The Country Transformed by All That Money Can Buy

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It was pretty routine–I posted a selfie before taking off with a caption along the lines of, “So pumped for this trip. First up, Doha!” But 30 minutes into my flight when I connected to the WiFi, I had dozens of replies all asking me the same question: “Where are you going?”

Um, what! I just said!

And then I realized that for all these people, Doha only meant a place of transit, a stop before connecting to where you really wanted to go, not a destination in itself. Disheartening, perhaps, in most vacation scenarios, but it felt fortuitous to me and even exciting as the reason I was headed to Qatar was for our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.

What I found in nearly a week was one of the more fascinating destinations in all my travels. A city and country quite literally building their way to a distinct identity. You will gasp, cringe, learn, and perhaps feel a bit of envy. There are world-class museums, top-notch hotels and restaurants, cutting-edge architecture, stadiums for the World Cup, and whole islands and neighborhoods that have sprung up overnight. To visit Qatar today is to truly see what money can buy.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A view of the West Bay skyline.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Warren Little</div>

A view of the West Bay skyline.

Warren Little

For now, to go to Qatar from the U.S. you need to be fully vaccinated plus have had a booster shot and have a negative PCR test no more than 48 hours before departure. You must also fill out a form on Ehteraz and download its app for contact tracing within the country.

The first step to visiting Qatar, of course, is getting there and that’s most likely on the country’s flagship carrier, Qatar Airways, which flies from a number of U.S. cities, including Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, and Los Angeles. The flight from my home in D.C. is nearly 13 hours, so I was in business class which is not within everybody’s means but if you’re on the fence or have the points here’s what my experience was like.

I’ve flown business on a number of major carriers and I won’t call anybody out, but I’m nearly 6-foot-3 and a stomach sleeper, so often business class is wasted on me–but on Qatar, it was positively roomy. I actually fit comfortably lying down. There was much more lateral space in the suite, and you have sliding doors on the aisle opening that make it feel like an actual room. Second, the food was good. Not good for airplane food, just good. The duck confit with cabbage I had as my main course would have made me happy in a restaurant or 30,000 feet in the air. The bathrooms are also private plane-level nice. But the biggest difference for me was the service. Good service means all your needs are met and it’s done in a friendly and efficient way. Great service does all that but gives you the illusion that the people serving you truly want you to be happy–and that was my experience. Oh, and upon landing you have your own immigration queue.

My first stop on a whirlwind tour of this small peninsula was to the Qatar Foundation campus where one finds the headquarters of the nonprofit run by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the wife of the former Emir, the campuses of a number of American universities, and Rem Koolhaas’ Qatar National Library. The library is an upcoming selection for our World’s Most Beautiful Libraries series, so I won’t go into detail here, but I will say it’s worth seeing not only for the starchitect’s unique approach, but because its subterranean Heritage Library is on of the best little museums I’ve been to (lord, the maps!) and my first taste of the acquisitive nature of the royal family.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The National Museum of Qatar designed by Jean Nouvel.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>

The National Museum of Qatar designed by Jean Nouvel.

William O’Connor

After a quick lunch at Chef’s Garden, a spot popular with the college students nearby, it was off to the National Museum of Qatar, which sits on the bay in a complex modeled after a desert rose that might be one of starchitect Jean Nouvel’s best works. This is the royal family’s way of telling their story and Qatari history and one of the important sights that make Doha a major cultural destination as a way to differentiate from nearby Dubai.

Qatar is a country of nearly 3 million people, of which the Qataris themselves only number a few hundred thousand. For most of the peninsula’s history, what wealth there was came from a single industry–pearls. The population was in towns along the coast, Doha being the principal one, and in the winter most families retreated to tents in the desert. Pearl diving was a lucrative but incredibly deadly career, with danger from storms, sharks, and the rigors of traversing up and down underwater. The land that is now Qatar remained mostly an afterthought to imperial powers, and to mapmakers. In 1919, with the devastation of Mikimoto’s cultured pearls making natural pearls less valuable just around the corner, Qatar numbered only 27,000. By 1940, 16,000. Then, in the ’40s, the discovery of oil and then natural gas transformed the al Thani family into one of the world’s most staggeringly wealthy and Qatar into one of the richest countries per capita.

Like so many cultures with newfound wealth, including Americans in the Gilded Age, the Qataris are working through what they are, what they have been, and what they will be, and all on a grand scale. Part of that manifests itself in acquiring from established cultures (see, again, the American Gilded Age or the British Museum). Vast sums have been spent on the usual suspects in art and architecture from the West. But Qatar seems determined to also make tangible what it means to be Qatari–a drive that became all the more poignant when the government needed to tap into nationalistic feeling during the blockade by other Arab Gulf countries a couple years ago.

The National Museum sheds light on what the Qatari royal family sees as the answer to those important identity questions. You will hear and see more than you ever imagined about the pearl industry, from the workings of dhow boats to jaw dropping examples of jewelry owned by the likes of Jackie O and Empress Eugenie and a carpet with thousands and thousands of pearls woven into it. The Qataris also place great emphasis on the idea that desert life is a core part of their identity, and so there are exhibits on it and the government also subsidizes annual family sojourns in desert camps to keep in touch with this history. Most interesting for me was the country’s political history: how the Qataris managed to hold on to so much valuable land while surrounded by much more powerful neighbors and a visual timeline of the long al Thani dynasty.

On top of the museum is the restaurant Jiwan with its curtains made up of 4 million Swarovski crystal “pearls” costing $1 each and sweeping views out across to West Bay. In 2002, the West Bay was virtually empty–dirt and shrubs surrounding a few buildings and one tower, Qatar’s first luxury hotel, a Sheraton. Now it has hundreds of towers, from Jean Nouvel’s phallic Burj Doha Tower to the Tornado Tower and the historicist Ritz Carlton.

It can be tempting to come into Doha with one’s nose already upturned at the city’s newness, to see the concrete having just dried and think its story is paper-thin. Such chauvinism and snobbery are not only tacky but mean you will miss out and demonstrate an ignorance of the history of tourism. Take Paris. In the 17th century it revolutionized what a city should look like with its parks, shops, bridges, and planned neighborhoods. It stirred curiosity and drove tourism by explicitly promoting the city with books and pamphlets touting it as a new urban wonder, a place at the cutting edge of all that money could buy. I’m not saying Doha is a modern-day Paris, but the city of the future is very much here.

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My home for my stay was in another of the city’s newest luxury hotels, Banyan Tree Doha. Whereas the hotels of the West Bay and Pearl district are popular with those looking more for the beach and resort scene (Europeans, especially) this rectangular tower is best for those looking for quick access to Qatar’s cultural attractions. It’s a short walk to the National Museum, the neighborhood of Msheireb, the historic Souq Waqif, and the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art. It is sumptuous and over the top, which makes sense given it was decorated by Studio Jacques Garcia.

While it was hard to keep track of all the signature urban planning projects my loquacious guide Hussein rattled off as we cruised around the country, I’d say the Msheireb is Qatar’s latest signature endeavor. For decades it was the heart of Doha, home to its first modern shops, banks, pharmacies, and hotels. But over the decades Qataris left it for more spacious digs in suburban villa developments, and its new residents were immigrants and the neighborhood began to looks a little worse for the wear. It became, the government says, “overpopulated and its streets acutely congested.” And so like Haussmann in Paris or the City Beautiful movement in the U.S., the government tore most of it down.

It has been replaced by intimidating pale stone towers designed in a sort of stripped Arab modernist aesthetic with plazas, greenery, and even a tram. It also houses the city’s four house museums, each dedicated to a specific topic from slavery to Qatar’s oil industry. There are a number of great restaurants—I can recommend the sandwiches from Rusk (international) and dinner at Saasna (elevated Qatari). To see it come alive, one must come at night when it is filled with young Qataris. That is a general rule for any neighborhood here in this desert city.

On my second morning my driver Hussein, a guide with the popular DohaBus tour company, drove me south for a visit to the Inland Sea near the Saudi Arabian border. We stopped partway for a quick ATV ride in the sand dunes (complete with a view of a gas facility and its flaming tower) before we stopped to deflate the tires of the Toyota Land Cruiser.

As we drove off and onto the packed road formed from sand and evaporated saltwater, Hussein asked me if I was ready and all of a sudden (a true “all of a sudden”) he whipped off the hardened path and, pedal to the floor, hurtled toward one of the steep dunes. For those of you who have dune-bashed before, forgive my ignorance, but accelerating toward a GIANT DUNE, driving up it straight on like it’s merely a hill in San Francisco, hugging its ridge on top, and plummeting right back down seems to me both a marvel of engineering and downright madness. Apparently the technique for dune-bashing driving is to whip the wheel back and forth like a kid practicing on a car race arcade game without any tokens. Adding to the general feeling of madness, there were a number of stuck cars along the way that we couldn’t help without getting stuck ourselves. We finally reached the sea which was a lovely clear blue with dunes rolling into it, and on the way home stopped at the seaside encampment Al Majlis Resort for lunch.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A view from the entrance of Zulal Wellness Center.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>

A view from the entrance of Zulal Wellness Center.

William O’Connor

On the third day of my visit I went to one of the recent developments that folks there think will also help differentiate it from the UAE—Zulal Wellness Resort. There is a saying, Hussein told me, that with enough money you can make honey from tuna. And looking around at the bleak desert landscape at the top of the peninsula across from Bahrain, and what they’ve created at Zulal, you see what he means.

Here it has been transformed into a breezy and lush complex of elegant stucco villas and courtyards with salt-water lagoons fed from the ocean and a postcard-worthy beach that looks out to nearby shelter islands. The facility has all the accouterments you’d expect from a high-end wellness retreat, including a facility for non-invasive cosmetic treatments. But it also has a library modeled after Baghdad’s House of Wisdom and combines Eastern and Islamic wellness traditions.

After a massage and light lunch at Zulal (they believe in limiting portions), we headed back to Doha to explore Souq Waqif. This maze of specialty shops in rambling stucco buildings is the closest one can get to “old” Doha. Whether you’re looking for a falcon, spices, or a trinket carved in the shape of a Qatari house—it’s all here. Even if you don’t want to shop, it’s one of the best places for people watching.

Plus, it has quite possibly one of the most over-the-top restaurants I’ve ever seen. To walk into Parisa is to stand inside a kaleidoscope. Refracted light glitters and flashes all around you as every inch of the space is covered in a mosaic of angled mirrors.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The dining room in Parisa restaurant.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>

The dining room in Parisa restaurant.

William O’Connor

The story goes that the sheikh was visiting Iran and fell in love with the original version of this restaurant and so had a replica built here in Doha. The staff is unbelievably welcoming to those who just want to pop their head in for a look and picture (unimaginable in the U.S. or Europe) but the food is excellent. The meat on my lamb’s neck fell right off the, um, vertebrae.

“The question is,” Sheikha Moza asks in one of the museum videos, “what is our architectural heritage?” The battle for Qatar’s architectural identity was at the heart of my next day exploring the West Bay, Katara Cultural Village, the Pearl, and Lusail. There are the pastiche replicas of European quarters and buildings like that of their Venice neighborhood or the Galéries Lafayette. But there are also buildings, both small scale and grand, that work to honor history while catering to modern needs. Then there are the next generation skyscrapers. Some are representational and shaped like the curve of the oryx horn or the crescent moon. Much cooler are the ones that look like Pleats Please Issey Miyake pants turned into a tower. But to cruise around and gaze upwards here is to see up close the battles being fought over skyscraper architecture globally. For lunch, wander up the manmade hill to the Lebanese villa that houses Bayt el Talleh.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Towers that reminded me of Issey Miyake pants.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>

Towers that reminded me of Issey Miyake pants.

William O’Connor

Towards the end of my trip a multi-day windstorm hit the city and canceled two of my planned activities–kayaking the Al Thakira Mangrove and a sunset sail on a dhow boat. But I did manage on my last day to make it out to Heenat Salma Farm, an organic farm and inn with a simple white stucco main house (the patterned wooden roof is a detail not to be missed) and glamping tents. It sounds a bit silly, but the broccoli I had for lunch there was to die for and the carrot cake dessert was as good as any in the U.S. that people would wait in a line around the block for.

My last stop was at the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which is essentially hall after hall of everything amassed by one avid collector in the family: weapons, saddles, textiles, cars, clothes, boats, artwork, medicines, arabesque furniture, and jewelry. While this space is perhaps the physical manifestation of the idea of “how much is enough?” it’s also a major part of why Qatar is an interesting destination. Americans have Florida, Caribbean islands, and Mexico all within a short flight if they want sun and sand, which is often why Europeans head to Dubai. If we’re going to the Middle East, we want to experience things and sights that are totally different from home. (It’s worth taking the time to note that issues like LGBT rights and different gender norms that make Qatar very different from home might make this a place some won’t feel comfortable visiting. Same too, for the serious accusations of migrant exploitation in construction.) And so when asked why one should go to Doha, I’ve already started to say because it’s not Dubai. It’s a tiny corner of the world unlike any other I’ve visited.

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