All roads led to Rome; the sun never set on the British Empire; the point of exceptionalism around which the world turned, America. Now tiny Qatar, the wealthiest country in the world on a per capita basis, a polestar shimmering on the northern Arabian Peninsula, is aspiring to be the hub that spokes to the world, with its vast investments, its satellite television network, Al Jazeera, among the most watched in the world, and its global philanthropy (Qatar sent an unsolicited $100 million dollars to aid Hurricane Katrina victims in America).
Its national carrier, Qatar Airways, is not yet 20-years-old, but now connects to just about everywhere. Its ultra-modern airport is within 8 hours flying time to 3/4s of the earth's population. Checking in for a business class seat is like checking into a five-star hotel, complete with concierge and welcome drinks.
Qatar has done so much, so quickly, so quietly, it doesn't yet register on most travelers' maps. Which makes it all the more alluring. So, I book a flight on a Qatar Airways 777 direct from Houston to Doha, the capital, and settle back to some celebrity chef fare (on my flight, Nobu), and a full flat bed, before stepping into the hot, humid night air of the Gulf.
The road to my hotel, the Kempinski, curves like a scimitar around the Corniche, a palm-lined promenade reclaimed from the sea. The downtown skyline engraves the night with a confection of bold colors and shapes, a giant Jetsons' sculpture garden.
It's hard to imagine, but not long ago Qatar was a sleepy backeddy, one of the poorest places on the planet. Its people were nomads--the bedu or Bedouin-- or traders or coastal fishermen. Its economy was based on its fine pearls, but when in the 1930s the Japanese introduced less-expensive cultured pearls, the Qatar natural pearl market collapsed. The population was reduced to dismal poverty; children were starving. It prompted an out-migration, leaving the population at about 16,000 in 1949. That this barren piece of real estate would ever prosper seemed a pipe dream, at best.
But the pipes became a reality with the first oil revenue in the 1950s.
And boy, did things change. Like rubbing Aladdin's lamp, and poof, from hard scrabble footpaths to the superhighway of the future, but one with exits to its tribal roots.
The first order of my first day is to visit the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by starchitect I.M. Pei, perched on a private island created just for the building. From a distance it looks like one the Portuguese forts found throughout the Gulf, or perhaps a pale limestone member of the Starfleet Command. But after walking up the palm-lined grand ramp, next to a chute of cascading water, the geometric elements of traditional Islamic architecture--carved stone, domes, archways, fountains, and courtyards, rout previous impressions. Inside is a soaring atrium, and curved stairways that belong in a Sunset Boulevard remake. And then in the galleries on display are some of the world's greatest collections of Islamic art, textiles, and rugs, even swords. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for The New York Times, said that "the dazzling collections it houses underscore the seriousness of the country's cultural ambition."
While some say Dubai, to the east, aspires to out Vegas Vegas, Qatar strives to be a permanent hub of knowledge and culture, with an ambitious roster of museums, libraries, conservatories, theaters and concert halls, and a center of an educational and scientific renaissance. And it seems to be materializing, like a magic show, out of thin air.
After a leisurely lunch of tabbouleh, chicken shwarma, grilled lamb and shish taouk, I head over to Qatar's own Xanadu, The Pearl. The 988-acre man-made island, aims to be the Riviera for Qataris, but without the jetlag. It is bursting with luxury apartments, high-end hotels, three marinas with mooring for 1,002 boats, and more than 2 million square feet of retail space where women in black abayas and matching shaylas float in and out of chic clothiers and jewelers, heads bent over and fingers busy with their bejeweled smart phones.
Just beyond a caravan of camels, I enter the Souq Waqif, a reconstructed marketplace designed to look like a 19th-century bazaar, with mud-rendered shops, exposed timber beams, and slanting, dusty beams of light.
I drift the labyrinthine corridors, flirting with the colorful birds, fingering the fabrics, and inhaling the spices. In the main alley men on "Drinkers of the Wind," the Bedouin name for Arabian stallions, strut by. At one point, ready for a rest, I take a seat in front of a shop offering a gidu (an Alice in Wonderland caterpillar smoking type hookah), and order up an apple-flavored smoke. The man across from me, resplendent in crisp white cotton thobe and black-corded headdress, nods Salaam alaykum (peace be upon you), as though meeting a fellow wanderer of the saline sands of the desert. He fingers his misbaha, prayer beads, and begins to tell the story of his father, who owns the shop behind me, and remembers living without pavement, electricity or running water. After 30 minutes or so, he excuses himself for an appointment. When I get up to fetch the bill, I discover he paid for me.
On a whim and a prayer, I take a taxi out to the Villagio, past Education City, where you can enroll in courses at Carnegie- Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, even Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, where I did my undergrad; and into Sports City, which is madly building stadiums and venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and then by The Aspire Zone, which makes sense when you see the giant ice-skating rink in the desert. Inside the Villagio, its Italy, but all scrubbed and shiny, offering up every shop you've ever heard of, even Dean & Deluca. Running through the heart of the mall is a recreation of Venice's Grand Canal, where gondoliers poll past the Italianate facades. It is the old riff come true...if you want to see how beautiful my baby, you have to see her picture.
That night for dinner, I head over to the St. Regis, and take a special elevator to a room that disorients more than desert ice-skating, Venice canals, or American Universities....it is Jazz at Lincoln Center. Festooned with photos of the greats, from Sachmo to Dizzy to Miles, and lit and plushly appointed like The Cotton Club, it is curated by Wynton Marsalis, and features artists directly from the New York home base, who drop in for three-week stints. I used to listen raptly to Ed Bradley's radio broadcasts of Jazz at Lincoln Center, but never made it to the storied venue. Now, this is a simulacrum that seems not just a tribute, but as authentic as the real thing, floating here on the edge of the Arabian Gulf.
A blue dawn surrenders to the unyielding sun outside my window the day next. I head over to Katara Village, marked by a traditional Arab wind tower, once used to catch cool breezes, but now fallen to the ubiquitous blade of air conditioning.
Like so much of this country, Katara is a concept born of a vision to position the state as a lighthouse of culture and art. Designed like an ancient oasis settlement, with narrow, twisting ochre-colored corridors radiating past shops, theatres, concert halls, galleries and a huge amphitheater, it invites meandering. I snake into one photo gallery displaying a World Press exhibit featuring shocking images of Gaza after a missile strike, and stand transfixed at images that would never be shown in the Western press.
Afterwards I munch on a Camel Burger at the Kempinski, and then head over to Al Jazeera English for a tour of the house that has blown open the gates of modern media coverage. At a time when news agencies around the world are closing bureaus, Al Jazeera bought Al Gore's Current TV for a reported $500 million, and is opening a bureau in Detroit. I was at Microsoft in its early days, and the feeling here is the same, crackling with the excitement of a well-funded start-up, on a mission to change the world.
I move to the W that evening, hippest place in Doha, fizzing with young Qataris and ex-pats. I manage to get into the hotel's uber-trendy Spice Market restaurant for dinner, which offers up a fusion of dishes from India, Arabia, South Asia, Europe and probably a few other continents.
The next couple days I bounce around a bit more, trying out the palatial Grand Hyatt and others, and after a week in the steel, spangled concrete, glass and marble invention that is Doha, I'm eager to get out of town; after all the clean lines and spaces, I'm thirsting for some dirt. So, I set out to sample a little local adventure called "Dune Bashing."
It's a 45 kilometer drive south from Doha to the desert town of Masaieed, and the Sealine Resort, along the Inland Sea (actually a tidal lagoon linked to the Arabian Gulf). Here the driver deflates the tires of his Toyota Land Cruiser to about 11 psi, cranks up the AC, and heads out into waves of dunes so lusciously golden and honeyed I'm tempted to lick them.
The driver, at first, flirts with the ridges and dips, the crescents and curls of sand, and then slams on the gas pedal, rockets up an unmarked crest, and flies over the top. Air Time! Grips tighten; hearts lurch. He then plunges down the far side of the amber wave of grain, as though about to somersault, and grinds into the brown belly of a salt flat. There he Tokyo drifts along the pan, and hurtles up another steep dune for a traverse along the face, angling the vehicle so it is on the edge of capsizing, spitting sand like a broken blender dispatching flour. Trust Allah, but buckle your seat belt.
At the crown of one dune, the driver halts so the passengers and can step out and feel the hot breath of the desert and the dry shamal winds. The dunes smoke; the wind makes a scratchy drumming sound, caused by the piezoelectric properties of crystalline quartz, the same way a needle on a phonograph translates vibrations into sound. The dunes seem to be shifting, migrating. Just over the rise is Saudi Arabia, and The Empty Quarter, what Wilfred Thesiger called "this cruel land."
Back in the car for another rumble, fishtailing over the poured geometry of silvery drifts, surfing the backside of others, the driver cutting the wheel hard to the left or right to avoid rolling, which sometimes happens. He bashes another 30 minutes, carving tracks in the loose sand, until the landscape resembles the whorls of gigantic fingertips.
The end of the ride is timed with sunset, at a Bedouin camp by the gently lapping Inland Sea. As the dunes turn rose-red, we slip into a bait al sha'ar--house of hair--the Bedouin wool and goat hair tent woven in wide swaths of earthy browns and beige. Carpets cover the tent floor, and low upholstered cushions in bright, predominantly red and black Bedouin patterns provide seating.
Mint tea is served, and limbs are checked for bruises. Outside, camels strut at the water's edge. Then it's time to re-inflate the tires and head back to the neon, the jazz, the museums and high thread-count of The Four Seasons-Doha, carrying, however faint, the imprint of the desert and its grace of dunes.
I spend the final evening strolling the 6-kilometer long Corniche, alongside dozens of strangers, jogging, moseying, playing with children, photographing the bay with iPhones, or just hanging out. In other parts of the world, shouldering with strangers at the edge of night might put me on guard, but not here, as Doha is rightly known as one of safest and least crime-ridden cities in the world. That seems to be the case when there is, by international standards, virtually no poverty, and air conditioning for everyone.
I charter one of the party-lit wooden dhows that bob along Doha Bay. Dhow building peaked in the early part of the 20th century, when the pearl fleets would set sail for the oyster beds in June and return in October. Business dropped radically with the collapse of the industry in the 30s, and now the ligneous boats are used occasionally as fishing vessels, but more often for tourist rides. We cruise along the fantasy skyline, outlandish angles glistening in the moonlight. One building looks like a giant perfume bottle. Others look as though about to lift off.
It is a brilliant, bold and plucky skyline. Because of its recent hydrocarbon windfall, Qatar has had the chance to build a country without the baggage of empires, but with eyes wide to the mistakes others before have made. It has a lot going for it. No taxes. Utilities are free. Education is free. Citizens receive free land. There is universal health care. Qatar is trying to become a global role model, and there is much to admire, and many reasons to hope its efforts are long-lasting, sustainable, and replicable by much of the world. Out of the desert is rising something meaningful. Some might suggest the national bird is the tower crane; others might say the phoenix.... Angels can fly, they say, because they carry no burdens, so I would nominate Qatar Airways.
Photographs in this piece are courtesy of Didrik Johnck.