from a government store. The hall was relatively wide but, being dark, was not readily usable, though it may have been thought that it could be used as a sitting area for the family.

When guests visited apartments or even villas designed along similar lines, there was little the women of the house could do to escape being seen by them. Mealtimes were a particular problem when it meant that the women of the household needed to be closed into the kitchen as they prepared food, which was a hot and crowded process. The men of the household would attempt to organise their guests to avoid them seeing into the kitchen or glimpsing the women, and would also have to move meals between the kitchen and dining area. Increasing difficulties for all, it was notable that with the construction of the buildings being of hard materials, considerable noise emanated from the kitchen.

Following the meal the male guests, as is their habit in Qatar, need to wash their hands. This could only be accomplished with the women closed into the kitchen or one of the bedrooms, again an exercise that the head of the household would have to organise. Looking at the plan immediately above it is clear that there is a crossing of routes between the public areas of the house and access to the bathroom, as well as the route between kitchen and bedroom. Only when guests were safely back in the living area and doors closed would it be safe for the women of the household to return to the kitchen or use the bathroom.

Notional plan of the floor of a 1970s apartment block

The plan of a pair of apartments immediately above shows that not only is there a difficulty with assuring privacy within the apartment – as noted above – but there is the obvious problem with privacy up to, at least, the front doors of the apartments. The latter applies to most of the arrangements that can be used to organise accommodation within apartment blocks, some of which alternative arrangements are notionally illustrated to the side here.

For this reason alone there was considerable resistance to Qataris living in apartment buildings. The only way in which this might be practicable would be if the whole of the apartment building was in single ownership with different groups of the family living in separate apartments – but I am not aware of any instance of this.

The entrances to each of the apartments can be seen to be immediately adjacent to either a public or semi-public space, depending to some extent on the degree to which the common space of the apartment blocks can be organised, controlled or policed. Reinforcing this, there is very little visual security provided by each of the apartments’ entrance doors from those public or semi-public spaces. While internal masking by walls or additional doors is possible, it would cut down the amount of usable space within the apartments. By contrast, entrance doors to Qatari housing always make it difficult or impossible to see into the compound or house.

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Additional entrances for family and their guests

It might be thought possible to organise second entrances to the apartments for the female family members to use, with their guests, but this would require considerable skill in designing apartments that were accessible from more than one direction, as well as adding significantly to costs. This intrinsic problem with apartments makes them additionally unpopular with Qataris, an issue that is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, unless Qatari socio-cultural norms change dramatically.

Possible positions for additional family entrances

The first of these four notional plans is of an apartment block with two apartments on each floor. It is based on the examples illustrated above and shows a possible arrangement where two additional entrances might be positioned for the use of family members and their guests, one on each side of the block.

Possible alternative position for additional family entrances

Although it might be possible to organise a single family entrance in the centre of the block – behind the main entrance – it might be more difficult to plan a successful layout for the interior of the apartments without significant expenditure. A brief exercise suggested that it is possible to create a sensible layout with this location for a family entrance, but that the apartment will become much longer in plan caused by the need for all rooms to have access to an external wall.

Using a plan with three apartments on each floor is possible, but unlikely. Such a plan has a number of intrinsic difficulties created by their geometric relationships and the positioning of additional accesses for family members and their guests. In effect it would be similar to the sketch plan below on the right, but with the lower apartment arm omitted.

Possible positions for additional family entrances

So, in this diagram, alternative layouts are given for four apartments using a notional cruciform and a spinning relationship for their distribution. Access at ground floor level would require an apartment to be omitted, or for it to have a reduced size in order to enable the male members of the family and their guests to have access into the central distribution area where stairs and, perhaps a lift would be located.

Possible positions for additional family entrances

This diagrammatic plan gets round the problem of access to the centre of the symmetrical layout shown above by drawing two pairs of apartments away from each other, permitting the space between them to be developed for horizontal and vertical access at all levels of the block. In essence it is the solution shown below used by George Candilis in the apartment blocks he designed for the New District of Doha and Umm Said – though, of course, without the accesses illustrated here to be used by family members and their guests.

In all four diagrams an attempt has been made to illustrate in a simplified manner, those external walls of the apartments that might be developed for windows and balconies, and those where they must be opaque in order to maintain privacy to those within the apartments.

With an increase in the numbers of apartments at a single level, there is still the possibility of adding separate accesses for families. But it becomes more difficult to arrange the interiors of the apartments successfully, and more vertical distribution systems need to be added, some serving a single apartment compared with those above that serve two – all these problems will increase costs considerably.

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Increasing need and scale of apartments

Mid-century apartment housing, 1970s – taken from a government postcard

Development of the oil industry saw increasing numbers of expatriates requiring more and better housing than was available – as well as offices. While the new plans for Doha at the beginning of the 1970s completely reorganised the land use pattern, the size of plot available to developers increased in size and regularity, particularly towards the outskirts of the developed city, as might be anticipated.

In this example not only did the developer maximise his building in terms of his plot footprint, but he also went up another floor. Generally height was controlled by the Municipality planners but eccentricities did take place. It was not uncommon to find buildings, both housing and apartments, with steel starter bars sticking out of the roof floor in order to accommodate additional floors at a later date when it was hoped that the government wouldn’t notice.

Here, on Gulf Road – a part of the ‘C’ ring road system – the building on the right is a storey higher than was previously permitted on the other side of the road. This photograph was taken from a government postcard, one of a number illustrating with a degree of pride how Doha was developing its roads and buildings. The designer of this building has given a little more style to the façade by introducing feature louvres, suggesting a more expensive rent would be attracted.

Reflecting the capabilities of the construction industry, all building at this time was constructed of reinforced concrete floors and columns with hollow concrete block infilling between them to create external and internal walls. Windows were single glazed steel and doors either plywood faced softwood framed or, when security was required, decorated steel. Little or no supervision characterised their construction and, in many ways, the buildings were problematic for their occupants and, eventually, for their owners.

Five storey development within the inner ring of Doha, 1972

While the height of development along Doha’s ring roads and radials had a variety of restrictions placed upon them in the early development years, taller structures were being permitted within the inner ring. This example of an apartment building is typical of its sort with four storeys of apartments above ground floor retail uses incorporating, as usual, a mezzanine level which was generally used for storage or related offices. This apartment building was constructed on Jabr bin Muhammad Street, looking south in this photograph, and facing west along Abdullah bin Jassim street. This aerial view of it was taken in early 1972.

Of a similar height and, perhaps, setting a standard for heights in this area, Government House, directly to the west of this building, was essentially a four storey purpose built office building with the lower level raised half off ground level and incorporating a semi-basement, and the offices arranged off a double-loaded central spine corridor. Planning intent may well have been to ensure that no building near it was significantly higher.

One significant point to understand is that there was very little purpose built office building in the peninsula up to the 1980s. Government House was an exception as was, to some extent, the Office of H.H. The Amir which was converted into an office building arranged round two courtyards. Apart from these two examples, nearly every building was designed as an apartment block with the anticipation that those requiring offices would then take over the residential accommodation and make of it what best they could.

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Government intervention

Part of the 216 Intermediate staff housing on the New District of Doha, 1981

By the mid-seventies it was evident that much of the residential accommodation that had been and was being built, was of dubious or poor quality, both technically as well as from the point of view of its suitability. The shortage of decent residential accommodation hampered the capabilities of government to develop many of the areas it saw as necessary for the effective and timely development of the country’s economy. Because of this government initiated, in 1980, a programme of apartment housing in Umm Said and the New District of Doha. In the latter location, 216 Intermediate Staff housing units were developed in a loose configuration of up to nine stories, served by lifts and with significant care to ensure natural ventilation and solar protection to the external spaces relating to the units. I can’t recall the number that were constructed in Umm Said, but it is likely to have been a similar number. There is a little more about these particular housing units on one of the planning pages.

The Intermediate staff housing in Umm Said, 2004 – courtesy of Google Earth

These two developments were also intended as an opportunity to improve design and construction standards, enabling the ministries involved to benefit from the clear government-owned sites and the ability to coordinate their operations, ministries work traditionally being considered to be reactive rather than proactive. At the same time the construction industry benefitted by the growing wealth of the country. Better qualified management was brought in to apply improved organisational and technical standards, and the increasing wealth enabled more expensive equipment to be bought, used, amortised quickly and passed down through the industry.

A view of the Candilis housing project at Umm Said – permission requested from Qatar Petroleum

The government housing was a case in point. Designed by the experienced architect, Georges Candilis, he was able to produce a scheme that had considerable repetition benefitting its construction, and floor plans that were a significant improvement on previous designs. The housing in Umm Said, now known as Mesaieed, is still standing and houses government staff. This view of it was taken, I believe, from the Qatar Petroleum offices building to its east.

Part plan of the Government Intermediate Staff apartments in Umm Said

This first illustration shows one of the levels of the apartment blocks that make up the apartment housing layout in Umm Said. The blocks contained a variety of sizes of apartment. The floor plan illustrated here comprises three, three-bedroomed apartments and one – that at the top of the illustration – four-bedroomed apartment, all organised in a pin-wheel manner by linking two pairs of apartments with the vertical circulation system. A similar generic plan was used for the 216 unit Government Intermediate Staff housing on the West Bay in Doha.

The centre of the arrangement was left open in order to allow air movement through the complex. While this design policy was successful in its intent, the winds accelerated through this vertical access area, creating a significant amount of wind-borne dust that irritated residents and visitors; subsequent planting in the area reduced this effect somewhat.

However, there were intrinsic difficulties with taking a single floor plan and rotating it through four 90° angles, thus creating different environmental conditions for each of the four apartments. Bearing in mind that the summer sun is particularly hot during the afternoons, it is evident that bedrooms facing west would be extremely hot at least in the beginning of the night.

As with many designs in the peninsula, air could also be encouraged to move through apartments by opening windows on both sides of the apartments which all had at least three sides open to the outside environment. However, the trends of the region were for the introduction of air-conditioning units to moderate the temperatures inside the apartments. This was an important consideration, perhaps greater than the designer envisaged. One of the difficulties associated with all buildings of this era was that they were constructed of cast concrete floors and concrete block walls. The walls became very hot under the direct sun, converting sunlight to radiant heat within the interiors and air-conditioning was commonly thought to ameliorate or overcome some of the problems associated with hot walls.

Detail part plan of the Government Intermediate Staff apartments in Umm Said – three-bedroom unit

This illustration shows, in a little more detail, the room layout of one of the three-bedroomed apartments. In particular the apartments were designed to cater for Muslims, a plan type that was being used for the first time in apartments in Qatar. In essence, the apartment has two centres – that at the entrance of the apartment catering for the men of the family and their male guests and, at the back of the apartment, an area for the women of the household and their guests. This basic principle of the layout is considerate of some of the needs of Muslims who might live in these new apartments.

Its significant disadvantage lies in the family hall where the women of the household and their guests are anticipated to sit. With three doors, the entrance from the corridor and the window and exit to the balcony, there are obvious difficulties in providing and positioning seating. A sofa and a chair in the corner between balcony and the main bedroom are probably the maximum arrangement that is possible. For two, perhaps three individuals, this might be a working arrangement, but with any more people sitting and circulating it is probable that one of the bedrooms would be used as an overflow space and, in good weather, the balcony.

Detail part plan of the Government Intermediate Staff apartments in Umm Said – four-bedroom unit

This illustration is of the room layout of the four-bedroomed apartment, the fourth bedroom being provided adjacent to the entrance of the apartment with a shower room that can double as a washroom for guests needing to wash their hands after eating, or before prayer.

The family hall still has the same disadvantages as those suggested in the three-bedroomed apartment, and any woman using the fourth bedroom might be, or might feel trapped if there are male guests in the house – though the door to the living room suggests that access to the women’s side of the house might be arranged with the assistance of one of the men of the household.

It is not clear to me why the kitchen door was designed as a swing door as it might both interfere with passage along the hall as well as being less sound-proof with the dining room door being directly opposite. It might have been more useful to stagger the position of the doors across the corridor in order to improve sound suppression and visual sight lines.

Nevertheless, the apartments were a significant improvement on apartment designs that had preceded them, and served as an exemplar for the manner in which future apartments might be more considerate of cultural and social requirements.

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Private sector

Private apartment buildings near the ‘C’ ring road, 2002

The private sector was developing apartments for the new waves of expatriates entering the country from the 1960s, though on a limited scale and often to serve only the needs of the Qatari sponsoring those expatriates. Some development was provided by government, but was limited. Housing expatriates in apartments and villas continued through the next generation with, especially, development increasing in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the turn of the century, apartment blocks were becoming higher in response to the increasing demand for accommodation in both the government and private sectors. But there was also a surge in the price of land with considerable activity in the property market. Buildings were now matching the height of the apartment blocks in the New District of Doha and Umm Said, albeit that those developments had been constructed on government land, with loose boundaries – but with better construction standards. Parking continued to be provided at ground level, off-road adjacent to the apartments.

Internally the layout of the apartments showed little change in their organisation, though the higher developments introduced lifts for structures above three stories and, in the apartments associated with higher rents, a degree of safety was sometimes provided by the introduction of security personnel monitoring entrances both to compounds as well as apartment blocks.

A view north over central Doha in the mid 1980s

The private sector continued to build in response to the increasing numbers of ex-patriates entering the country. While compounds were developed along the outer urban areas, the centre witnessed taller structures being constructed, many of them on relatively small footprints as land owners were not always able to rationalise their boundaries in order to create more sensitive developments. Taller buildings also put more of a strain on the parking systems as there was a steady turnover of cars with new vehicles being sold for even newer models. This view looking north over the area west of the central Doha gives some indication of the increasing densities to be found in the central areas of the capital in the mid-1980s. The Ministry of the Interior is the stepped building on the right of the photograph. Virtually every other tall building is an apartment block with retail or commercial uses on its ground floor.

An apartment block, 2002

The designs of new apartment buildings witnessed a small but important number of changes. The block of apartments at the beginning of this note is a simple, unimaginative design with squared openings and pairs of pointed arches applied to relieve the flat façades. It represents a taller version of the two- and three-storey buildings constructed in the sixties and seventies for commercial uses with apartments over. This photograph shows that a little more consideration has gone into the design of this block of apartments with the air-conditioning masked and balconies provided to the living areas.

But, in common with much of the new building, the styling pays no respect to the architectural traditions of the peninsula, but enjoys a classical vocabulary – though with mushrabiya employed to give a flavour of the Arab world and a degree of privacy, while enlivening the façade.

Two apartment buildings, 2008

These two apartment blocks have a similar design ethos to that immediately above. Slightly taller, they both employ a degree of classical vocabulary in their detailing as well as, to a limited extent, in the overall treatment of their façades. The building on the right is unusual in that it attempts to make a feature of its corner unlike most buildings where each façade is treated as a separate design exercise. They are similar in their design ethos to many of the villas that were being constructed for Qataris in the peninsula. It should be borne in mind that not all buildings were designed by architects but by designers or draftsmen working to clients’ directions.

Apartment buildings, 2008

Close by the two apartment blocks above was this street of apartments, viewed under construction, and illustrating the more dense street pattern of residential housing, this being close to the Rayyan Road to the west of the centre of Doha. It must be evident that this character of housing is more suited to expatriates than it is to Qataris when considering the cultural requirements of privacy in and around the periphery of their homes. It is also likely that it is not suited to Muslims who form a part of the expatriate community.

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Staff housing apartments

Housing for staff in apartment blocks

The apartment housing above was speculative and designed to attract good rents to the owners. But many apartment blocks were constructed for large groups of workers who were tied to specific industries. Generally this housing was in apartments tied to the owner or agent of the expatriate workers brought into the country on contracts specific to a type of work, though not always. The health and travel sectors provided large numbers of staff who required housing, particularly when they were unmarried. In the case of these apartment buildings, the accommodation was provided in rooms accessed from a central corridor spine, and usually with shared bathroom facilities.

Security guards were also a feature of the accommodation provided for staff housing. In keeping with the law, male and female accommodation was kept segregated, the security personnel controlling the arrangements. Some married accommodation was provided, but usually for the higher levels of expatriates. It is probable that it is less expensive to provide accommodation for unmarried employees in this manner.

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More to be written…


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