I completed my sabbatical with a brief stopover in Qatar’s capital city; a chance to experience a new culture and my first stay courtesy of a http://www.couchsurfung.org host. I arrived early enough to see much of the city in my first day. There are countless skyscrapers with more half-built, as the desert state aims to compete with Dubai in the coming years. Qatar has the highest average income per person in the world, with little taxes, meaning that the Qataris benefit from sizeable disposable income. Doha is a city where consumers are king and queen, with several enormous malls housing designer labels and everyone driving around in the latest luxury 4×4 Land Cruisers. ‘Dune bashing’ is a popular activity at the weekend, when the young men careen up steep desert sand dunes and try to kill themselves coming down the other side.
Single tourists are not really catered for as the tour companies aim for at least four people per tour and charge accordingly, so I thought that I’d make my own city tour, starting with a visit to the City Center Mall,including a huge supermarket that had 45 tills and everything you could ever need. The mall had the air conditioning set to ‘permafrost’ which meant that its cinema was so cold that I had to wear a hat down over my ears to fight hypothermia. Close by is the 7km coastal promenade known as the Corniche, which offers views of the high-rise skyline and is home to the Museum of Islamic Art which is worth a visit, even though the collection needs to grow considerably to fill the vast exhibition space. Have you noticed a common theme yet? Yes, everything is big in Doha.
Opposite from the museum is the largest traditional souq; a labyrinth of small shops and restaurants with the confines of mud-walled alleyways and buildings, known as Souq Waqif. A great place for bargain hunting, smoking shisha or picking up a mistreated pet for your children.
Doha was hosting the Asian Cup football tournament, so I bought a ticket to see the hosts play the might of Kuwait at the fantastic Khalifa Stadium in the evening, which is part of a complex the has the stunning Aspire Tower; a skyscraper that housed the torch for the last Asian Games but is now bizarrely closed to the public, despite the amazing views it would offer. Close by is also Doha’s most spectacular mall, known as Villaggio, which reminded me of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, as it is themed on an Italian town and even has canals and ridiculous sunny skies painted on the ceiling. Why didn’t they just have skylights, as it is usually sunny in Qatar! They even have calls to prayer in the malls. Or maybe that should be calls to abandon materialism for just a moment, to pray to the big man. Whatever, it didn’t seem to deter the shoppers.
The game itself was great fun, with a win for Qatar, wildly celebrated by hoards of people in full Arab robes, waving flags from their off roaders. Let’s ignore the fact that Qatar use several foreigners in their team; ‘naturalised’ Qataris! It was difficult to find a taxi afterwards, so I took an unofficial taxi which took rather longer than anticipated, as he didn’t understand the address that I had given him, leading to a ‘backstreet of Doha’ tour, showing me several building sites and sand.
The remaining two days saw the temperature drop and rain move in; a rare occurrence I was told. Lucky me. I visited the Pearl Qatar luxury complex of apartments, restaurants, shops and high-end car dealerships which was built on a reclaimed island of land, Dubai-style. I had to feel sorry for the workers at the Pearl; they must go for hours without customers as it was virtually deserted when I was there. Most of the service industry in Doha is made up of immigrants from India and the Phillipines, so it’s no surprise that English is widely spoken by locals, since you have to speak English to get served!
My mini-guidebook recommended that I visit the Al Wajbah Fort, built in 1893, but when I eventually found it, the old man ‘gatekeeper’ wouldn’t allow me entry or to take photographs, despite my taxi driver arguing my case. You can see the photograph that I took at the base of this post. What ya gonna say about that gatekeeper? It’s fair to say that Doha is yet to fully embrace tourism…
I attended two more Asian Cup games, seeing Japan humiliate Saudi Arabia in front of a crowd of literally thousands at the Al-Rayyan Stadium… yes 2022 people. That’s all. The Saudis, having lost all of their games, should really stick to their national sports of camel racing and public stonings, it would seem. The Japanese fans really took to the bashing together the inflatable Pong Bong sticks that were given out free, eblazened with sponsor’s names. On the last day I saw that well known ‘Asian’ country of Australia defeat Bahrain under the (thankfully) rain-protecting roof of the Al-Saad Stadium. Bahrain’s fans entertained as much as the match did, with their eccentric and passionate support throughout the match, alas all in vain. At half time, there were several Muslim fans who took the opportunity to praise Allah under the stands, shoes removed, as part of their call to prayer. There is no division between religious identity and national identity in Qatar, as with all Middle Eastern states it would seem. Islam is part of the culture and the law, although it is relaxed to an extent for non-Muslims.
Doha has been the culture shock that I had anticipated and it is a slightly strange setting as the traditional Arab culture lives alongside the ex-pat skilled worker community (2nd class citizens) and immigrant service industry community (3rd class, struggling to make ends meet). My visit was made all the more enjoyable by my host Imran, whose generosity knew no bounds. But if you ever visit Doha, beware of the terrible rush hour traffic. It took me 2 hours to travel the short distance to the airport, causing me to miss my flight. Damn it!