Qatar: assessing the Villaggio disaster

The Villaggio shopping mall in Qatar, which proclaims itself as Doha's "newest and the largest family entertainment destination", was designed with an Italian theme. At the end of one corridor there's a gondola and behind it a large fresco depicting Venice.

Visitors often stop by the gondola to pose for photographs. What many of them don't realise, though, is that this fresco blocks the entrance to a closed-off part of the mall which, one year ago today, was the scene of a tragedy.

It began in a storage area of the Nike shop. when a flourescent light overheated and shattered. Smouldering pieces from the light fell on to boxes of sports gear below, starting a fire. Smoke then poured into the Gympanzee daycare centre nearby and 13 children died, along with four of its staff and two firefighters. A further 17 people had to be treated in hospital.

Gondola and fresco. Photo: Penny Yi Wang

Tragic accidents like this can happen anywhere but when they do happen it's important to investigate them properly, to see what lessons can be learned and how a similar accident might be prevented in future. It's also important that such investigations are as transparent as possible and that anyone at fault should be held accountable.

Unfortunately, in most of the Arab countries, that is rarely the case. Governments which routinely bend over backwards to protect the public from "harmful" ideas and "immoral" influences scarcely lift a finger to protect them from threats to their lives and physical well-being. Arab society, too, tends to view these things with a sense of fatalism.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Villaggio disaster, a small Qatar-based website – Doha News – has published a 56-page report in e-book form which explores what happened: the course of the fire, its human cost for the families involved, and the handling of its aftermath by the Qatari authorities.

The report itself is no mean achievement. As far as I'm aware, it's the first time that any Arab media organisation – large or small – has delved so thoroughly into the causes and consequences of such a tragedy. Hopefully, others will follow its example.

The fire. Photo: Ministry of Interior

In contrast to what happens in some countries (the frequent railway accidents and building collapses in Egypt come to mind), the Qatari authorities probably deserve some credit for taking the matter seriously. A committee was set up to investigate and found that the tragedy was "a perfect storm of negligence and lack of preparedness on all sides", according to Doha News.

One year on, though, the committee's full report has still not been released, but bits of it have been published by Qatar's official news agency. The Villaggio fire was also unusual in that its cause was discovered – unlike the vast majority of fires in Qatar, since it appears there are not enough qualified people to investigate them.

Doha News comments:

"There is no doubt that Qatar has worked to make the country a safer place this past year, but experts say efforts have fallen short, in part due to inexperience, a lack of a developed safety culture and a bottom-line mindset. 'Law will always remain law. But what good is it when society does not take it seriously?' Hussain Aman al-Ali, assistant director of the Preventative Department of Civil Defence, recently told news media."

The account by Doha News begins with an all-too-familiar picture of confusion and half-hearted moves on evacuation: "Alarms could be heard in some stores, but few shoppers were taking them seriously, until they either saw the smoke or heard panicked people yelling at everyone to exit quickly."

Meanwhile, the interior ministry was eager to reassure people. Little more than an hour after the fire began it tweeted prematurely that all was well – there were no serious injuries but some people were being treated for smoke inhalation.

Predictably, the "foreign hands" who usually get the blame when something untoward happens also put in an appearance. Completely unfounded rumours circulated claiming that the fire had been started deliberately by Syrian supporters of President Assad.

Meanwhile, local television and radio stations were criticised for not covering the tragedy in real time, and the managing director of Qatar TV gave a rather odd explanation: "What happened is not a football match to be aired on TV." (That may be true, but surely the question is how to cover serious breaking news without turning it into a spectacle, not whether to cover it.)

Despite assurances from the Crown Prince that whoever was responsible for the tragedy would be held accountable, Qatar's courts have yet to apportion any blame. Five people were arrested on the night after the fire, including the owner of Villaggio and the co-owner of Gympanzee, but Doha News says "12 months and 14 court hearings later, Qatar’s courts have yet to determine who, if anyone, will be held criminally responsible for the 19 deaths caused by the fire".

Doha News has also had problems reporting the court proceedings:

"In February, a judge on the case effectively placed a gag order on the trial, asking Doha News to [send] a letter formally seeking permission to cover it, and then denying that permission. After this, we began reporting what those who attended the hearings had heard and seen."

The Villaggio tragedy does seem to have prompted some genuine efforts to improve safety standards in Qatar but Doha News says "there is still a great deal of confusion surrounding what the safety standards in Qatar actually are, and whether they are being enforced reliably and consistently". 

This is particularly alarming, given that Qatar is in the midst of a construction boom. It seems buildings are going up faster than the authorities can inspect them.

Doha News adds:

"For every businesses, organisation or building owner that prioritises fire safety, many more do not. And experts say Civil Defence simply does not have the manpower and expertise to step in and put things right yet. Adding to these concerns is a general lack of transparency and openness about how things are done. 

"Doha News approached several shopping malls and residential tower blocks to find out about their safety practices. In the vast majority of cases, this request was turned down."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 28 May 2013