Qatar: Where tradition meets the future
Written by Rachel Morris Images by Sylvie van Roey
Look beyond the soaring skyscrapers that are clustered on the shoreline of Doha’s West Bay, and their glittering façades, and you will find a city and country with a heart and soul and creative flair.
Until the 2000s, Qatar was the quiet achiever of the Arabian Gulf, but thanks to massive investment in culture, the arts, and sport, the country is now holding its own as a destination that hosts world-class events with style.
When the New Doha International Airport opens in late 2012, it will have capacity for 25 million passengers a year to transit at Doha, rising to 50 million by 2016. But increasingly, those transit passengers are choosing to stay a while and see what Qatar has to offer.
Rather than ‘importing’ cultural icons from other parts of the world, in the mid 1990s Qatar set about creating its own museums and collections. The first stunning example of this grand vision is the Museum of Islamic Art. Hard to miss, the building designed by IM Pei (he of the Louvre Pyramid), inspired by a mosque, sits on the Corniche. Inside is one of the most impressive collections of Islamic art in the world, originating from three continents.
The MIA, as it is known, is an impressive work of art in itself, but the collection includes pieces from Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, and has ceramics, carpets, Qur’ans, and other illustrations. Meanwhile, on a 280,000m2 crescent enveloping the museum is the MIA Park – the first sculpture park of its kind in the region. Since opening in late 2011, it has become a favourite destination for Qatari families. Housing a café, the centrepiece of the park is the 80ft-high sculpture by Richard Serra, entitled 7. The imposing monolith is Serra’s first public artwork in the Middle East.
Across town, tucked behind the extraordinary buildings of Qatar’s Education City, is the country’s newest museum – Mathaf. Meaning ‘museum’ in Arabic, Mathaf is home to the country’s stunning Arab modern art collection. With lectures and classes, the museum acts as an educational centre as well as gallery, and is worth the drive uptown.
Qatar’s commitment to preserving and creating its heritage will see 17 new museums built over the next decade, including the National Museum (designed by Jean Nouvel), a photographic museum (Qatar has the world’s third biggest collection of photographs and images), and a weaponry museum.
Back on the shores of the gulf, you will find Katara, otherwise known as Cultural Village – although you wouldn’t know it from the road, it’s hidden behind sand dunes. From the water it resembles a reclaimed city by the sea – rather like Doha. Home to the country’s Philharmonic Orchestra as well as other arts and cultural societies, it boasts a stunning amphitheatre, which was opened in 2011 with a special concert by Greek maestro Vangelis. There are gallery spaces and restaurants with cuisines ranging from Indian to Turkish to seafood and everything in-between. The public beach has comfortable deckchairs, gelato stands, and the culturally minded can catch one of the regular performances at the Opera House (anyone worried about the walk can hail one of the Katara-branded golf carts whizzing around and hitch a ride).
This Sporting Life
Qatar can be hot. In summer the temperatures reach over 40°C. But for four months of the year the climate is mild, even cool. During this period, the country’s sporting calendar is packed with action. And we mean international-standard action.
January to March sees the ATP men’s tennis, WTA women’s tennis, the cycling Tour of Qatar, the Qatar Open golf…and that’s just for starters. Qatar has gone out of its way to open its world-class sporting facilities – which include the Aspire Stadium, Losail International Circuit, and the Khalifa Tennis Stadium – to visiting sportspersons. Already the country has hosted friendlies involving top-flight football teams from Europe as well as the English and Brazilian national sides.
Rhythm of Life
The Corniche, an 8km-long promenade that essentially joins old and new Doha, is the lifeblood of the country. Every day thousands of Doha dwellers pound the pavement or sit and enjoy the vista. Moving from West Bay to Musherib, or the ‘Heart of Doha’ you will find what has become the city’s epicentre. On weekends and in winter, Souq Waqif roars into life as residents and visitors alike come for shisha, to shop, or just to be seen. Although less than five years old, the souq, with its traditional architecture and vibrancy, takes visitors back to a bygone era, when the sea met the desert.
This feeling is still possible, but you have to venture an hour out of Doha. Beyond the 5-star luxury hotels and gleaming shopping centres, the desert that surrounds Doha has been beckoning travellers for thousands of years. The Khor Al Adaid, or Inland Sea, is the country’s true natural treasure, the sea in the desert, and a place of great beauty as well as fun. Here you can swim, hang out, or even cruise the dunes in a modern-day ‘ship of the desert’ – the Toyota Landcruiser.
Cast your mind back 50 or so years and Qatar, more specifically, Doha, was a small fishing village known for its trade in precious pearls. But since the discovery of oil and later gas, the country has grown to be one of the most interesting in the region.
Most people associate the sport of falconry with Ye Olde England, but Qatar and its neighbouring Emirates can claim to be ahead of the pack.
Because of the barren nature of the desert in Qatar, Bedouins learned to use falcons and the famed Saluki dogs to catch and kill prey. Falcons can hit speeds of up to 180km when diving for their prey, and are known for their amazing eyesight.
Evidence of the sport and Qatar’s love for it is everywhere. Katara (Cultural Village) houses a specialised Falcon Centre, with veterinary facilities and – soon – a museum.
The Falcon Souq at Souq Waqif is a truly Qatari experience. It is literally a store where falcon enthusiasts can buy and sell these majestic birds. Visitors are welcome in the store, which is a fascinating experience, witnessing the birds on their perches, tiny heads ensconced in leather hoods.
Equestrian pursuits are considered a noble tradition in Qatar, and horse racing in particular has a long and rich history in the country. His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, has gifted The Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club, whose headquarters in Al Rayyan also houses a racetrack and other facilities. Regular races, as well as the Qatar International Showjumping Championship, are held in the cooler months.
Meanwhile, the Al Shaqab complex at Education City hosts one of the most technologically advanced facilities of its kind in the world, with a horse spa, breeding facilities, and a riding school open to all.
For something a little more offbeat, head to Al Shahaniya, about 30 minutes from Doha. This is the home of Qatar’s famous Camel Races, which take place between November and May. If you miss race day (usually Fridays) you can still see these remarkable animals in training.
By the numbers
12the number of stadiums to be built or renovated for FIFA 2022 World Cup.
the population of Qatar in 2011.
the estimated value of projects under construction in the lead up to 2022.