As I step off the plane and into the terminal at Qatar’s glistening new Hamad International Airport, the crowd of fellow passengers chattering around me would give credit to the statistics indicating the Middle East as one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world.
The reality, in this case, is starkly different. No sooner has our group reached the fork directing travellers towards the transfer desks than I find myself alone, a solitary figure heading towards passport control and luggage retrieval. For while plenty of passengers head to Qatar from a multitude of countries, very few actually stop in the small kingdom for longer than it takes to hop on another flight and head elsewhere.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi take the lion’s share of tourists heading to the Gulf, with Oman’s beaches an increasingly trendy destination among those heading to the region; and yet, I cannot help but think the wider travel community is missing a trick by overlooking Qatar and its proud capital city, Doha.
(Ok, I’ll admit it – I do also feel quite smug about being one of those who gets to enjoy Doha and all it has to offer on a semi-regular basis. It’s like being a loyal patron at a great, little restaurant nobody knows about: you think everyone is missing out, yet you relish being the custodian of that little secret.)
Clearing passports only takes me five minutes – there are separate queues for Gulf countries visitors and foreigners, but neither numbers more than a dozen people; we in the latter, having travelled for the best part of ten hours through the night, looking a bit worse for wear– and, after recovering my relatively light luggage, I head out for a taxi. It is time to get exploring.
So much to see, so little time
Doha is not a massive city, even tough it extends onto a relatively wide area due to its low-rise buildings (outside a few, skyscraper-crowded areas). The capital features two main hubs, one encompassing the old souk and the administrative buildings in the south and one featuring all the hotels and embassies in West Bay, divided by the picturesque Corniche. This crescent-shaped seafront promenade is flanked by a major thoroughfare where giant, gas-guzzling 4x4s zoom by with little respect for the eardrums or, more often, line up (im)patiently in the slow moving traffic jams that result from the locals’ love of cars. Public transportation is near-absent for the exception of the ubiquitous turquoise taxis, though an extensive subway network is being built as I write, ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
As one would expect from a Gulf country, at pretty much every time of the year, the temperatures are prohibitively hot for most of the day; the town itself is in a sleepy daze from 11am to 4pm, when it is not advisable to stay out, the shops close and no outdoor activity can be pursued without the risk of a heatstroke. Thankfully, Doha saves some of its best bits for indoors, where the aggressively pumped air conditioning creates a climate more reminiscing of Switzerland in October – a pleasant relief for when it gets too sticky outside.
You’re never far away from amazing art
I don’t do heat particularly well: glacier walking in Iceland, yes; but when the thermometer heads north of 30C/86F, things get slightly uncomfortable for me. The idea of heading to a museum offering a world-class collection of artefacts from all over the world, air con and free wifi therefore sounded like a very interesting proposition –but even in a different climate, I wouldn’t have missed the Museum of Islamic Art for anything in the world.
Hosted in a building inspired by the architecture of the Muslim world and designed by I.M. Pei, the MIA is an imposing presence at the southern end of the Corniche. The squared tower, jutting out in the sea atop of an artificial peninsula and flanked by the dhow harbour, is as impressive from the outside as it is inside. Its central space is lit as if by magic by a skylight and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the skyline of West Bay. The collection features art from three continents, illustrating the evolution of Islamic art over the centuries in places as distant as Central Asia and Southern Spain – although the local Qatari contributions are thin on the ground.
This should be addressed by a new National Museum of Qatar, set to replace its predecessor, the Qatar National Museum, which is being built within waving distance of the MIA and which will feature the history of the country from its Bedouin and tribal origins all through the emergence of the Qatari state. If you are after some more international fare, however, the al-Riwaq Hall, a 5000m2 exhibition space, hosts a full schedule of temporary cultural shows.
As with most of the investment in Doha, the focus on art is due to the direct involvement of the Qatari Royal family, the Al-Thani, who have been the driving force behind the development of these institutions. These offerings, however, are not limited to the old town – one of my favourite locations in town remains the rebuilt, yet historically accurate Katara: north of the centre, halfway to the Pearl residential quarter, this “village” features some traditional buildings, such as its trademark pigeon towers. There is a large amphitheatre used for performing arts and opera, but the most interesting features are the occasional independent art exhibitions taking place in some of the small art studios occupying the buildings.
You can get lost – and love it
Doha rivals many other cities in the world for art; but there is much more to it than first-class exhibitions. As an independent traveller, I find it a great place to just wander around, losing myself in the sounds and smells of this bustling city.
Most importantly, Doha never makes you feel like you are in a playground. There are big towers and swanky hotels where foreigners and expats mingle, of course; the allure of western-style bars, rooftop pools and Michelin-starred restaurants is a tempting offer, especially for those who stay in town a prolonged amount of time.
Yet, unlike its Gulf brethren, Doha feels quintessentially traditional. As I walk around the bustle of Souq Waqif, the city’s traditional market, it feels as if time is standing still. A market has existed at this location for more than a hundred years, as a trading place for livestock and goods between Bedouins and locals. Refurbished in 2006 after a devastating fire and to preserve its architecture in the traditional style, it’s still a place where you can buy spices, garments and animals alongside the locals. Tourists dot the main thoroughfare; but as I dip into dimly lit side alleys wide enough for a person to squeeze through the stalls, I enter a world that is seemingly for the locals only.
Sense of direction is not necessary – and even if it were, it’d be a lost cause to try and make sense of the maze of alleys and dead ends of the Souq. But it doesn’t matter: I am not here to look for anything in particular (though a pretty teapot adds to the list of souvenirs-with-a-purpose from our travels), but to wander for the joy of wandering only. One corner leads me to the Falcon souq, where the beautiful birds – living up to 25 years and some costing more than $10,000 – are trained and sold; another to an alley where locals puff on hookas in outdoor shisha bars, the smell of flavoured tobacco filling the air; or to a small square where elderly ladies, dressed head-to-toe in black abayas, cook out of portable stoves and sell their food to a crowd of locals, young and old alike.
Glorious food at any hour
Whether it’s foul medames, a dish of cooked fava beans, or a dessert of Umm Ali, Doha will not let you go hungry. The city is a splendid mix of local delicacies and international offerings and I make sure to try both.
Most of the hotels towering in West Bay feature grand restaurants – there’s a Nobu at the Four Seasons, the largest in the world – and the malls that keep springing up in the outskirts of town tick all the boxes when it comes to chain eateries (even though you can find something special, such as Sugar & Spice’s brownie-packed, ice-cream-topped Goodie Jar, a must-try at the Lagoona Mall).
Venture into the souq and around it, though, and you can find a much more authentic taste experience. Hole-in-the-wall sellers get you shawarmas to fill you up for the expense of just a few riyals and family bakeries lure you in with the aromas of fresh qatayef, a sweet dumpling filled with sweet cheese, or mamool date biscuits. The street food scene is not a hipster affair, but one in which fatayer, meat (or cheese) pies are consumed liberally and platters of hummous, tabbouleh and moutabbal are consumed with freshly baked pita bread to go with.
Qatar isn’t the best place on the planet if you’re after an alcoholic drink (even though they’re widely available in the hotels’ restaurants and bars): but their place is taken by glorious concoctions, from fresh fruit cocktails to the refreshing lemon mint, a sugary mix of blended fresh mint leaves and lemonade.
Your chance to see sport stars close
You’ve explored the souq. You have eaten the food, drunk the drink and filled up on art. A visit to Qatar, however, wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the country’s recent obsession with sports.
Gulf residents may not be the most ardent sportspeople – the local governments are trying hard to get people off the sofas and into their trainers – but the powers that be have embarked on a project to bring the biggest sport events and the best facilities to the country. The state will host, in quick succession, the World Athletics Championships in 2019 and the FIFA World Cup in 2022; world-class stadia and training complexes, like the envy-inducing Aspire, attract the best for winter camps and friendly games; and events like the ATP and WTA tennis tournaments and the IAAF Diamond League make a successful stop in Doha every twelve months.
For the tourist, or even the expat living in Qatar, the busy schedule of events is a golden chance to see world class sports at a fraction of the price they would pay at home, the organisers more concerned about filling up the arenas than about revenues. In addition, given the locals’ tendency not to attend events, it’s a great occasion to be as close to their favourite stars as they could be – sitting just metres away from Serena Williams or Novak Djokovic as they play wouldn’t be as easy in Wimbledon!
There is much that can be said about Doha and Qatar. As with many places that have experienced a quick upswing in fortunes, the yawning gap between rich and poor is somewhat striking and examples of inequality are widely available. But for all its flaws, which are being addressed as the state enters a more mature stage in its history, there is just so much that the country has to offer.
Having discovered this gem of the Middle East, I cannot help but think those other passengers, quickly hopping to another connecting flight, are missing a trick. Like the oysters that provided much of Qatar’s wealth in the past, a rugged exterior can hide a pearl.