Last year I spent a couple of months in Doha, where my father has relocated for business purposes. Never having seen this part of the world before, I wanted to experience what life is like living in the Middle East. Formerly one of the poorest Persian Gulf states, Qatar has become one of the region’s wealthiest states largely due to its enormous natural gas revenue. With a small indigenous population of fewer than 250,000 people, foreign workers outnumber native Qataris. What is remarkable is how much it has developed in only its 42nd year of independence. And now with the 2022 FIFA World Cup being held in Qatar, the whole world will witness what this tiny desert state has to offer.
One of the first few things that struck me about Doha (the capital of Qatar) was its architecturally captivating skyline. Not as towering or extravagant as the Dubai skyline, there is a unique subtlety to it. At the centre, stands the Doha Tower, which was recognized as the overall “Best Tall Building Worldwide” in the 2012 CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) Awards Program. Extending along the crystal blue Doha Bay is the Corniche seafront, a popular location among walkers, bikers and joggers. This is where I spent a part of my spare time, running along the water and the date palm trees, amidst a flock of people of various nationalities. It was a wonderful atmosphere, especially at night time.
Considered one of the safest places in the world, it took some time to digest the reckless abandon of the Qataris. Leaving fancy four-wheelers unlocked with the car keys and other valuables inside and the car engine running, while the ‘Sheikhs’ go offer namaz, was a common sight. A land of millionaires, I don’t recall coming across a single beggar or poor person during my two months there.
Doha beautifully blends modern life with ancient traditions. On the one hand you have the ultra-modern sky scrapers and malls filled with familiar American and European brands, while on the other you have the traditional ‘souqs’ where people have traded goods for centuries. Souq Waqif, also known as the Irani Market, has an Aladdin type feel to it, with its old buildings, lanterns and Arab music. With dozens of indoor and outdoor restaurants, serving cuisines from all over the world, small cafés and shisha lounges, the locals and expats alike love spending time here.
Built on the water, a few feet off the Corniche, is the Museum of Islamic Art. Its unique architectural design attracts as much attention as its complete collection of Islamic artifacts. From ancient manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, priceless jewelry to weapons, the place is a wonderful representation of Islamic history. The items on display originate from all over the world, specifically Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India and Central Asia.
Shopping, or malls for that matter, do not excite me, but the Venice-themed Villaggio Mall, located in the Aspire Zone, is one of its kind. This single story shopping mall is built around a long indoor canal with gondolas and the ceiling gives the effect of a cloudy sky, creating a mini Venice in Doha. Places like these, along with the City Centre Mall, are thronged with people of many nationalities on the weekends. Spoilt Arab children spending hours in the gaming zone and food courts, while the thobe-clad Qatari men enjoy their shisha, it’s not a lifestyle I can quite come to terms with.
Special effort has been made to depict traces of the Qatari heritage through places like the Katara Cultural Village. Built near the beach, with art and photographic galleries, a visual art centre and the Qatar Music Academy, Katara is an absorbing place where you can spend hours. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival, an annual five-day event, is held there promoting Arab and international filmmaking. Watching “Kon-Tiki” on an open rooftop theatre on a cool winter’s night was an unforgettable cinematic experience!
If you’re a sports fanatic, then Doha is the place to be. Home to the largest and the most technologically advanced sports dome in the world (at the Aspire Academy), Doha is gradually becoming the centre of attraction in the sporting world. Having already hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and the 2011 Asian Indoor Games, Doha is setting its sights on bigger things. Each year, some of the best men and women tennis players take centre stage at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex for ATP and WTA level tournaments. I had the pleasure of practicing there with some of their national team players. With 27 synthetic hard courts and a stadium court with a capacity of 7000 spectators, it is probably the best tennis facility I have come across in my playing career.
The Qatari professional football league, known as the Qatar Stars League, is beginning to attract some very high profile footballers, including the likes of Spanish legend Raul, Nilmar, Harry Kewell and Abdul Kader Keita. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of watching my childhood idol, Raul, live on a football field so I dragged my dad into taking me to the Al Sadd-Al Khour game at the multi-purpose Al Sadd stadium. In a carnival like atmosphere, crazy locals dressed in Spanish attire and the Al-Sadd colors, chanted to the accompaniment of drums each time the home team built an attack and expressed their utter disapproval at a bad miss. If there’s one thing, the Qataris are really passionate about their sports.
With constructions taking place at the speed of light, Doha is still in the process of developing and finding its own. It won’t be long before this ‘Pearl of the Gulf’ is fully established as one of the preferred tourist destinations for visitors from all around the world.