Taxi rides in Qatar are becoming increasingly nightmarish, with the hapless commuter not able to hail a cab at odd hours and in odd places.
Even if one succeeds in waving a taxi to a stop or spotting one parked and waiting, ready to take in a passenger, one needs to be lucky to get in and going.
For you to get into a taxi, the driver has to be willing to take you to the place you wish to go to, for a fare he demands, of course.
Taxi drivers refusing passengers, not using the meter in breach of rules, insisting on a negotiated — usually higher — fare and threatening to drop you midway in some remote place if you refuse to part with that amount, are by now common woes people narrate.
Women are fearful of hiring a taxi, particularly at night, as there have been media reports suggesting some drivers misbehave with them and even make passes at them.
A passenger said on a local networking site that most cabbies keep the doors of their taxis locked, and open them for you to get in only if they “liked you for some reason”.
And then, they quote a fixed fare and you must pay. Many of them don’t switch on the meter and many others use their cars as shared taxis for certain destinations, in violation of rules.
“Some taxi drivers demand different fares from different people. They asked three Nepalese for QR20 to ferry them from Al Rayyan to Al Sadd, but the same amount to carry me alone,” said an Arab expatriate. “The driver was an Asian,” he said, commenting on a social networking site.
Someone who said he always took a cab from home to a shopping complex and back at the weekend pointed out that he now had a permanent arrangement with a private (illegal) taxi operator for the service.
“I was fed up of the blackmail by taxi drivers. Not only do they ask for a higher fare, but they are also arrogant and often refuse to take you after hearing the name of the place you wish to go to,” said the person, not wanting his name in print.
“I prefer this arrangement with the private taxi. I don’t care if they operate legally or illegally.”
Inadequate taxis on the roads, coupled with the problems cited above, are largely to blame for the mushrooming of illegal private taxis in the country.
“Most people not having their own cars now depend on private (and illegal) taxis for daily commuting. They have permanent arrangements with these operators,” said an Asian who himself pays QR600 to an illegal taxi operator to be ferried to his office and back home on weekdays.
“This is true more for women office-goers,” he said. “They trust the illegal taxi operators and not the ones passing you by casually, though they are legal.”
Some say the old orange and white taxis were the best ones in terms of pricing and service. “They were available all the time and everywhere, and would ferry you anywhere within Doha for about five to six riyals,” said an old-timer.
It is more than a decade since those taxis were phased out and the state-run transport company came into being, and it was only much later that two other taxi operators, both private, sprang up.
“Those times were undeniably good, but you must remember that the population then was in a few hundred thousands, and now it is more than two million,” said another old-timer.
Individual taxi operators can hardly cater to an exploding population. “If you recall, illegal private taxis began mushrooming after 2004-05, when the population suddenly started surging,” said the old-timer. “They sprang up to fulfil the yawning gap between demand and supply.”
An Indian private taxi operator who recently lost his job in neighbouring Saudi Arabia came to Qatar, and with help from relatives and friends, managed to get a work visa and buy a used car for QR30-35,000, and is now dependent entirely on his illegal business for income.
He lives in the Old Airport Area, in a shared accommodation, and makes a minimum of QR5,000 a month serving a permanent clientele comprising office-goers and women who teach in schools.
Taxi drivers have their own “woeful tales” to narrate. Low pay and perks, difficult working conditions, and the “impracticable” daily rental system “forced” on them by their employers are to blame for the sad state of affairs as regards taxi services in the country.
A taxi driver working with one of the cab operating companies said on grounds of anonymity that while being recruited in his home country he was verbally offered such lucrative terms that he couldn’t resist.
“They even showed us photographs of our living quarters, with a fancy swimming pool. But when I landed here I realised I had been cheated.”
Drivers of a major taxi operating company say they are made to pay QR265 a day as car rent for 12 hours (QR300 for 15 hours), although the fuel is provided by the company.
“On a normal day I am not able to do this much business. And most of the time I am stressed thinking that time is running out and I must achieve that target,” said the driver.
Driving from one place to another in Doha takes more time than before due to traffic snarls. “This is affecting our earning, so how do we pay the rent to the company?” said the cabbie.
As a result of a strike by a group of taxi drivers of another company, the latter has reduced the daily rental amount to QR220, but cabbies say that sum is also too high to manage.
“We are stressed all the time thinking of how to manage the daily rent. If we don’t pay, we are fined. We must also pay for traffic violations,” said a taxi driver of one of the three companies.
One of these companies pays a monthly salary to its drivers, and a commission if a monthly target of QR10,000 as total fare is reached. But drivers say the salary is a meagre QR1,400.
An Arab national working as a cabbie with the above company, who didn’t want to be identified by name or nationality for fear he might be fired, said: “I challenge that if our company pays us QR4,000 instead of QR1,400 a month, we would be able to give the company up to QR400 to QR500 per day.”
There is business. “It is just that a paltry salary leaves us uninspired to work and serve the people,” said the Arab taxi driver.
Not unconvincingly, then, a senior official of one of the taxi operating companies said, when contacted for comment, that a driver on average makes an extra QR130 daily (besides the rent he has to pay to the company). “So, where is the problem?”
The official said: “The company gives them food allowance as well, and provides accommodation and laundry services free”.
Of course, the drivers, since they are trained, are not expected to violate the traffic law, but some of them do jump red lights and break speed limits, so fines pile up, according to the official.
“Yes, we do try to recover the fines from the drivers, but most of the time it is the company that ends up paying the fine when it is time to renew the registration of a vehicle,” added the official.
Meanwhile, a cursory look at the situation as regards taxi services in neighbouring Dubai shows that occasionally there are strikes by drivers demanding better pay and perks.
In Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, the largest GCC country, there are an estimated 70,000 taxis operated by about 850 companies.
Most drivers there pay up to Saudi riyals 150 a day (almost equivalent of Qatari riyals QR150) as rent to their companies, although they buy the fuel.
Media reports suggest there are no complaints on that count although problems of different kinds like taxis not being clean, and Saudi women being reluctant to ride in cabs driven by their fellow countrymen, are galore.
A report on the taxi service in Riyadh aired by MBC TV recently suggested that Saudi women prefer Asian expatriate cabbies because they are more respectful and cannot make out what they are talking about.
The TV station chanced upon a Saudi taxi driver who was dressed in Pakistan’s traditional attire (salwar-qameez) and when the reporter asked him why he was not wearing his national dress, he said: “If I do, no Saudi woman would hail my taxi”.
In Riyadh, the local chamber of commerce recently held a meeting of taxi operating companies, drivers and chamber officials to discuss the problems. The chamber later forwarded a set of recommendations to the Saudi government to improve the city’s taxi services.
In Dubai, a demand was made by taxi drivers some three years ago for the labour ministry to set up a committee to study their woes and suggest remedial measures. This, because, like Qatar, taxi drivers, are governed in Dubai by the local labour law.
In Qatar, a transport ministry has been set up recently, and one hopes it would take up the issue of taxi services in the country (and the woes the cabbies narrate) and look for a viable solution to the problems people at large, the taxi operating companies and the cabbies face.