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Doha: My quick trip to the capital of Qatar

By: Monica Pitrelli

“Nothing is Old in Doha”, says my driver as we enter The Pearl, Doha’s multi-billion dollar artificial island of luxury condos, five-star hotels, marinas and restaurants. Ah, surely that can’t be true, I say. A young guy from the Philippines, he shrugs and replies, “Maybe not, but in the four years I’ve lived here, it sure seems that way.”

I take a look at my plans – an ambitious list for two days of sightseeing – and do a rough count of new versus old. New sights win by a landslide. Glancing at my tally, the driver says, “Of course, National Day is tomorrow, so everything you’ve scheduled on Sunday will be closed.” Make that one day of sightseeing.

We pull into The Pearl’s newly christened Porto Arabia, an area of 31 Mediterranean-style condo towers encircling a boat-laden marina. Here, Rolls Royce dealerships stand in place of convenience stores, an Hermès store instead of a local drycleaner. (Why clean old clothes when you can buy designer downstairs?)

This is but one of many neighbourhoods opening in phases on The Pearl. When the construction dust finally settles, some 41,000 residents will call this Riviera Arabia home; not bad when you think that that was the population of the entire country just 60 years ago.

Current population stats in Doha are harder to gauge. I ask a few people the most common of questions – how many people live here? The answers vary from “a few hundred thousand” (with a skyline of skyscrapers, this seems unlikely) to “1.7 million” (bingo). The wild variation is linked to the city’s staggering expat population; an estimated eight out of ten people in Qatar are foreigners. Some figures include expats, and some don’t.

 

It’s now mid-morning, and we are pulling up to the Katara, a cultural village built in the style of the region’s historical architecture. Its flat roofs, large courtyards and thick walls of mud and coral rock make the village look old, but it’s brand new. Built as a profession of Doha’s desire to be the cultural hub of the Middle East, the area feels like a walk back in time – if one assumes the seaside settlements of centuries past were immaculately clean. The village amphitheatre has been open for only one week; an edifice of huge amounts of white marble, it’s what the Taj Mahal might have resembled if it were built as a performance hall rather than a mausoleum.

On a private island off of the crescent-shaped Corniche waterfront, the Museum of Islamic Art houses an art collection that reportedly cost $300 million to assemble; the bill was picked up by Qatar’s royal family. Opened in 2008, the museum may be new but its contents span a period of 13 centuries, as I learn while rounding out Day One in its galleries.

Of Patriotism and Porsches
As the whole country will be descending on Doha for the National Day festivities, the W Hotel strongly advises all guests to travel strictly by foot today. Word was that the parade started at 8am. 8am? Surely, they won’t get going at such an early hour. So I stroll up to the Corniche at the more reasonable hour of 9am – and miss the entire procession of classic cars, military vehicles and the police fleet of Porsche Cayennes.

Eyeing Souq Waqif in the distance, I walk over for a cup of Turkish coffee. Due to recent restorations, the souq looks new, but it isn’t. Finally! I have succeeded in finding something old – well, oldish. For over 100 years, residents have converged on the market to buy spices, garments and salt and pepper shakers shaped like local people. Okay, perhaps the latter is aimed at tourists. Still, the souq is a better outlet for authentic gifts than the bustling Villaggio, a vast, Venetian-style mall with luxury brands, sky-painted ceilings, gondola rides and an IMAX theatre.

Waiting for a table, I watch children take turns riding a donkey up and down the dirt corridor. At 12.01pm, I finally get a seat – only to learn that food is not served from 12pm to 12.30pm due to noon prayers. Apparently, some restaurants close for hours to escape the scorching 50-degree summer days. (A taxi driver tells me the excruciating summer heat gives him nosebleeds – and, he’s from the lowlands of Ethiopia.) But this is not one of those days. It’s perfectly mild out, and I’m happy to feast on olives and sheesha for 29 minutes until the lunch service resumes.

Cars are now jam-packed along the Corniche. Faces and vehicles are painted with the Qatari flag and people haphazardly dangle out of car windows and sunroofs while horns and music blare. A parade of people is beginning, one that will last into the night. A few overzealous revellers sport costumes – I saw one Batman and a few devils, the latter fittingly riding on the hood of a four-wheel drive. It is a scene of see and be seen, brimming with patriotism and pride.

I walk back to the hotel for a pot of tea and a quick rest. For dinner that night, it’s back to the Corniche to the famed Lebanese restaurant, Al Mourjan. Dusk and falling temperatures have brought families out, to sit on blankets on the waterfront. On a lone pier jutting into the bay, I feast on a meal fit for an emir and am treated to a fireworks display so wide that onlookers watch tennis-match-style to take it all in.

So is there really nothing old around Doha? Obviously, this isn’t the case. There’s the Al Wajbah Fort and the ancient stone carvings at Al Jassasiya, but you’d have to travel beyond the city to see them. As the capital of one of the fastest growing countries in the world, its Bedouin past is being replaced with a calculatedly cosmopolitan future.

Where to Stay?
The W Hotel Doha

 

Did You Know?

With an estimated per capita GDP (PPP) of US$102,891, Qatar ranks as one of the richest nations in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. The World Factbook ranks it second, after Liechtenstein.
Around 80 percent of Qatar’s population lives in Doha.
Before the discovery of oil in the early 1940s, fishing and pearling drove the area’s economy.
Arabic is the official language, and English is widely spoken in business.
If you’re less than impressed with Doha International Airport, a new US$14 billion airport, estimated to be among the world’s largest, is slated to open at the end of this year.
Doha is home to the headquarters of Al Jazeera (which is Arabic for “The Island”).
To tell Qatari men apart from other Gulf state nationals, look for the distinctive black tassels, known in Arabic slang as “tea bags”, that dangle down their backs from their agals, the black rings that hold their headdresses in place.

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