Castles in the Sand

Doha, capital of Qatar, is a futuristic oasis perched between the desert and the sea. But there’s an older version of the city that coexists alongside all the modern projects.

Greet three customers, take another drag on a clove cigarette. So goes the evening for Khaled Breish. The Lebanese native is maintaining a dignified vigil at the entrance to his restaurant, Layali, one watchful eye on the reservations book, the other focused on the two dozen waiters perpetually winding their way through the spacious rooms behind him, bearing plates piled high with hummus and grilled lamb. Thursday nights are always busy; outside, the SUVs are starting to fill up. With temperatures hovering around 36°C, all the vehicles want to stop as close as possible to the front door – but the fact is Doha is always too hot to put one’s best foot forward unnecessarily. The trip to Layali on Sarwa Road, though, is worth a bit of extra sweat. Lebanese cuisine is generally considered the Middle East’s best, and here it is represented particularly well. The first course hasn’t even arrived when the hookah pipes appear on the table, to be puffed on by patrons all evening in between the individual courses. Tonight – as on most other nights – the groups of male diners are seated among their own for the most part. Qatar’s take on Islamic law is relatively conservative: In public – when not together with their families – the two sexes walk the streets separately, the men clothed in brilliant white, the women veiled and clad in jet black. Such strict observance of tradition represents a stark contrast to the material progress that has for years characterized this Persian Gulf city of over a million.

The results are easily seen in the bright light of the following day. Friday is the weekly day of prayer, and even the chronically gridlocked Corniche Road is suffused with a reverential stillness. Over the last few years, one skyscraper after another has vaulted toward the heavens, and the signs of construction remain everywhere – it’s impossible to take a picture that doesn’t contain a crane or two. View the few isolated dhows (traditional wooden boats) lying at anchor off the Corniche against this ultramodern panorama, and you realize why many residents claim this skyline is a miracle: one made possible by oil and air conditioning. Just 20 years ago, the Lonely Planet travel guide called the city “the dreariest place on the planet.” Doha has come a long way since then. The man behind the transformation is former emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. He recognized the vast wealth of untapped oil and gas reserves, pushed the development of extraction technology to new heights and modernized the entire society in the process. Since then, the country’s coffers have been overflowing, and tiny Qatar has quickly morphed into the richest country on Earth.

Top chefs and star architects

“Qatar deserves the best” is emblazoned on construction sites across the city, and Doha has taken this upstart slogan to heart, becoming a magnet for the superlative. There are the star architects like I.M. Pei and Rem Koolhaas, who let their creative imaginations run wild in the desert sands. There’s Qatar Airways, considered the world’s best airline for years running. There are top chefs like Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay, and there are some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Most importantly, however, and instantly on the tongue of every taxi driver and merchant expressing a sense of pride in their country, is the 2022 soccer World Cup scheduled to take place in Qatar. By then at the latest, Doha will have earned itself a well-deserved exclamation point on the world map.

But the world is no stranger to the huge towers and shopping malls that are air-conditioned to 20°C and function as ersatz city parks during the sweltering summers. People from all over the globe are moving to the Persian Gulf to work, and they make up a vital part of contemporary Qatari society. One such transplant is Claire, who a year ago was living with her husband and child in a cozy stone house near Geneva. She’s standing in the entrance hall of the Museum of Islamic Art and offers a reserved smile when asked to describe her first summer in the desert. “The hot months were quite tough; you can’t really leave the house as often as you might like. And Ramadan can sometimes make things difficult as well – you can’t just grab a sandwich to eat when you’re on your way somewhere.” A PR firm recruited Claire and she now lives with her family on the 17th floor of one of the ultramodern skyscrapers in the West Bay section of the city. The numerous luxury hotels there are popular hangouts for expats and Qataris alike. Their restaurants, bars and clubs are oases in the social fabric: Alcohol is legal, bikinis are allowed on hotel beaches and women can go out on their own in the evening, explains Claire. She’s looking forward to the winter, which promises temperatures around 25°C and even a precious handful of rainy days.

It’s the existence of places where ancient Arabian culture intersects with international modernity that makes this city livable, and the museum is the best proof that this fusion works, with magnificent Damascene swords sharing space with haute cuisine by Alain Ducasse. Next door, the biggest-ever Damien Hirst exhibition has opened, while a little further on, the Pearl Man has been hawking minuscule South Sea pearls for decades: Luxury is omnipresent in Doha. Those looking to slake their thirst for the Middle East’s exotic side can take a stroll through a souk: the aroma of cardamom and rose petals, proud Arabs with falcons perched on their forearms, venerable traders grinning toothless smiles. The Souq Waqif is the best-known of these traditional markets, its narrow alleyways practically inviting you to lose your way. Emerging from the confusion, you could find yourself next to a stable full of camels, a stark reminder not only of the desert that begins just beyond the glittering skyscrapers, but also of the desolate hamlet that Doha once was. Toss in the undulating cry of the muezzin and the desert wind kicking sand in your face, and for a brief moment you are transported to a faraway place and time. But then the giant SUVs are back, rumbling impatiently at a traffic light. In the distance, an elaborate light show reflects off the facades of the skyscrapers and suddenly you remember where you are: in Doha, the world’s newest international metropolis. A miracle indeed.

Sports, Art and Falcons

  1. Sports Mecca

    Tennis, horses, soccer… the sheiks are crazy about sports, and Aspire Park embodies their fervour. The ultramodern Sports Academy houses Bayern Munich‘s winter training grounds, and the Aspire Tower – currently the tallest skyscraper in Doha – presides over it all in impressive fashion.

  2. The Perfect Stroll

    The Corniche is seven kilometres long and connects the West Bay and its skyscrapers with the southern portion of the city. When temperatures are “mild” half the city can be found here, jogging, chatting under the palms and drinking karak. From here it‘s a hop, skip and a jump to the Museum of Islamic Art.

  3. Falcons R Us

    Right behind the Souq Waqif is a sister market dedicated to a traditional Middle Eastern pastime: falconry. Resting proudly atop tall perches are falcons for sale. The market also offers fine leather falconry accessories – there‘s even a hospital for the birds of prey. The lone drawback: the rather overpowering odour.

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