Richard Powell takes a two-day whistle-stop tour of Arabian outlier Qatar, as it seeks to transform itself from international flight hub to must-visit tourist destination...
The Doha skyline has become a mecca for global architects and designers
The world's richest country per capita, lying on the north-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has traditionally been an unlikely place for a holiday.
Historically, it's been perceived as largely uninhabitable thanks to its harsh, arid climate and temperatures north of 50c degrees.
But technological advancements and an unlimited budget have tamed the elements in this desert state, paving the way for a tidal wave of development in the former British protectorate.
The capital, Doha - a time-honored transfer point for long-haul flights from West to East and vice-versa - has its eyes on more than transient travelers, and the country's progressive new emir is willing to spend big to ensure a wow factor.
Two decades ago, the country discovered the world's third largest natural gas reserves, and with it, unimaginable wealth.
Now it's smack bang in the middle of an unprecedented $210bn spending bonanza, pushing itself as a leading destination for business, education, leisure, culture and sport.
Qataris cast their eyes over another ambitious new development in Doha
As host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar will spend 286 times more money per capita putting the event on than Russia did on the Sochi Olympics, previously the most expensive sporting event in history.
Money here is not short... and neither are the numbers of people willing to travel here to work in the country's fledgling services sector.
While Qatar is home today to around 278,000 nationals - up from 25,000 in 1950 - there are six times that number of foreigners making up its labor force, today.
The tens of thousands of construction workers putting up gleaming steel and glass towers that light the city skyline are Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese; hotel receptions and restaurants are staffed by Eastern Europeans and sharply-dressed Japanese girls punch eye-watering sums into credit card terminals in designer jewelry stores while South Africans scrub customers in salons and spas. Job titles are obviously not tied to nationality, but these are the bets I'd take if I had to wager who was working where in services in Qatar.
The view from The Torch shows the sprawling city's march to modernisation
A Sri Lankan guide provided a tour of the country's unique cultural heritage, starting with a 100km schlep out of Doha to the antique town of Zubarah, on the north-western coast of the peninsula.
If Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilization, then Qatar can't be far behind. An old fort-turned-museum that sits on this archaeological site displays evidence of human presence in the area from 7,500 years ago.
But, the country's best artifacts are found within the imposing Museum of Islamic Arts building, perched on a reclaimed island that extends from Doha's waterfront promenade of several kilometers along the capital's bay, the Corniche.
The museum's impressive 5-story domed atrium is the centerpiece to one of the world's most complete collections of Islamic artwork and antiques, including an Ottoman cavalry soldier in steel armor from the 15th Century, an 11th Century gem-set Egyptian armlet and albarellos from 13th Century Syria. It was nice also to meet for the first time - and be shown around this great building - by a native Qatari.
The Doha Museum of Islamic Art celebrates design through the ages
Dinner afterwards on an authentic wooden Dhow boat provided the most spectacular nigh time view of this pop-up city's futuristic skyline, contrasting the humble origins of the former Bedouin fishing village turned global economic powerhouse.
Bedouin heritage could also be seen around the Souq Waqif market behind the Corniche, off Grand Hamed Street, offering ornate handicrafts and folk art to take home. The adjoining animal market is worth a look too, with everything from kittens to parrots for sale and, as is the case in so many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, falconry takes center stage for those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The majestic birds for sale in this market started at $5,000, rising to a wallet-busting $75,000 each.
While my budget may not have been up to investing in a prized white peregrine and exercising it on the dunes that surround the city limits, I was able to get out there in a 4x4 for some slightly more affordable 'dune bashing'.
This white-knuckle adrenaline rush involved hanging on for dear life as a Qatari driver climbed and plunged his customized SUV through several kilometers of desert sands, somehow incredibly avoiding not to roll it.
All manner of things are on offer at the bazaar, including exotic pets
Helter-skeltering through the sandy wastelands alongside the Gulf shallows of the Inland Sea, to the Saudi Arabian border, was an unforgettable if unnerving experience. The plodding trip back into the town afterwards, past gas refineries spewing fire into the cool black desert atmosphere, was thankfully sedate enough to get us thinking about food again.
A smorgasbord of five star hotels in Doha offer the best international cuisine in the city.
Watch the sun set in the desert, behind the straits and Saudi Arabia
Two that I ate at were the 360 Restaurant at The Torch Hotel (offering impressive views of Doha from 300-meters up), and the W Hotel where I had dinner. This is also home to Doha's premier nightclub and a great terrace bar (if you forget to take your passport and get refused access to the club, like I did...)
The two hotels I stayed in were the boutique Al Jasra, in old town Souq Waqif, which mixed modern design and Arab-esque heritage with an art-inspired lobby and avant-garde surroundings and the opulent St. Regis in the Al Gassar Resort, adjacent to Pearl Island.
While the former provided a more intimate, personalized feel, the latter was an all-out air-conditioned showcase of the finer things in life, complete with a personal butler assigned to me on arrival.
After a sports massage at the St Regis Remède Spa, I ventured down to the hotel's Jazz at Lincoln Center bar in the basement, where I found guests and expats mingling over cocktails as the house band did their best to emulate the tone of its famous New York City namesake.
It's often said that Qatar has a liberal attitude to the consumption of alcohol in hotels, but it's worth remembering that flogging is still used in the country as a punishment for drinking, so my advice is to tread carefully if you're out on the town.
An interesting aside I experienced was being questioned by the police after a Qatari national pulled over after seeing me take pictures at the roadside. He demanded I handed him my handset, and when I refused, he forbade the taxi driver from moving away while he called the police, who appeared almost instantaneously. Within minutes, however, they had all looked at my rather uninspired pictures of the glowing neon skyline, and we were waved on.
Lounging in luxury on the A380 makes flights feel shorter
When I left for the airport the next morning, the St Regis taxi was to my surprise a gleaming Rolls-Royce Phantom. I'm sure I would have appreciated it even more if I hadn't been on the red-eye back to London, but by the time I'd settled into my sumptuous business seat on the mind-blowingly gargantuan A380 and had a Bloody Mary in the sky lounge, the six-hour jet home seemed to be over before it had started.
With a British passport, I had to pre-register for a 30-day visa for Qatar, but US citizens get one on arrival. Abercrombie & Kent offer a three-night package to Qatar from £1,375 per person on Qatar Airways with three nights at the St Regis and a private tour of Doha, including the Museum of Islamic Art, Katara Cultural Village and Souq Waqif. The Desert Safari and Dhow Cruise Excursion was organised by http://www.qia-qatar.com
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