THE MASSIVE, TECHNICOLOR LIGHT POLES, lining the access road from Hamad International Airport to Doha city center and changing color as you proceed along the route, prove a fitting symbol for this city, Qatar’s capital and its undisputed center of commerce. Despite its tiny size — Qatar is about half the size of New Jersey, just to give you an idea — Doha is flashy and opulent and not afraid to show it. In short, when it comes to style, less is definitely not more.
Located on Doha Bay along the Persian Gulf coast, Doha boasts dramatic skyscrapers, many adorned with colored lights that emblazon the sky at night. Here find seven miles of waterfront called The Corniche, a vibrant center adorned with parks, and traditional Arabic souks or markets offset by a swath of growing suburbs and planned communities.
Once a British Protectorate, Qatar gained independence in 1971, and its citizens hold the distinction of having the highest per capita income in the world.
It’s hard to imagine Doha before its vast oil reserves put it on the region’s map in terms of wealth and influence, but once upon a time the pearl trade was the lifeblood of the country’s economy. Pearling boats were a common sight offshore in the early part of the 20th century, but by the time of the Great Depression — in tandem with competition from the cultured pearl industry — Doha’s pearl trade all but collapsed, and the population declined along with it.
By mid-century, however, locals enjoyed the rewards brought about from oil drilling, and the population rebounded accordingly, swelling to just more than 2.5 million people at last count.
That said, one of the most interesting aspects of the city, and Qataris in general, is a commitment to being more than a nation of the rich and idle.
Even during the earliest days of the boom times, Qatar, whose current emir is Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was forward-thinking in its collective determination to diversify the country’s economy into business, tourism, education and other ventures to reduce its dependence on oil. For example, in addition to petrochemical companies, the city attracted numerous international engineering, energy and financial firms, many with regional headquarters in the country. Doha’s influence in the media has also been outsized, thanks to the presence of Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel, broadcasting from Doha for more than 20 years.
But while Doha continues to emerge as a financial force to be reckoned with in the region, Qatar hit a speed bump earlier this year when the country became the subject of an economic and diplomatic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in retaliation for the country’s alleged support of certain Islamist extremist groups. The rift brought about a cessation of relations, a ban on Qatari media in the region and an ongoing travel ban between Qatar and the affected countries. That said, the Qataris strongly deny any sympathy for terrorist groups and, as of this writing, the situation remains in flux.
None of this is apparent to visitors to the city, which as recently as 2015 was named one of the New7Wonders cities, a global competition based on an online poll and decided by voters around the world. Other winners include Havana, Beirut, Kuala Lumpur, La Paz, Durban and Vigan.
Big-name sports events remain a key component of Doha’s reputation, and to that end the city aggressively campaigns to attract notable international sporting events. In 2011 alone, for example, the city hosted the AFC Asian Cup and the Pan Arab Games and is poised to host a number of events for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The success of these ventures spurred the construction of new sports venues, such as the Al Wakrah Stadium, along with a multimillion-dollar airport, opened in 2014, which served 37.3 million passengers in 2016 alone. Other large-scale projects include a new Doha metro system, the first phase expected to be operational by 2020; a new shipping container port opened in 2016; and the National Museum of Qatar, set to open on The Corniche by next year.
Education plays a key role in Doha’s international influence. Education City, encompassing more than eight square miles on the outskirts of Doha, dates from 2003. It houses a number of American university satellites including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown University of Foreign Service, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and Weill Cornell Medical College. Meanwhile, Qatar Science & Technology Park, which won numerous awards for its architecture, serves as a hub for tech companies and startups as well as a center for research.
Tourism remains another Qatari priority, and the country has been proactive about luring visitors and investors to this sector. In fact, by 2020 the government expects a split of about 54 percent business and 46 percent leisure travel.
Hotels tend to be high-end, falling into the 4- and 5-star categories — such as the new Mandarin Oriental, Doha, and the Mondrian Hotel, set to open this year. They include the kinds of amenities business travelers expect to find, such as well-equipped meeting rooms, spas and fitness centers, swimming pools and eateries.
Cuisine options range from international to traditional Persian, and while alcohol is not typically available in stand-alone restaurants, it is usually served at high-end hotel establishments.
It’s useful to note women are not required to cover their hair in Doha, although many local women do. General Western dress, as long as it’s not over-the-top, is perfectly acceptable when touring the city. When planning or organizing visits, keep Doha’s desert climate in mind. Average monthly temperatures range from 62 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 96 degrees in summer, although that can climb above 100. Rain is scarce, with brief showers relegated mostly to the winter months.
Expats and other non-Qataris, who widely outnumber nationals, are welcome to purchase real estate in certain areas of Doha, which in turn allows them to live and work in the country.
CHECKING IN WITH BELAL AL-KADRY
Hotel Manager, Sharq Village & Spa, A Ritz-Carlton Hotel
The Sharq property in Doha presents a mix of Western and Arabic influences. What was the goal when designing the property?
Designed to reflect the local communities, the traditional architecture and construction of Sharq Village & Spa serve to guide visitors through a maze of courtyards and alleyways to discover age-old Arabian treasures [but] … within the traditional décor, the hotel features the finest state-of-the-art facilities, amenities and services.
What activities does the property offer families?
The exclusive Ritz Kids and recreational resort schedule offer activities ranging from family beach volleyball and non-motorized water sports to movies under the stars and cupcake decoration. For the young guests, the Ritz Kids’ daily and weekly changing schedule of environmental activities to wellness happenings enables the smallest visitors to explore natural wonders, discover surroundings and learn about healthy lifestyles while having fun.
What are some of the most popular leisure activities in the region for kids?
For the winter days, children enjoy desert trips where they can dune bash, play in the sand and experience a true Arabian evening … as well as camel racing at Al Shahaniya Racetrack, fishing at the Arabian Gulf or enjoying the nice weather at any of the city parks and The Corniche. For the summer days, the pool and beaches [offer] a broad selection of water sports. The hotels and resorts of the city offer children’s activities where they can learn, play and mingle with other children of their age [such as] the Aqua Park Qatar; Snow Dune, where guests slide through the snowy slopes and [ride] a carousel; Juniverse, where young guests can explore futuristic careers in an ultramodern environment with role-play activities and rides; and Angry Birds World, an exciting theme park based on the Angry Birds game that includes educational activities and thrill rides.
Things to Do in Doha
Doha sees itself as a capital of culture, thanks in part to the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, which opened to much international fanfare in 2008 on The Corniche overlooking Doha Bay. In addition to its arresting exterior, the museum houses a world-class permanent collection of objects spanning 14 centuries and hailing from three continents. Admission to the permanent galleries is free.
The Sheikh Faisal Museum at Al Samriya, on the other hand, showcases a private collection of more than 15,000 exhibits, including vintage cars, ancient sailing craft and historic costumes.
The National Museum of Qatar, expected to open by early 2019, will also be located on The Corniche near the Museum of Islamic Art. The desert rose is said to have inspired the exterior, designed by Jean Nouvel. The museum is built around Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani’s original palace, which served as his family home and as the seat of the Qatari government for 25 years.
Other cultural venues include the Katara Cultural Village, offering open-air theatrical performances, and the Al Zubarah Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tourists who’d like to participate in sports rather than just watching can play golf and enjoy scuba diving, fishing and a number of other water activities in and around Doha. Venues include Aspire Park, an oasis of green that features a lake, playgrounds for the kids and picnic grounds. In addition, Doha welcomes and caters to families, with play areas at key shopping malls, parks and beaches.
Speaking of shopping, visitors can choose between highend, modern malls and traditional souks for more authentic wares. The best-known souk is the Arab market in Souq Waqif, offering everything from spices, traditional clothing and artisan crafts to a hospital for falcons.
Other popular activities include camel rides, desert barbecues and dinner cruises aboard a traditional covered boat called a dhow. You can also try dune bashing, available in the so-called Inland Sea at the Khor Al Adaid desert, where three people and a driver tear around the massive sand dunes in a four-wheel-drive vehicle at top speed.
Doha Info to Go
Hamad International Airport, a glossy destination unto itself, lies about 20 minutes by car from city center. Qatar Airways, the national airline, operates daily, direct service from 10 U.S. gateway cities, and other international airlines also fly into Doha. Business travelers from neighboring countries should check with their airline or travel agent before booking until the travel ban is resolved. Because Doha is a popular gateway for long-haul passengers on their way to Africa and Asia, Qatar Airways passengers with a layover of five to 12 hours can take advantage of a complimentary tour of Doha.
Transportation into the city is available by taxi, and metered charges start at $7. Private limousine transfers also are available. Doha’s state-run bus network connects Hamad International Airport to various destinations in the city, payable by a smartcard that can be purchased at the airport near baggage claim. Rates range about $3–8.
Doha: Just the Facts
Time zone: GMT +3
Phone code: Country code: 974
Currency: Qatari riyal
Key industries: Oil and gas, construction, tourism, sports events, education and transport
COMING AND GOING
U.S. citizens must hold a passport with a minimum validity of six months and at least two blank pages. Qatar does not require prior visa arrangements for those traveling on a U.S. passport; travelers may obtain a free visa waiver upon arrival, valid for 30 days from the date of issuance. This is a new policy as of Aug. 9, 2017.
Arabic is the official language of Doha, but English is widely spoken, especially among tourism and commerce professionals, and many road signs are bilingual.
Where to Stay in Doha
MARSA MALAZ KEMPINSKI, THE PEARL – DOHA The 281-room, 5-star hotel lures guests with its central location, a Spa by Clarins, a fitness center and a whopping seven restaurants. Costa Malaz Bay $$$$
SHANGRI-LA HOTEL DOHA The hotel boasts a location adjacent to the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre as well as the Shanghai Club, with a hopping bar scene, Asian cuisine and panoramic views of the city. Conference Centre Street, West Bay $$$
SHARQ VILLAGE & SPA This 174-room Ritz-Carlton property on the Gulf Bay offers nearly 1,000 feet of private beach, nine restaurants and a Six Senses Spa. Ras Abu Abboud Street $$$
Restaurants in Doha
AL ENNA RESTAURANT Nab an outdoor table and enjoy casual, traditional Qatari cuisine, including yogurt-based chicken and seafood dishes in generous portions, all served with a friendly attitude. Souq Waqif $$$
NOBU DOHA Fans of Japanese cuisine can dine in style and enjoy a lively bar atmosphere at the Four Seasons Hotel’s restaurant, which holds the distinction of being one of the world’s largest Nobu restaurants. Four Seasons Hotel Doha, The Corniche $$$$
SPICE MARKET This Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant at the W Hotel in West Bay serves authentic Thai- and Vietnamese-inspired street food in a casual atmosphere. W Doha Hotel & Residences, West Bay $$$$
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