Situated on a thumb-shaped peninsula the size of Connecticut jutting off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Qatar is mostly desert and natural gas wells surrounded by the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Doha, however, Qatar’s largest city, is an urban oasis with sparkling swimming pools, iridescent green golf courses and soaring glass skyscrapers that form a necklace of glittering lights amid the desert-tan terrain of one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
There are stunning juxtapositions everywhere. Overloaded melon wagons and sleek, silver Mercedes share the seaside boulevard; brilliantly designed museums, surrounded by gurgling fountains and palm trees, face canary yellow construction cranes and fields of rebar; a dazzling public mosque is the centerpiece of the world’s newest airport; and within a few years a new Metro train will flash across the flat landscape like a mirage in the Qatari desert. Doha, with its atmospheric Arabian scenery and eclectic lifestyle, has quickly become a global business and cultural center, as Qatar itself evolved into a major political and financial player in world affairs.
Once a quiet pearl fishing port, Doha left its history as a hot and isolated backwater far behind when Qatar grew very rich as the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas. Although the country is a member of OPEC and has been producing a significant amount of oil since the 1950s, the Qatari government has focused on extracting and exporting some of its 896 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — about 14 percent of the world’s supply — which Qatar converts into liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
Together, oil and LNG exports account for 60 percent of Qatar’s gross domestic product, resulting in phenomenal revenue and an extremely high standard of living for the 250,000 Qatari nationals, many of whom live among Doha’s 1 million residents. With the country’s average annual income of $113,000, the highest in the world, and average wealth per adult of $153,294, the highest in the Middle East, Qatari companies often hire laborers from outside the country to work on the sizable construction and energy projects Qatar has undertaken.
Doha reaps the material rewards of the country’s energy production, and it shows. Construction activitiy in the city increased at a steady pace for the past 15 years with new seaside residential and office towers, international-style deluxe hotels, luxury automobile showrooms and upscale boutiques filling once-empty lots along the city’s Corniche, a 4.5-mile, palm-fringed promenade along the curve of Doha Bay. One of the earliest residential developments available for ownership by foreign nationals, the Pearl-Qatar project was announced in 2004 and promptly attracted world attention because its planned location, an artificial island adjacent to the city, was to cover one of Doha’s main pearl diving sites. Today, the Pearl is almost completed, an architectural wonder with dozens of residential towers, townhouses on 13 manmade islands, high-end shops and restaurants and almost 40,000 full- and part-time residents.
A project that received rave reviews upon its opening in 2008 was Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei. The museum — two limestone buildings situated 180 feet offshore and connected by pedestrian bridges — houses priceless Islamic art, metalwork, ceramics, jewelry, textiles, coins and glass, and is one of the city’s most visited public buildings.
Since the announcement in 2010 that Qatar would host the 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, Doha has seen a staggering number of new projects. Lusail City is probably the biggest, a satellite city encompassing almost 15 square miles of mixed-use residential and business structures, 17 miles of waterfront, five artificial islands and a large marina district with apartments and berths for large yachts. The new city is being prepared in time for the 2022 soccer competition (the Marina District is already completed), and with a target population of 200,000 Qatari nationals and foreigners, will include 22 deluxe business hotels, seven tourist resorts, a light rail network, the 86,000-seat Lusail National Stadium, underground parking, schools, hospitals and 19 distinctive residential and commercial districts.
The $5.5 billion, 76-acre, Msheireb Downtown Doha project will be the world’s first sustainable revitalization plan of a downtown area, with Phase 1 to be completed this year. The development, in Doha’s historic commercial center, comprises more than 100 new or restored buildings, including a department store, a supermarket, a movie theater, hotels, restaurants and cultural venues — along with one of the Middle East’s largest shaded, open-air squares, Al Baraha.
Although the opening of Doha’s new Hamad International Airport was delayed by several years (a rarity in engineering-savvy Qatar), the $15 billion project is set to open in early to mid-2014. Most of the airport was built on land reclaimed from the sea, and the theme of the terminal building is “water.” Although Doha receives less than three inches of rain a year, the terminal features artificial waterfalls, a wave-style roof and recycled water piped in to quench the thirst of thousands of indoor plants. The airport’s parallel runways, 13,944 feet and 15,912 feet, are two of the longest runways in the world, necessary because long-range jets like the Airbus A380 now used by many carriers need plenty of room to lift off in Doha’s sweltering summer.
Noted architects are designing several of the nine soccer stadiums for the World Cup, including a striking building by Zaha Hadid that will be located in Al Wakrah, a heritage port city nine miles south of Doha. Construction of this stadium, which will be air-conditioned to keep the pitch relatively cool, will begin later this year.
There has been much talk about moving the dates of the 2022 World Cup from summer to fall due to Qatar’s summer heat, but no final decision has been made. “We have to see if we can have the World Cup played in November and December, so we do not conflict with the January and February Winter Olympic dates,” said FIFA president Sepp Blatter in a November 2013 press conference.
With tourist and business visitors to Qatar increasing by double digits annually, Doha is quickly moving ahead with infrastructure buildup and hotel development. The Doha Metro is part of a $37 billion transportation project by Qatar Rail that will include light rail, long-distance and freight links to nearby Gulf destinations. Doha Metro will be one of the most modern urban railway networks in the world, with four lines and an overall length of 180 miles connecting 98 stations. The first two lines will be completed by 2019.
Last year, Starwood opened its 336-room St. Regis Doha along the waterfront, and Hilton welcomed the 306-room Hilton Doha at the tip of The Corniche; Mandarin Oriental, Park Hyatt and Mondrian hotels will open in 2014; a colorful Hotel Missoni is slated to open in 2015; and Waldorf Astoria and Le Méridien will greet guests in 2016.
Other international chain properties, including Marriott, Shangri-La and Accor, committed to building in central Doha, with many more hotels scheduling construction within the new development zones in Lusail City and in the new Airport City near Hamad International Airport. “We are delighted and honored to participate in the exciting growth of Doha, in a project that is perhaps the first serious effort anywhere in the world to interface between an international airport and the city it serves,” said architect Rem Koolhaas, whose Dutch firm OMA won the competition to plan Airport City. Phase 1 of the 30-year master plan should be completed before the 2022 World Cup. Within the next 10 years, about $200 billion will be spent on public and private investment projects in Qatar.
The Qatar National Convention Centre, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, opened in 2011; with theaters, exhibition space and 52 flexible meeting rooms, it attracts international corporate and governmental meetings and conventions. The spectacular-looking building is LEED-certified and technology-driven, and its façade resembles two intertwined native sidra trees reaching up to support the unusual exterior canopy.
For all of Doha’s shimmering glass towers, ostentatious displays of wealth and recent leanings toward edgy public art, Qatar remains a conservative Islamic country. Although many international hotel restaurants serve alcohol, except in swimming pool areas or on the beach, locally owned hotels and restaurants do not. And while a dress code is not strictly enforced, most but not all Qatari women wear a black abaya covering most of the body and a niqab face covering; men wear a thobe, an ankle-length garment in shades of white, and a white head cloth. While some Qatari and foreign resident women wear slit skirts and short-sleeved shirts, most Qataris feel offended by a show of too much flesh.
The country’s new emir, 33-year-old Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took office last year when his father, Sheik Hamada bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated after 18 years in power. The young emir is continuing his father’s business-friendly economic policies while maintaining Qatar’s traditional and conservative culture.
The American Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Embassy, both in Doha, work with American companies and educational institutions planning to enter the market and those already doing business here. These include Chevron, Citibank, Boeing, UPS, Bechtel, ConocoPhillips, Ernst & Young, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. “Each day, top American firms and organizations are coming to Doha to partner and exchange knowledge with Qatari institutions in health care, information technology, education, and oil and gas, among other sectors,” said Robert W. Dunn, senior commercial officer, U.S. Embassy, Doha.
Things to Do in Doha
Qatar’s “hot” season lasts from early May to late October, with average high temperatures of 99 to 106 degrees; the “warm” season, early November to late April, has average highs of 70 to 90 degrees and lows in the 60s. Air conditioning is a must for half the year, but during the warm season Doha can be quite comfortable without it. Winter days are pleasant, with Qataris and foreign residents playing soccer or taking long evening walks along the breezy Corniche.
In addition to The Museum of Islamic Art, visitors should see the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, with its 19th-century and contemporary Arabian art; and Katara Cultural Village, a lovely seaside complex of traditional-looking buildings with cobblestone lanes, art exhibitions, concerts and restaurants.
Qatar National Museum, opened in 1975 in a restored palace, is closed while the site is redesigned by French architect Jean Nouvel into a ring of interlocking pavilions with a sand-colored concrete exterior surrounding the older building. When it reopens in late 2014, it will look like a desert rose growing out of the ground. The collections, pertaining to Qatar’s natural and cultural history, include archaeological artifacts, textiles, jewelry, decorative arts and household objects. Some items are presently displayed at the Katara Cultural Center.
The cafés, shops and narrow alleys of Souq Waqif, Doha’s restored covered market, are safe and always busy with foreign visitors, but they exude a sense of intrigue despite the 2006 reconstruction.
For an afternoon or overnight on the Qatari coast, hire a car for the 45-minute trip south to Um Sa’id and the Sealine Beach Resort, where you can swim in the turquoise sea and explore the sand dunes. Another day option is the 18th-century Al Zurbaran Fort, about two hours away, one of Qatar’s most well-known historic landmarks.
CHECKING IN WITH DONALD WEIR
General Manager, Mall of Qatar
IS THIS A GOOD TIME TO BE INVESTING $820 MILLION IN ONE OF THE MIDDLE EAST’S LARGEST MALLS? Qatar has the highest per capita gross domestic product in the world and the highest population growth rate. These factors, combined with Qatar’s ambitious initiatives complementing tourism (like securing the FIFA 2022 World Cup and the $100–200 billion investment in infrastructure and hotels leading up to it), all bode well for dynamic growth in the retail and hospitality sectors.
The mall is on schedule to open in September 2015, with more than 30 percent of construction already complete. A mall of this size requires a significant investment, including the investment made by more than 400 retailers that will be designing, fitting out and merchandising their shops, dining venues and a 5-star hotel. Our studies project more than 20 million visitors a year to start, an average of almost 55,000 per day.
WHY WAS THE AL RAYYAN AREA CHOSEN FOR THE MALL’S LOCATION? The Mall of Qatar has uniquely positioned itself in the high net worth area of Al Wajba, part of Al Rayyan, a 25-minute drive from more than 75 percent of Qatar’s 2 million population. Adjacent to a World Cup stadium when the Mall of Qatar opens, customers will, in the near future, arrive on the new Metro line through a station integrated into the mall or by the proposed Saudi-Bahrain light rapid rail link.
WHERE WOULD YOU TAKE FIRST-TIME VISITORS TO DOHA? One of my favorite places is Souq Waqif. Strolling along the marketplace lit up at night, it’s not just the beautifully restored buildings and authentic entertainment but also how it resonates with both Qataris and visitors. I also like the quiet solitude of the vast desert just outside Doha. Qatar is surrounded on three sides by water and dotted with sites of historical significance to discover and explore. I don’t think I could point to any one place outside of Doha that is the best, but it is the totality of Qatar and its beauty that are entirely captivating.
Doha: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT +3
Phone Code: Country code: 974 City code: None
Currency: Qatari riyal
Entry/Exit Requirements: All non-Qatari visitors must obtain a visa to enter Qatar. Passport holders from 33 select countries (including the United States and most of Western Europe) can obtain one-month tourist visas or short-term business visas at the airport upon arrival. Others must obtain visas from Qatari embassies abroad. A single visa costs about 100 riyals (about $27).
Official Language: Arabic; English widely spoken in Doha
Key Industries: Energy, banks and financial services, construction, shipping, real estate, insurance, health care, education, and business and leisure visitor services
Doha Info to Go
Doha’s new Hamad International Airport (HIA ) is expected to open this year; until then, passengers arrive at the older Doha International Airport (DOH ), which is overwhelmed with the increase in passenger traffic. Ground transportation options to deluxe hotels along The Corniche are by taxi ($16–20; 20–30 minutes) or complimentary hotel shuttles. Major car rental firms have airport service counters, but leave driving for the expats and business travelers already familiar with the local surroundings.
Where to Stay in Doha
The St. Regis Doha Located within the Al Gassar Resort, The St. Regis offers 336 guestrooms and suites with water views, butler service for all guests, meeting space, a spa and 10 dining venues. Doha West Bay $$$$
The Torch A member of Leading Hotels of the World, the 47-story, torch-shaped deluxe hotel is an iconic symbol on Doha’s skyline. The revolving Three Sixty restaurant offers panoramic views and signature lobster dishes. Al Waab Street, Aspire Zone $$$$
W Doha Hotel & Residences Overlooking the Persian Gulf, W Doha boasts water features, ceiling-suspended seating and handblown hanging lanterns in the lobby; 442 guestrooms and suites; and two Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant concepts. West Bay $$$$
Restaurants in Doha
Argan Moroccan chefs prepare excellent mezzeh, taktouka (grilled peppers with chermoula) and zaalouk (eggplant salad) appetizers; main dishes such as seafood tagine; and delicious Moroccan bread and olives. Al Jasra Boutique Hotel, Souq Waqif $$–$$$
L’wzaar Seafood Market At the modern, glass-enclosed fish market and restaurant, the fish are so fresh they glisten with seawater. Try the local hammour, shrimp from Bahrain, squid, prawns, crab and lobster. Katara Cultural Village, Building 27 $$
Nusantao This casual and trendy restaurant offers indoor and outdoor patio seating. A team of multinational chefs prepares Middle Eastern and Pan Asian fusion cuisine and small plates perfect for sharing. Four Seasons Hotel Doha, The Corniche $$–$$$
Read more about contemporary art in Doha.
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