As I write this I find myself thinking about how my perception of Qatar changed with each visit I made — a total of four trips, interspersed with travel throughout the Gulf area and many, many trips to Bahrain, which was only an hour’s drive from where I lived in Dhahran. Doha seemed to me a midpoint between the decidedly modest cityscape of Manama and the full-on metropolis that Dubai was fast becoming. Doha has no public transportation system like Dubai now has, and as far as areas in which people like me (whitey expats) would go there are actually rather few: downtown for the Museum (but little else if the truth be told), Villagio Mall in the Aspire Zone on the west side of the city, and the Pearl. After a few visits it began to feel a bit close and not particularly worth a five-hour drive across the desert with the thought in mind, “What happens if the car breaks down in the emptiness between Al Hasa and the Qatari border?” It does little good to stick your thumb out if the only thing going past you is sand blown down the road by the wind.
In the year before my retirement and departure from the Gulf area I went to a conference in Doha sponsored by the Qatar Foundation in Education City. The drive to the conference facility from my hotel was less than five kilometers but took 40 minutes in the morning and afternoon during rush hour. Driving downtown required nerves of steel and full Ninja mode. Like its neighbor Bahrain, Doha has done a British take on traffic management and uses roundabouts for many major intersections. Nothing wrong with that, one might think, imagining the orderly entry and exit of Brits in some CCTV’ed traffic circle in, let us say, Cheltenham. A spot of the Old English is always quaint, so it might seem at first thought. Experience quickly brings to the fore the fact that over 50% of the population of Doha comes from the Indian subcontinent. Rather than imagine a roundabout in charming Cheltenham, then, one should visualize it in Mumbai. Aye, there’s the rub. Entering a roundabout in Doha during rush hour traffic is what I imagine it would be like to find oneself thrown into a blender running on the “liquidize” setting. Obviously I survived to tell the tale, but I can’t say my nervous system emerged from the experience strengthened, nor did reflection after the experience lead to the conclusion that I became a better person because of it. After five days of Doha roundabouts during rush hour I was glad to find myself back in Saudi Arabia, streaking along the highway through the Eastern Desert with my eyes staring into emptiness, my only worry about obstacles reduced to the possibility of a stray camel or two on the roadway.
On the second trip to Qatar I stayed in Al Wakrah, the suburb with the lovely garden mentioned above. A major highway takes you from Doha proper to Al Wakrah in about 15 minutes max, if the traffic isn’t too heavy. A drive around the area revealed some very posh housing developments sporting large villas behind garden walls, but there’s nothing of that along the main drag through town. The highway through town is exactly like an American strip mall, with businesses on both sides of the road in a commercial higgeldy-piggedly that has enough American fast-food chains to give the impression you’ve wandered into some desert burg in the Southwest. But the business transacted could never happen in the USA, not in a million years. Why? Well, let me tell you.
If you’re a Qatari young pup you’ll without doubt have a Toyota Landcruiser (a new one, of course) — invariably white, for some reason I can’t explain — and if you get the taste for a spot of KFC or Pizza Hut, then you pull over into the vicinity of the restaurant and start honking your horn. No, of course you don’t get out and go inside, what are you thinking?? You are a Qatari, one of that rare breed comprising only 12% of the population and a member of the small elite who gets all those scrummy government subsidies reserved for native citizens. Ooh la la. Hence the new Toyota Landcruiser and the sense of entitlement. So you pull over in front of the restaurant and start honking, which will bring one of the Asian workstaff running out with a menu and a pad on which to write your order. Order taken, the waitstaff runs back into the restaurant and when the food is ready bustles with it back out to your Landcruiser. The money goes through the window after the food has entered the vehicle, and off you go, ready to chow down without having had to move from your seat. Brilliant! I never saw any such thing in Saudi Arabia during the five years I lived there, by the way. The frequency with which I saw it in Qatar left my jaw slack. It’s one more element that makes Doha and Qatar in general seem provincial by comparison with real bling spots like Dubai. Such burra sahib behavior is what one would expect from a British officer during the Raj. For someone like me, raised in the DIY culture of the United States, the initial encounter with it left me stunned into stupefaction. Given the propensity of Gulf Arab youth in general to obesity (info here), the practice is unlikely to lead to happy lives for anyone involved.
My last visit to Doha took place in 2015, the year I left the Middle East forever. I went with a Saudi friend who had never been to Qatar, so I found myself in the curious position of tour guide, since my previous three visits had given me a thorough acquaintance with the place. By that point the city had shrunk for me to a handful of places worthy of whiling away a few days — the Museum, Villagio Mall, the Pearl, the Souq Waqif. The travel plan was the work of a moment, no more. My Saudi friend was duly impressed and I enjoyed showing him around the places I knew. I doubt there is much more of a touristic nature to discover there for me. The next level of discovery would come from longer-term residence, which I think could be interesting because of the international nature of the population, even more pronounced in character than in Bahrain although not nearly as cosmopolitan as Dubai. I suspect, however, that the diminutive dimensions of the country would soon produce a feeling of enclosure, a case that also applies to Bahrain. After all, outside of Doha itself there really isn’t much to explore and serendipitous discoveries of hidden tourist treasures are unlikely in the extreme. Only Saudi Arabia is large enough to offer that kind of opportunity, with the possible addition of Oman and the interesting biome around Salalah, which during the “Khareef” from July through August receives enough monsoon moisture to transform into lush greenness, a sight rare enough in the Arabian Peninsula to warrant a look-see on mere mention.
At this point in my life it’s unlikely that I’ll ever return to Doha. The recollections I have of it sit lightly in memory and I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience it over repeated visits. For the first-timer with an opportunity to visit the city, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly as a worthy destination. And don’t forget to try the green curry at the souk. 🙂