Qatar’s residents squeezed as World Cup rental demand soars

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Where to sleep? It’s among the biggest questions facing fans traveling to tiny Qatar for the World Cup amid a feverish rush for rooms in Doha. Some will sleep on cruise ships. Others will camp in the desert. Others will fly in from Dubai and elsewhere.

But in the run-up to the world’s biggest sporting event in the world’s smallest host country, the struggle for housing is hardly limited to tourists. Qatar’s real estate frenzy has sent rents skyrocketing and priced long-term residents out of their own homes, leaving many in the lurch.

“Landlords are taking full advantage of the situation and there’s nothing in place to support the people who already live here,” said Mariam, a 30-year-old British resident whose landlord refused to renew her annual contract in September, then quadrupled her monthly rent — from 5,000 Qatari riyals (some $1,370) to 20,000 riyals ($5,490). Unable to afford the increase, she had no choice but to move out and is now staying at a friend’s place.

“It’s really demoralizing,” she said, giving only her first name for fear of reprisals, like other renters interviewed in the autocratic nation. Others spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason.

Residents in the country, where expats outnumber locals nine to one, say the surging demand and shortage of rooms ahead of the World Cup has empowered landlords to raise rents by over 40% in many cases on short notice, forcing tenants to pack up and face an uncertain future.

The Qatari government acknowledged the “increased demand for accommodation” and encouraged tenants who believe they have been wronged to file a complaint with the government’s rental disputes committee.

Some 1.2 million fans are expected to descend next month on the Gulf Arab sheikhdom, which has never before hosted an event on the scale of the World Cup.

Local organizers have sought to dispel fears of an accommodation crisis, pointing out that Qatar has set aside 130,000 rooms, available through the official website. The rooms, which are in hotels, resorts, specially built housing and three cruise ships at the port, start at around $80, they say, although it’s not clear how many low-budget options there are.

A price ceiling applies to 80% of the rooms, the government said in a statement to The Associated Press. It did not respond to questions about whether and how the cap has been implemented, and the ceiling — which is about $780 for a five-star resort room — can go higher, depending on the room’s amenities.

Many long-term occupants in hotels and apartments say they’re being driven out to make room for players, staffers and fans.

“You’re committed to either staying and paying the extra or leaving and not knowing whether you’re going to have anywhere to live,” said a British teacher whose landlord hiked his rent by 44%. The teacher sold all his furniture and is now crashing at a friend’s place, worried sick about his future.

Other renters renewing their leases reported signs appearing on their apartments marking the buildings as “chosen by the government to host the 2022 World Cup guests and events.”

The notice, seen by the AP, orders tenants to vacate so the building can be handed over for maintenance ahead of the tournament.

Local organizers have signed a deal with French hospitality company Accor to set aside some 45,000 rooms for fans.

Omar al-Jaber, the executive director of housing at Qatar’s Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy, said the government played no role in contract terminations affecting long-term tenants.

“To be honest with you, we are not controlling what happens in the market,” he told the AP.

A 48-year-old French pilates instructor said that when she signed her lease a year ago, her landlord promised he wouldn’t kick her out during the World Cup. Yet just days before her lease renewal, she got a devastating message: Her landlord couldn’t rent her the place for “personal reasons.” The next day, her friend saw her room advertised on Airbnb for nearly $600 more a month than she had paid.

“You’re kicking out long-term residents for a one-month event?” she said. “People are angry. It’s very disruptive.”

Residents scrambling to find new homes because of the rent hikes say it’s nearly impossible to find suitable places within their budgets. Most two-bedroom apartments on the Pearl, an artificial island off Doha, go for over $1,000 a night on Airbnb. Luxury apartments on the site can fetch a staggering $200,000 a month.

“The accommodations that are left for us are not good at all,” said a 32-year-old Indian resident whose monthly rent will increase by over $400 next month. “Suddenly if we can afford it, there’s no kitchen, it’s too far away or it’s divided by partitions. It’s very disturbing.”

Energy-rich Qatar has spared no expense in its grand plans for the first World Cup in the Arab world, promising that locals and expat residents will enjoy a lasting legacy, too.

“This tournament is for everyone who’s living in Qatar,” said al-Jaber. “We would like everyone to enjoy this tournament.”

But some say the tight squeeze shows the joyous event comes at a cost.

“It’s costing me a lot of stress and money,” said the British teacher who had to leave his apartment after seven years. “I’m having to pay for the World Cup.”

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DeBre reported from Jerusalem.

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