The capital of tiny but wealthy Qatar, Doha, has been making its way onto global travellers’ itineraries since its deliberate metamorphosis into a modern Islamic city. It is a child of globalisation and a shrinking globe: almost in tandem with the Middle East’s growing economic and political significance to the Western world, the characterless port of transit learned to take full advantage of its ideal location on the Persian Gulf to refashion itself as the bridge between East and West. State-owned Qatar Airways brought footfalls as the fastest growing airline in the world with eight million passengers a year. And Doha put all its petrodollars into a makeover. The city’s desire to wrestle down Dubai as the hub of the Arab world is thinly veiled. So even as Doha promises paradise in a brief layover, it is unabashed that it’s not “$50 tourists” it’s really after, but potential investors.
When Doha appears in your travel plan, know that it has done everything it can to wheedle its way there. It’s not destiny, but single-minded design.
Getting your bearings
Doha, where sixty per cent of Qataris live now, was a small and inconsequential fishing and pearling village up until the mid-nineteenth century, when the first Al-Thani emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, established his capital at Al-Bida, now the port area of town. Most of West Bay Doha’s inhabitants are now foreigners — ranging from well-paid Americans to cheap labour from South Asia (especially India) — employed in the construction and engineering industries. The Qataris, some of the wealthiest citizens in the world, live in suburban mansions.
Doha is young. Two things lie at the core of everything you see or experience here: the heat and searing ambition. In just a decade, its flat desert landscape has erupted into giant skyscrapers, supermalls and cultural plazas. The world’s top architects have crafted the ever-visible skyline — especially the phallic and zig-zag buildings and the Asian Games tower-torch — but it is the silhouette of construction cranes that is unshakeable. Airconditioning is omnipresent, and if the blueprint for Qatar’s winning bid to host the FIFA World Cup is to be believed, Doha’s pavements will be air-cooled by 2022. Despite the unbridled growth, the city is not frenzied. Perhaps it is the famed Arab hospitality, but Doha has perfected a luxurious languor.
Shopping and travel are costly, with the assumption that if you’re in the city, chances are you’re a business traveller. But, as the World Cup could bring fans of all kinds, public transport is being built. For now, the airport or your hotel will help arrange for cars and SUVs. Or call the sea-blue taxis run by Mowasalat Karwa (+974-4588888) costing QR3 plus QR1 per km (1 Qatari riyal = approx. Rs 15). Trying to hail an empty one on the street could mean a wait for over half an hour.
What to see & do
The first destination for tourists is The Corniche, a walkway along the West Bay. At one side of it, rising from water, is The Museum of Islamic Art (free entry, closed Tuesday; 44224444). Built by architect I.M. Pei of the Paris Louvre pyramid fame, it looks like a woman in a veil. The geometric, tiered design of pale limestone accented with charcoal granite is modern, but woven within it are the arches, domes and fountains of traditional Islamic architecture. Open since late 2008 with largely collections from the art collectors of the emir’s family and years of state-bankrolled treasure-hunting, the museum now houses the largest collection of Islamic artefacts in the world.
Doha’s main market is Souq Waqif (open 10am–noon and 4–10pm). Although there was a market here for centuries, the mud-shops, winding pathways and timber beams you see now were built in 2004 to ensure an antique look. Stalls sell oud (agarwood incense), herbs and spices, shisha pipes, traditional Qatari clothes and cute burqa-clad bobbleheads. In the central courtyard, you can see and handle falcons, highly prized in Qatar for their hunting abilities. Bargain wildly. It is expected. Then relax with your loot at one of the several shisha cafés.
In the north is Katara, the city’s cultural village, and usually the venue for film and music festivals. The small beach, amphitheatre, art galleries and varied traditional restaurants make it a good place to relax in the evening. Close by is the sprawling Pearl, a bunch of islands and villas on reclaimed land, now the hottest real estate property in Qatar. A parallel universe for Westerners, bars and pubs are open here 24/7, unlike in Doha where alcohol is only served in five-star hotels.
It’s impossible that your stay in Doha will be complete without someone mentioning the most prominent of the emir’s three wives, the glamorous Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who heads the state-funded Qatar Foundation. She broke with custom five years ago when she appeared in public without a face covering, but is now known for leading the drive to recruit universities like Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown to open branches here at a new 2,500-acre Education City. A twenty-minute drive from Doha, the state-funded campus is inspiring — even if in true Qatar style, students arrive in Lamborghinis and notices remind them that their maids are “not permitted beyond the entrance door”.
As malls go, Doha too believes in palace-like shopping arcades. Its most opulent (or kitschy) is the Villagio. Modelled as an indoor Venice reminiscent of the Venetian in Las Vegas, it even has gondolas, a canal running along the length of the mall and ceilings painted to look like blue skies. Think of a major Western brand, and it is here, albeit with modest window displays, in line with the conservative society. The other popular mall is City Center-Doha, the largest in the Middle East, and this one has a multiplex too. Doha malls practise ‘family days’ — you’ll know by the board outside — which usually means the guard has the right to reserve admission to undesired customers. The discretion is entirely his, and is mostly only applied to low-income immigrants and not tourists.
The internationally recognised 18-hole Doha Golf Club (44960777, dohagolfclubcom) hosts the annual Qatar Masters in March. Open to non-members, it also has a flood-lit, nine-hole academy course.
The flagship of Qatari influence across the Middle East is the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, whose headquarters doesn’t offer a tour, but it is worth writing to their press office (firstname.lastname@example.org)to check. Also, The Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre (44250250, fanar.gov.qa) offers non-Arabic speakers the chance to hear the khutbah — Friday lunchtime sermon — in English, if you contact them in advance.
Doha Fort has been closed for renovation for a while, so for a spot of history, visit Al Zubara, a ruined medieval town just about a hundred kilometres outside Doha. Its fort is perhaps one of the few places where one can find traditional Qatari architecture today. A younger fort, used until recently by the emir in battles with Saudi Arabia, is the Barzan Tower in Umm Salal Mohammed, only an hour and back from Doha.
Take a half-day desert safari to ride the sand-dunes at Khor Al Adaid, Qatar’s stunning inland sea from QR250 per person. Qatar International Tours (44551141, qittour.com) can organise this.
Where to eat
Most Mediterranean cuisine restaurants and cafés in the Souq are of reasonable quality, but the Iranian Isfahan Gardens (5287521) might be the best. Almost all will have shishas, and accept US dollars. On the Corniche with a great view of the bay is Al Mourjan (44834423, almourjan.com) which serves the Arab world’s most popular cuisine — Lebanese. Sit outside if it is dinner time. In Katara cultural village, the Egyptian restaurant, Khan Farouk Tarab (44080840) is also excellent. Al Dana restaurant (4256227, sharqvillage.com) in Sharq Village, has global fusion cuisine focused on seafood.
Something about the prohibition of alcohol has all tourists going looking for bars! The poolside bar Wahm at the W Hotel (QR70 a cocktail; 44535000, whoteldoha.com) serves alcohol or the even pricier Sky View Bar atop La Cigale (44288888, lacigalehotel.com) may satisfy you. Qatari law requires ID for entry to all bars.
Where to stay
The stunning St Regis (from $115; 44980586, stregisdoha.com), on the beach in central Doha, has blended Arab hospitality and their five-star service to give you a personalised butler, a presidential suite frequented by US state guests and the best steak and jazz in town. Hotel Souq Waqif, on the northern edge of Souq Waqif (QR850; 4433030, swbh.com), is Doha’s first boutique hotel but the hoteliers run six heritage stays in the area. The state-run Oryx Rotana, close to the airport on Al Matar Street (QR900; 44023333, rotana.com/oryxrotana), has excellent rooms and food. The Ramada Encore, near Grand Hamad Street ($28; 44443444, ramadaencoredoha.com), is a budget option and has free wifi.