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Doha dreams (of becoming Dubai)

I chose to write about Doha not because of what it is now, but rather what it looks fairly certain to become by the end of this decade: a major travel hub from the Persian Gulf serving all Continents (except perhaps South America), that most frequent travelers will have to at least pass through on their way to their desired final destination.

City entrance

If the above sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same description that fits a city not too far to the East of Doha: Dubai. Due to some very progressive planning, Dubai has managed to make its rather quirky attractions ranging from the world’s first seven-star hotel (already in service), to the world’s tallest structure (to be completed in the next couple of years), to all the denizens of today’s ‘global village.’

Unlike Dubai which contrary to popular belief makes very little of its income from oil and gas, Qatar intends to put the financial windfall of its recently discovered gas bonanza (currently the world’s second biggest producer of Liquefied Natural Gas and set to take over the top spot by the end of the decade), to thrust it into the global travel and business scene.

The first step towards this goal is through the dramatic upgrading of the National air carrier: Qatar Airways (whose fleet will grow from the current 29 planes to 52 in 2008), and its base of Doha airport. The new Doha airport (supposed to be completed by 2008), will be designed specifically for the A-380-800 Airbus and have the capacity for 12 million passengers per Diem.

There is an entity in Qatar that has already achieved a fair share of global notoriety:  Al- Jazeera television network.

The former achieved praise in the region during the 1990s by being the first station to portray the unflattering truths regarding the various autocracies in the Muslim world, but it has been continuously in the global spotlight since the events of 9/11 due to Bin Laden and the Iraqi insurgents proclivity towards using Al-Jazeera as their main rhetorical outlet.

Interestingly enough the news arm of the network does not seem to be the most revered wing; as in Qatar and other Middle Eastern nations Al-Jazeera sports which has exclusive rights to the live broadcasts of various European soccer leagues (such as Spain’s Primera), not only gets significantly more viewers, but its broadcasts are often the only nocturnal attraction in a region where pubs and discos are unheard of (except in Dubai).

City centre mall

Al-Ubeid airbase acted as the American military’s command center for the liberation (or invasion depending on your political taste!), of Iraq in 2003.Unlike countries like South Korea or Germany where the presence of the sizeable American military contingents can be seen and felt on a regular basis, Qatar and its neighboring Gulf nations have gone out of their respective ways to keep American soldiers out of the general populace, not only to prevent  the locals from feeling under occupation, but also to protect the servicemen from likely random or planned violence.

So, even though the Camp is a fairly short distance from Doha, expect to meet only high-paid white collar Yanks in the Qatari capital!

One feature of Central Doha which will surely remind a visitor of Baghdad is the site of joined massive swords that are meant to act as a symbolic, valorous gateway to the city

If you’re an individual who has no prior firsthand experience in the region, safety must be your biggest concern and doubt. I would describe Doha as quite indolent and placid, yet the city has experienced two recent high-profile car bombings. One carried out by Russian security agents against an exiled Chechen warlord and another by an Egyptian immigrant against a local international school. Due to the strict Islamic laws being enforced on petty criminals; your car, wallet, passport or camera are undoubtedly under less threats in Qatar than in America, Europe or any of the “Liberal” nations!

If Doha is the first Persian Gulf city that you have ever visited your initial feeling will be that of surprise as once you start glancing at the inhabitants you can’t help but sense that you have been dropped off somewhere in the Indian sub-Continent!. Due to the native Qatari’s (who are numbered at just 636,000), being unwilling to take menial or manual labor jobs, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are brought in annually from India, Pakistan, Nepal and other parts of the sub-Continent.

The natives are quite easy to spot as it seems each one is trundling through Doha’s modern new roads in either a luxury sedan or an SUV. In the residential areas of the capital seeing 3 or 4 such vehicles in each driveway is quite a common sight!

In terms of traditional sightseeing Doha is still fairly limited. The National Museum which is located on the corniche was closed for renovations during my stay so I can’t really comment on it.

Doha’s traditional market (Soogh), is a good place to spend half the day wandering the sundry alleys in search of unique items and bargains–it’s divided into different sections selling gold, electronics, perfumes and miscellaneous  items. The Persian section is the perfect place to have a quintessential Middle Eastern experience: smoking a water pipe–in Arabic it’s literally referred to as glass (shisha), with the difference here being that you will not get the sweet, fruit-flavored tobacco most often used in other quarters, but rather pure, dried leaves which make for a more caustic smoke.

The Falcon monument

A very interesting place which I didn’t have a chance to patronize is the falcon market—breeding and training falcons is an ancient Qatari pastime.

If your craving a more modern shopping experience as well as a chance to check out Doha’s social nerve center , the City Centre shopping complex is your required destination–though it lacks the sheer size and energy of its Dubai counterpart, this City Centre has an ice skating rink which none of its counterparts in the Gulf can match.

For one in search of culinary delights Doha can be an unexpected treat–a wide variety of restaurants serving tasty, traditional South Asian dishes are scattered throughout downtown Doha and just a few Kilometers away is the Al-Sadd district which is sure to delight and even dumbstruck a Westerner since this area holds nearly every American fast food chains in just a few square blocks! . Arby’s, Applebee’s, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, Ponderosa, TCBY and TGI Friday’s are just some of the famous (or infamous?), eating establishments located in Al-Sadd.

Renting a car in Doha is the best idea as far as transportation, since most taxis are operated by independent drivers who are not forced to have a meter which forces the passenger into an often lengthy negotiation regarding the fare— besides; waiting for either a taxi or local bus during daylight hours can be an excruciating experience due to Doha’s heat and humidity. Having a car gives you a chance to take a day trip through Qatar’s pristine desert sands or to spot the occasional ancient fort or pearl diver on the coast. Be warned that as of now no hotels exist as outside of Doha!

A drive through the suburbs and outskirts of Doha will surely turn you on to the Qatari government’s huge emphasis and investment in sports—Doha has its sights set on successfully hosting the 2006 Asian Games and despite the fact that the city already has 14 world class stadiums roughly a dozen more are soon to be completed. Local officials have concentrated on bringing in famous athletes in various fields from all over the world.

Pearl sculpture on the Corniche

The annual ATP tennis tournament attracts top names such Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin-Hardenne, while the world’s most popular sport has also gotten a huge boost in recent years. Peeved by the fact that some of its tiny Gulf neighbors such as Kuwait or the UAE had managed to represent Asia in previous World Cups, the Qatari football authorities brought in aging superstars such as Gabriel Batistuta, Marcel Desailly, Fernando Hierro, Stefan Effenberg and the De Boer brothers to mostly act as tutors to the fledgling local players. If you’re a fan of any of the foreign stars being in Doha will be quite a treat as you are likely to have unprecedented access. After having found out that a big reason for me coming to Doha was to see him in the flesh; I not only managed to score Batigol’s Autographed jersey, but also his personal water bottle—nothing like having your favorite footballer’s bodily fluids as a souvenir!

Lodging in Doha is a bit tricky since the only hotels that can be found on the internet are the high-priced Western chains. There are a handful of 2 or 3-star hotels in or near downtown which have more reasonably priced rooms (starting from roughly 50 to 60 dollars a night), so if you have a passport that allows for a visa upon arrival, your best option would be to seek out these places after leaving the airport. If your nationality requires sponsorship from a hotel in order to secure a visa, then you are likely to be stuck with the aforementioned expensive accommodations.

View the author’s pictures and photographs on his own website.

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