Qatar is a strange place. Sitting on a little peninsula on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, it is a world of contradictions. Based on petroleum wealth – it shares the world’s largest natural gas reserves with Iran across the Persian Gulf – Qatar is rapidly modernizing, yet it imposes punishments like lashings for illicit alcohol consumption. It has the world’s highest per capita income, but treats many of the enormous number of ex-pat workers as little more than slaves. Alcohol is served legally only in fancy international hotels but Qatari men can only enter in non-traditional clothes (and Qatari women aren’t allowed to enter at all). Qatari officials have done an amazing job with architecture in the new part of the city but it is one of the least pedestrian-friendly places we’ve ever been. It is an Arab country and key U.S. ally – it hosts a large American military base and has played key roles in both the war in Iraq and against ISIS – but largely allies politically with Iran.
In other words, Qatar is a strange place. Here are two numbers that are stunning and go a long way to explaining this strange place: 2.3 million and 300,000. The first number reflects the number of foreign workers in Qatar, 2.3 million. The second is the number of Qatari citizens, 300,000. In other words a tiny number of native citizens being served by an enormous army of imported workers, mostly, though of course not exclusively, from the Indian subcontinent.
Yet I was surprised by how much I liked it. The skyline and architecture and all that was way better than I’d expected. And it is all very much a work in progress, at times seemingly just one big construction zone. There’s a nice, long walkway along the coast – once you get to it; crossing the highway that runs along it is an act of faith – that comes alive in the evening as the temperatures start to cool down, the buildings lit in color, and neon-rimmed dhows plying the bay. There’s a beach a couple miles north of town that we walked to, through ugly construction areas and along stretches that would have benefited from sidewalks (did I mention Doha is distinctly not pedestrian friendly?) so we could swim in the Persian Gulf.
One of the highlights for us was staying at the W Hotel. It’s stunningly beautiful and, because of that Starwood status we have, they upgraded us to a very cool suite, one of the nicest rooms we’ve had in this long adventure. That was really handy, since for a good part of the day it’s just too hot to do much, even in November (I can only imagine what it’s like here in the summer!) and we could hang out in all the space we had.
Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in Doha is the Museum of Islamic Art, opened just nine years ago in a building designed by famed architect I. M. Pei. At the age of 91 he had already retired but the Qatari coaxed him out of retirement (think $$$) and he spent six months traveling in the Muslim world for inspiration. He ultimately rejected all the proposed sites for his museum, insisting instead that it be built on an artificial island so no other buildings could ever encroach. And believe me, it all works. The building and interior design are gorgeous and alone are enough to justify the price of admission; oh, wait, that wouldn’t take much since the museum is free, always my favorite price point. But the collection was impressive too, containing artifacts dating back to the 7th century, from the time of Muhammad himself. All beautifully displayed, I found myself wondering how the heck 9th and 10th century glass could have survived all those years.
And then there was the walking along the Corniche, around the bay from the downtown area a couple of miles to the Museum of Islamic Art. Early mornings were cool and pleasant while during the daytime it was intensely hot. In the evenings, though, the temperatures dropped, the lights came on, and people came out. The strangest thing for me was seeing women out, obviously walking for exercise, with their full-body burkhas flowing in the evening breeze. As it got darker it seemed as though they got eerier and eerier, as though the Grim Reaper himself was stalking.
As for food, you have two choices: local fare at reasonable prices with no wine or alcohol, or fancy hotel restaurants at unreasonable prices with wine and alcohol. We compromised. Lunch would be at a local place – good Indian, good Lebanese, and good Persian – and dinner would be at a fancy restaurant either in our hotel or a neighboring one. It worked.
That was Qatar. We were kind of there just to check off a country but I found myself intrigued. I’m even looking forward to going back in four or five years to see how much it has changed. I expect it will be a lot.