On a perfect Arabian night — cloudless, moonless, almost midnight — the Qatar Airways Airbus A330 descends into Doha. Just 10 years ago, this mode of transport, and the view from it, would have seemed as improbable as a magic carpet ride over a mythical city. Qatar Airways only began operating in 1997, but has expanded rapidly to become one of the greatest success stories in commercial aviation. As for Doha, a decade ago it was a backwater of the Arabian Gulf. Just look at it now.
From the air, I can clearly make out the eight-mile crescent of the city’s waterfront, the Corniche. At the northern end are the gleaming shapes of a dozen brand-new skyscrapers and the skeletal silhouettes of nearly two dozen more under construction. Speckled throughout the city are constellations of flashing orange lights, each one representing a truck, bulldozer or one of the many other vehicles working night and day to turn the capital of Qatar into a state-of-the-art metropolis.
The pace of change in Doha is outstripped only by the magnitude of the city’s ambition. Close to the current airport, a new $5.5 billion airport is being built: Called Doha International Airport (NDIA), it is scheduled to open in 2009, and will be able to handle 50 million passengers a year (astonishing for a country with a population of less than 750,000) and 2 million tons of cargo. It is the first airport in the world designed specifically to cater to the double-decker Airbus A380, for which Qatar Airways will be a launch customer.
Doha’s phenomenal growth was precipitated by the 1995 ascension to the Qatari throne of the current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Thanks to its abundant reserves of oil and gas, his country is one of the world’s richest in terms of GNP per capita, and this wealth is being used to underwrite a raft of ambitious projects that will diversify the economy.
Tourism is one of the key sectors being developed. Tourists account for just 5 percent of visitor arrivals; business travelers make up the majority of the rest. As I take an afternoon stroll along the Corniche, I find abundant evidence of the steps being taking to establish Doha as a genuine tourist destination.
Across Doha Bay, the Museum of Islamic Arts, designed by celebrated architect I.M. Pei, is nearing completion. It is due to open at the end of this year, and will house a world-class collection of art and historical artifacts. Meanwhile, close to where I am walking, work is beginning on the futuristic Qatar National Library, which will loom above the bay on stilts. Both of these landmark buildings promise to be to Doha what the Opera House is to Sydney.
Five miles north of downtown, construction is well under way on the Pearl, a $2.5 billion, 985-acre residential island that will provide homes for 40,000 international residents, as well as shopping centers, schools, five-star hotels and four marinas.
The most dramatic manifestation of Doha’s breakneck transformation is the district of West Bay. In relatively recent photographs, the Sheraton Hotel — which resembles a sawn-off pyramid — stands there in isolation. Today it is hedged in by recently built, in-progress and soon-to-be built high-rises. Billboards in front of vacant lots provide previews of some of the architectural marvels that will soon grace the skyline.
The frenetic rate of construction is dictated by an approaching deadline: Doha will host the Asian Games this December. A clock on the Corniche ticks down the days. I have no doubt that the first phase of the city’s metamorphosis will be complete by then. In Doha, the Arabian Nights are no mere flight of fancy.
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL DOHA
Is this 232-room, 18-story property a sophisticated city hotel, or a relaxed beach resort? It’s actually both. Situated in a prime position in the prestigious West Bay district, the Four Seasons faces a burgeoning crop of skyscrapers on one side, and overlooks its own private beach on the other (clever design ensures that all the guestrooms enjoy the sea view). Comprehensive business facilities are on offer, and, as a bonus, after a busy day of meetings there is a spectacular three-story spa to help you unwind. $$$$
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL DOHA
tel 974 494 8888, fax 974 494 8282
THE RITZ-CARLTON DOHA
Although the Ritz-Carlton now sits in relative isolation five miles north of downtown Doha, the numerous developments planned for the immediate vicinity will change all that within a year or two. For the moment, what the hotel lacks in convenience, it makes up for in sheer luxury. The gigantic crystal chandelier above the lobby is worth more alone than many entire hotels. The 374 sumptuous guestrooms are reached via open corridors that overlook a 23-story atrium. Members of the Ritz-Carlton Club have access to the top-floor club lounge, which offers complimentary drinks, snacks and business facilities (not to mention a stunning view of the desert and the Arabian Gulf). $$$$
THE RITZ-CARLTON DOHA
West Bay Lagoon
tel 974 484 8000, fax 974 484 8303
AL SADD MERWEB HOTEL
It is neither big nor glitzy, but this modest three-star hotel is an attractive alternative if you want to save a few bucks. Don’t expect a bargain, though: Due to Doha’s woeful shortage of rooms, even mid-level hotels are expensive by international standards. What you get for your money is a hotel that is clean and comfortable, with 118 spacious rooms. Located close to the C Ring Road, it’s a little out of the way, but all points within the city are a short taxi ride away. $$-$$$
AL SADD MERWEB HOTEL
Al Sadd Street
tel 974 447 1111, fax 974 447 1117
One of the city’s premier venues for special occasions, La Mer is situated on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, with picture windows providing a breathtaking panorama of Doha. The restaurant has its own nonstop elevator from the hotel lobby. The cuisine is contemporary French; particularly recommended is the pan-fried veal in Perigord truffle sauce. There is a separate dining room available for private parties — ideal for impressing business associates. Formal dress is required. $$$$
The Ritz-Carlton Doha
West Bay Lagoon
tel 974 484 8503, fax 974 484 8484
Situated on the edge of Doha Bay, the Doha Club’s excellent restaurants welcome nonmembers. There are three to choose from: the Palms, which offers international cuisine and views of the adjacent marina; Al Dar, which provides a menu of Arabic and Asian specialties; and the upscale Le Menage, a great venue for a candle-lit evening meal. $$-$$$
tel 974 441 8822 ext. 246, fax 974 441 7855
An expanding Lebanese fast-food chain with outlets throughout the Middle East, Crepaway offers a range of savory crepes, burgers, pizzas and fajitas. It tends to attract a younger crowd, but it’s an excellent place for a quick, tasty, great-value meal. It’s located in the Al Mouthanna complex, a short walk from the Ramada Hotel Doha. $-$$
tel 974 465 5830
Whatever you do, don’t leave your shopping for the duty-free store at the airport — the few souvenirs on offer there are rather tacky. In downtown Doha, there are large malls in which you can browse in air-conditioned comfort, the most popular of which is City Center Doha, a five-floor complex in West Bay that has dozens of shops, 14 cinema screens and two ice-skating rinks (skate rental costs $8 per hour). For more-informal shopping, the city is well served by souks, each of which has its own ambiance and specialties. The Souk Waqif is the most popular with tourists, and is the best place to buy local souvenirs. It has recently undergone a complete renovation, and its narrow covered alleys have lost some of their historic character. Nonetheless, it’s a great place to wander and to practice your bargaining skills. The Gold Souk lives up to its name, and you can also buy high-quality watches here (or, if you prefer, under-the-counter fakes).
The palm-lined Corniche, which describes a near-perfect half-circle around the shore of Doha Bay, is a wonderful place to jog, stroll or just sit and watch the world go by. Engraved stones laid into the path every 100 meters (328 feet) keep a tally of the distance along its 13.5-kilometer (8.4–mile) length. From two separate jetties on the Corniche you can take a dhow out to Palm Tree Island (aka Al Nakheel), a manmade island in the middle of Doha Bay. The island has its own Corniche, landscaped gardens, beaches and several restaurants.
If you’re a history buff, you won’t find too much of interest in Doha. Most of the old districts have been bulldozed to make way for progress. Only a few historic buildings remain, including the 19th century Al Koot Fort, built during the Turkish occupation. It is closed for renovation, but should reopen in time for the Asian Games in December. The Qatar National Museum (tel 974 444 2192) is also closed, but is scheduled to reopen sometime this year.
Qatar’s premier natural attraction is the Khor Al-Adaid, a magnificent “inland sea” surrounded by sand dunes that can be accessed only via four-wheel-drive vehicles. A half-day tour is available from Gulf Adventures (tel 974 4315555, www.gulf-adventures.com).
At the moment, the number of hotel rooms in Doha falls well short of demand, and prices reflect this. Most hotels are operating close to full occupancy year-round, so it is advisable to book well in advance. The situation should improve in the next two years, with 37 top-class hotels scheduled to open, including a Grand Hyatt, a Shangri-La, a Hilton, an InterContinental and a Kempinski.
INFO TO GO
Doha International Airport (DOH) is located four miles south of the city. Most of the top hotels offer a meet-and-greet service, and can arrange limousine transfers. A taxi into the city will cost $4 to $8. Within Doha, taxis are in short supply. You can’t always rely on being able to flag one down; when being dropped off, arrange a pickup time with the driver.
Although Qatar is an Islamic country, alcohol is widely available, and you can enjoy fine wine with your meal.
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