The Good Life

The pearl by the sea

Why Qatar could turn into next tourist hotspot in West Asia

Private yachts bob in the marina by the reclaimed bay. In the piazza, luxury stores for brands such as Just Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Elie Saab and Stefano Ricci are ringing up the till. International restaurants and cafes have sprung up, among them Japanese specialty Midori and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. The Pearl is Qatar’s only freehold residential development with apartments overlooking the Gulf, but these are so expensive that they aren’t considered a shrewd investment. Yet, foreigners — including Indians — who want a slice of Qatari real estate are lapping these apartments up. That it comes with a lifestyle that combines Dubai’s Palm Al-Jumeirah and Europe’s Venice is intentional.

By day, Doha resembles a desert outpost. Construction dust settles on Aston Martins and Maseratis as they speed over the newly laid city roads. Everywhere, there is evidence of construction: trees are being transplanted, land levelled for grass to come up on the verges and at roadside parks. At night, West Bay glitters like a newly hatched Hong Kong, with lights that flicker playfully across the façades of the glass buildings, each one an architectural marvel. Hotels in Lusail — St Regis, the Ritz Carlton-managed Sharq, the Sheraton, the InterContinental — resemble the famed strip in Macau in their magnificence. A new road, parts of which will run underwater, is being planned between the newly minted Hamad airport and Lusail.

It isn’t yet a tourist destination but Qatar is fast shaping up as an alternate to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with its mix of malls and entertainment facilities geared towards families. The summer heat is searing: the palms are singed and the pavements bake under the sun. But the winter months are ideal weather for everything from sunbathing to mall-hopping. At Souq Waqif, a romantic market has been recreated, complete with cobbled streets, outdoor cafes, fake antique shops, pet stores, carpet centres and street performers — an Arabian Nights version of Rome’s Trastevere, and just as popular.

Like Lusail, the Corniche waterfront in the heart of Doha has also been reclaimed from the gulf, a girdle to rival Mumbai’s Marine Drive. It too has wide promenades and the Museum of Islamic Art designed by IM Pei claims pride of place. More than the displays, it is the modern architecture that takes your breath away. Built overlooking the waterfront, its collection includes Islamic art works, pottery, carpets, textiles, glazed tiles, jewellery and pages from the Quran from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Spain, Turkey and India. The Museum of Islamic Art can hardly hold a torch to the treasures available in older museums around the world, but the manner in which the exhibits are mounted are a lesson in contemporary museology. Visitors throng its cavernous entrance, with its gift shops and café. Staircases sweep up under a giant light with Islamic motifs suspended from a ceiling.

Your driver will point out local attractions — the Emir’s family palaces, the villa built for Princess Diana, the stadium where Rafael Nadal can be spotted playing, the golf club with its lush greens (a sight for sore eyes), and the excitement surrounding FIFA’s west Asia debut in Doha in 2022. Local residents say that it isn’t as dissolute as Dubai; that Doha is a city with a toehold in the future.

Shopping may be an incidental attraction — Lagoona, Villagio, Centre Point and others pale in comparison with Dubai’s signature Dubai Mall — but dining could turn out to be Doha’s unique speciality. The local cuisine borrows heavily from the region and the Mediterranean, but it is the arrival of international brands from Europe and Asia that are setting standards for Japanese, Chinese and Italian restaurants. Clubbing and bars are frowned upon, though there are discotheques. Public drinking is restricted to a few bars at the hotels. Foreigners are not allowed to carry even duty-free liquor from the airport into the city. Expats and visitors are allowed to buy alcohol only from the state-owned Qatar Distribution Centre and not during Ramadan.

But Ramadan might be the special season for Doha, with museums and malls closed during the day and staying open till the wee hours. Hotels offer special Ramadan buffets and recreate a spellbinding Arabian setting. Canopied tents, live music, sheesha and hukka, lights shaped like the crescent moon, sofas occupied by large families… it is a unique and endearing facet of Qatari life. For that alone, Doha is worth a visit — that is, if you’re not planning to splurge on a villa with a private jetty at The Pearl. It is the Rivera of tomorrow ready for occupation today.