Qatar: land of the unknown

“Qatar,” says the Lonely Planet guide, “is best known for being unknown.” It’s a small consolation – I do feel slightly less like a geographically clueless American – but it doesn’t shake the sense I’m heading into the great unknown.

So I do some more reading. It’s small – a tiny peninsula (160 kilometres from north to south). It’s in the Middle East – on the Arabian Peninsula; crammed between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the western shores of the Persian Gulf. It’s hot – average summer temperatures of between 38 and 42. It’s got a real rags-to-riches story – once a rough backwater eking out an existence in the pearl and fishing industries, the discovery of oil and gas have made it ridiculously wealthy.

And “there’s lots of sand and camels”, a friend contributed rather unhelpfully.

Great expectations
But even by the time the plane touches down at Doha, the independent emirate’s capital, I’m not entirely sure what to expect.

Turns out the overwhelming first impression is one of contrasts – between tradition and westernisation; the old and the new; all that sand and the tree-lined waters of the gulf.

So a Ferrari dealership preens near a traditional market (or souq), a Pepsi sign in Arabic looks both foreign and familiar, and above the dusty, bustling streets tower international hotels in all their five-star serenity and opulence.

Nowhere else is this collision of worlds more apparent than at the Al Shaqab Stud Farm, owned by the ruling sheikh. Here, a few kilometres from Doha, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has some 375 show and race horses, the most prized of which are kept in air-conditioned stables, have an indoor swimming pool and enjoy two personal attendants of their own. It seems a bit excessive at first, until you find out that these thoroughbred Arabian steeds are worth $1-million each.

But that pales in comparison to the amount of money that’s been ploughed into tourism since Qatar opened its borders to foreign visitors in 1989. Take Palm Tree (or ‘Al Nakhil’) Island for instance – a man-made oasis that’s a five-minute dhow trip from Doha, boasting sandy beaches, restaurants, amusement rides and landscaped gardens. (The grass, incidentally, was imported from Australia, my tour guide offers). Or the City Centre, a five-storey mall with some 350 shops which is just another reminder that in Doha bigger is always better.

Just consider that Toyota Landcruisers are the vehicle of choice (and not just because petrol costs less than two US cents per litre) and that everywhere you look new towers of glass and steel, bigger than those around them, are rising from the dust. The overall effect is of a city growing up around you as you watch.

Heritage still preserved
But thankfully the past isn’t being neglected in the process. Granted the results may be less extensive or flashy, but the Souq Waqif (or simply ‘the old souq’) is having its own work done. The oldest of Doha’s traditional markets, originally used by Bedouin traders for the buying and selling of wool, milk, meat and other commodities it’s now being rebuilt; brick-by-original-brick.

The effect is something out of an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie – a maze of narrow, paved alleyways with stores on either side packed high with everything from jewellery, dates and traditional garments to perfumes, fabrics and cheap Taiwanese alarm clocks. It’s all very hands on (“Smell the saffron” instructs my guide in a spice stall) with haggling encouraged and – apart from the ‘Made in China’ junk – you feel like you’ve stepped into another century. It’s an effect enhanced by seeing four elderly men, dressed in their bishoots, sipping on small cups of dark tea, while a fifth puffs on a ‘hookah’ pipe. Or the cubicles where men will type out your dictated documents on their rickety typewriters.

The other souqs aren’t quite as old school, though. Both the fish market and the fruit and vegetable market – stocked with an alarming amount of fresh produce imported daily from around the world – aren’t unlike those you’d find in South Africa. And the gold souq looks like a suburban mall, surrounded by an entire block of small, modern shops dealing in nothing but gold jewellery.

But you can’t get much more traditional than the falconry souq where the young birds used in the centuries-old sport are up for sale. Not that you could afford them – the best specimens (once fully trained and able to dive at some 200km/h) can fetch more than R100 000 each.

The Mercedes Benz of camels, meanwhile, will set you back the price of the four-wheeled variety (R280 000), but like falconry (and horse shows) the ships of the desert provide an important source of entertainment.

Crowds flock to the regular camel races at Al Shahaniyah, which features a 12-kilometre long track with grandstands at regular intervals along the way. The best way to watch a race or owners training their steeds is from your tour guide’s Landcruiser as he drives alongside the action – especially since the area, some 60 kilometres from Doha, is rather dry and dusty.

It’s a far cry from the Corniche, a Riviera-style promenade of palm trees and more Australian grass stretching eight kilometres along Doha’s coastline, but that’s the real Qatar – a land of contrasts rather than one of the unknown.

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