Last August en route to the Seychelles, I had a long layover in Doha so I took advantage of a three-hour “Discover Doha” transit tour offered by the government’s tourism bureau Discover Qatar. It provides a single-entry visa for a city visit by bus, which conveniently departs and ends at the international airport.
Thank goodness, this bus was well air-conditioned as it was 104 °F (40 °C) outside with what felt like 100 percent humidity. Air-conditioning is a condition for going anywhere in Qatar in the summer. Normally, I’m like a camel and can take the heat, but with sauna-like humidity, even I melted in Doha. At each of several stops, other tourists and I ran back onto the bus dripping in sweat.
Through foggy windows with condensation from air conditioning meeting the virtual sauna, I could see billboards promoting the 2022 World Cup football/soccer tournament Nov. 21 Nov.-18 Dec. I felt like I was playing in the tournament myself drenched in sweat while looking at the sweaty players in print. (Luckily, those attending World Cup matches will be in air-conditioned indoor stadiums during a cooler time of year).
Qatar is the first Arab nation to host the World Cup. Because of its desert climate, FIFA pushed the typical July-August tournament to year-end, including Qatar’s national day 18 Dec. The fact that Qatar is the fourth wealthiest country in the world by GDP per capita certainly had something to do with it along with its government signing a 2017 agreement with the UN’s International Labour Organization to address migrant worker issues. As well, the sun shines upon this country year-round and it is politically stable unlike neighboring Iran.
Other neighbors are Saudi Arabia, with which it shares its southern border, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. While culturally part of the Middle East, Qatar sits in West Asia geographically. It is a peninsula of 11,500 square kilometers with a long coastline on the western Arabian Gulf. Qatar has a population of 3 million – only 500,000 of which are Qatari – and represents 200 nationalities!
The eastern capital of Doha is uber modern with a New York City-esque skyscraper skyline and about 650,000 people from all over the world. Ironically, it evolved from a pearling and fishing village at the beginning of the 20th century into one of the world’s most futuristic and wealthiest cities.
In fact, the whole country was largely populated by Bedouin tribes and fishing villages until the late 1700s, when towns began to develop, starting with Al Zubarah, today Qatar’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site as a well-preserved Gulf merchant town. In 1878, multiple family tribes were united under one state. In 1916, the UK fortuitously made Qatar a protectorate as oil and gas were discovered there a few decades later, dramatically changing its course of history. Amassing extraordinary wealth, Qatar proclaimed its independence from Britain in 1971 and its development has skyrocketed.
Case in point, the first stop on our transit tour was the Doha Corniche, a seven-kilometer promenade around the crescent-shaped Doha Bay with the best view of the city’s modern skyline, albeit hazy from dust and heat. The architecturally notable Museum of Islamic Art designed by I.M. Pei sits along the Corniche along with dhow boats, throwbacks to the old fishing days. (An annual dhow boat festival coincides in 2022 with the dates of the World Cup.)
Next we drove downtown into the West Bay sea of sleek skyscrapers, such as the Doha Tower, which quietly glistened in the sun as not a soul was in the streets on that scorching Sunday. That was also the case at indoor-outdoor Katara Cultural Village, which drips in gold literally with its Golden Mosque and figuratively with its Katara (Blue) Mosque, amphitheater, concert halls, exhibition galleries and swanky restaurants.
Perhaps people were inside air-conditioned Galleries Lafayette, an extension of the famous department store in Paris that is executed more glamorously with a kids’ store in shape of a giant gift box, copper domes and Roman columns. There are even elegant pigeon towers that collect poo to fertilize the lawn!
Birds, especially falcons, have a special place in Qataris’ hearts since their tribal days. Doha even has a falcon hospital with 15 doctors, falcon souq (market) and an annual falcon festival. Falconry competitions, in which falcons are used for hunting Oct. to Dec., fetch winners lucrative prizes, with up to a quarter million dollars for first place. We met some of these prestigious birds at the hospital, where surgeries like feather implants are performed!
We also wandered past captive camels through Souq Waqif, a collection of markets for birds, gold, carpets, handicrafts, dried fruits and more. It’s a modern take on an old trading tradition. With the heat, I took refuge in a date shop, buying multiple types of this delicious fruit. Across the pavement was the stunning, spiraling Fanar Islamic cultural center, blocked by a large, pop-up tent featuring a date festival. Unfortunately, it was closed that morning … a fact I discovered after encircling it in the sauna. I returned to the Doha airport with streaks of sweat frozen by the bus’s cool air.
Qatar’s desert climate is better suited to camels and Arabian horses, which are used in races; unusual species like sand cats, foxes and gazelles; and the Arabian Oryx antelope, which is the national animal in the logo of Qatar Airlines. Only palm trees are indigenous; all other plants have been imported.
Similarly, The Pearl Island in Doha was introduced as one of the world’s largest artificial islands. It’s full of luxurious residences, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues like a little utopia. In fact, much of Doha is like a “pearl” of luxurious development, including multicultural restaurants, impressive museums and stunning architecture – from its airport, Imam Abdul Wahhab Mosque (Qatar state grand mosque) and overwater villas at Banana Island Resort to World Cup stadiums Khalifa International, 974 and Al Thumama. For a reality check, go to the desert less than 100 kilometers away on a sand safari or watch whale sharks as they feed on tuna eggs in between oil platforms (April to September).
Anyone going to the World Cup, be sure to take in what’s outside of stadiums and stay cool.