EVIE ANDREOU ventures into the desert state of Qatar, blinded by the glass skyscrapers in its capital Doha
Skyscrapers and sprawling mansions with private swimming pools grab the attention as the first glimpse of Doha is visible from the aircraft window as we descend into Hamad International Airport, Qatar’s new gateway to the world.
A small peninsula state jutting into the Gulf, Qatar has come a long way over the last century. Until the early 20th century its economy relied heavily on fishing and pearling; it was plunged into poverty in the 1930s when Japan introduced cultured pearls but the country bounced back when oil was discovered.
With the third largest natural gas and oil reserves in the world, Qatar is today considered to be the world’s richest country, evident in the ever expanding landscape. Skyscrapers, shopping malls, hotel and housing units, museums, universities and road networks, the peninsula’s capital, Doha, is in construction fever, all part of the National Vision 2030, which aims to achieve a balance between economic, social, human and environmental growth.
Prime among the development projects and set to attract tourists and foreign buyers, Qataris coughed up several billions of dollars (with an estimated cost of around $15bn upon completion) to construct an artificial island off the Doha coast called The Pearl, which consists of luxury housing units, a marina, shops with designer brands, restaurants, cafés and two luxury car dealerships, Maserati and Rolls Royce.
The Pearl, which sits on a former major pearl diving site, is one of the areas non-Qataris are allowed to buy real estate and residential property.
The island currently has 15,000 residents and they are expected to triple by 2018.
Qatari society is conservative and the country’s laws are mainly derived from the Islamic law (Sharia). Despite Qataris dressing conservatively – long robes with a loose headdress called a gutra for men and a black loose dress (abaya) with their hair and most of the face covered for women – young Dohans seem to take great pride in their appearance; women accentuate their eyes and dress abayas up with designer sunglasses and bags, men with perfectly trimmed beards, cufflinks on their robes, and statement watches. They all look effortlessly chic.
Doha is truly a city with great diversity. There are around 1.5 million expatriates living in Qatar, meaning Qataris, with a population of 278,000, are a minority in their own country, so it is no wonder the country’s vision is to be a world-leader for multi-cultural activities.
The city that was known mainly as the home of Al Jazeera television network is set to become the Arabian Peninsula’s cultural capital. A most important step toward that direction is the Katara Cultural Village, the largest cultural project of Qatar, located 30 minutes north of Doha city centre. It hosts operas, plays and concerts, while art exhibitions are organised year-round. It also hosts international, regional and local festivals.
The impressive Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), located on the Corniche, the waterfront promenade stretching for several kilometres along the Doha Bay, is a favourite destination for locals and visitors, and a personal favourite. The building’s design by master of modern architecture Chinese-American IM Pei is in itself a work of art, and breath taking.
The museum’s spectacular collection is another good reason to visit, as it includes manuscripts, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, and glass covering 1,400 years of Islamic art history.
Not far from the museum, lies Souq Waqif, the traditional market, with a dazzling display of goods; it is possible to find almost everything but a magic carpet in its maze-like narrow streets – exotic birds, spices, souvenirs, fabrics, everyday objects and luxury perfume in small ornamental glass jars and jewellery. The heavy smell that infuses the air outside perfume shops though can be dizzying.
Located on the edge of the souq is the Falconry area, where several shops sell various species of perhaps the most prestigious bird in the Gulf states. Falconry is the hobby of the wealthy Qataris and well trained falcons are considered status symbols.
Qataris love their falcons and are determined to provide their winged companions nothing but the best – opposite the shops is the state funded Falcon Hospital, that’s right, a state-of the-art hospital exclusively for the winged hunters. It treats around 9,000 birds per year; specialist vets offer vaccinations, general check-ups, surgical procedures even ‘plastic surgery’ as they restore damaged feathers by attaching parts of new ones.
Another sport that has plenty of fans in the state is football and Doha is on full speed to meet deadlines ahead of hosting the World Cup 2022. A metro is currently being constructed in the city which should be ready by 2018, while the country is to see an increase in foreign workers to around 2.5 million over the next three to five years to build the infrastructure needed for the World Cup.
Less than an hour’s drive or so from Doha leaving behind the glass towers lies the Qataris’ playground, the desert. A desert safari is truly a unique experience. Some manoeuvres attempted by our jeep driver, like going down a very high dune vertically, are definitely not for the faint hearted, but do offer great photo opportunities if you can hold the camera still!
About an hour’s bumpy but exciting drive into the desert, is Khawr al Udayd, the Inland Sea, the natural border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The scenery is beautiful but my initial excitement quickly faded as perhaps my only glimpse of Saudi Arabia was plain desert, miles and miles of desert stretching as far as the eye could see.
Following the safari, Arabic coffee with cardamom and dates, was the perfect treat at a seaside Bedouin tent camp, where lunch was also served.
After lamb and chicken kebabs with freshly baked naan bread, I couldn’t help but take off my shoes for a walk along the beach, after all it isn’t everyday one gets to splash around in the Gulf! In mid March at around 30degrees, the weather was pleasantly warm and breezy but I did not avoid a mild sunburn.
Qatar observes the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam like Saudi Arabia, however the country is open to tourists and embraces modernity on its own terms; business, Islamic tradition, culture and diversity are pieces of the mosaic that make today’s Doha.
Evie Andreou travelled to Doha with the five-star airline Qatar Airways which flies directly from Larnaca to Doha four times a week and will be increased to five in June. For more information: www.qatarairways.com