Of all the cities on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, Qatar may still be relatively unknown, but there is much to recommend this small, emerging nation. This oil and gas-rich country is quietly reinventing itself at a rapid pace.
Atmospheric souks, historic forts and buildings provide evidence of the past, while dozens of glittering skyscrapers, marble-lined shopping malls, leading educational facilities, world-class sporting venues and cultural attractions are rising out of the blazing desert sands, while opulent waterfront apartment complexes meant to invoke the French Riviera and other far-flung locales are emerging alongside futuristic private villas.
While in Qatar, it is common for people to be offered a cup of Kahwa (Arabic coffee), a symbol of hospitality to welcome a guest at their premises. In hotels or fine restaurants, Kahwa is served by a special ‘coffee-man’ known as a gahwaji, and it is almost always accompanied by dates. You can simply shake the finjan (cup) as a gesture that you have enjoyed the hospitality and there is no need to pour more. Kahwa is made from coffee beans roasted heavily and brewed with cardamom and saffron to give it a golden colour, and cinnamon.
Just offshore, floating above the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf is the new Museum of Islamic Art, a stunning piece of contemporary architecture designed by I.M.Pei, set to become the jewel in Doha’s crown. Pei’s imposing museum is surely one of the most significant projects of his lengthy career. The geometric, tiered design of pale limestone accented with charcoal granite contains many of the distinguishing elements of traditional Islamic architecture – carved stone, domes, archways, fountains and courtyards.
Doha bay’s pedestrian circuit wraps seven kilometres past palm trees and dhows at anchor toward an ever-thickening forest of skyscrapers. Cranes are completing stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
A five-minute leisurely walk from the corniche, lies Souk Waqif – the restored early 20th century market. The maze alleys also contain some of Doha’s popular eateries and at sunset the souq becomes the city’s multicultural melting pot. Locals, expats and tourists sip coffee, tea or juices while dining at affordable Iranian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian, Indian, Thai, Lebanese and Moroccan restaurants.
The compelling fusion of old and new makes the Souq my favourite place to hang out at weekends over shisha. There are several trendy boutique hotels, a stable of pure-blood Arabian horses, a falcon souk, gold souk, clothing and traditional markets. Female merchants wearing hawk-like masks sell Qatari street foods like ragag –a thin crisp crepe sprinkled with thyme. No alcohol is served outside the hotels, so at Souq Waqif, Qataris and foreigners spend the night smoking flavoured tobacco from shisha waterpipes.
A 10-minute drive from the city centre lies another grande dame – Katara Cultural Village – home to Doha’s Opera house, an open-air, Greek-style marble amphitheatree that seats 5,000 people overlooking the sea, photography society, music school and art galleries. Packed with local families at weekends, Katara beach offers an escapade for water leisure. A free golf-cart service transports visitors through the whitewashed modern pearl fishing village to a row of seafront restaurants.
Arab cooking methods are typical of the special processing of meat without any fat, where the temperature of the pan is brought to 300 degrees, and meat coming into contact with its hot surface coagulates and forms a crust that keeps the juices inside. With this method, a meat dish is particularly tender and juicy. The other major way is to first roast the meat in a hot, dry pan, then fry it in a pan with oil. As a garnish, Arabs often serve fried or steamed vegetables, or steamed rice.
Meanwhile, kilometres of coastline, Doha’s famed corniche, rolling sand dunes and the beguiling inland sea, where the desert and the sea unite to create fabulous landscapes, afford endless opportunities for exploration.
In the fine season, Qataris and expatriates spend their weekends by the inland sea in the middle of the desert. The excursion can be done in one day or by overnighting in a tent. The four-wheel-drive vehicles have great fun zigzagging behind each other in between the dunes, feeling like riding a roller-coaster. The ritual is followed by a barbecue or fishing trip. The dunes roll endlessly, white in the morning, golden in the afternoon and red at sunset.
Text and photos by Hanny Wahyuni