Twenty years ago you could almost hear the sands shifting in Doha, the languid capital of Qatar.



These days the noise is coming from Doha’s shifting skyline. The oil-rich emirate is alive with construction, as shiny skyscrapers rise from the scorching sands and geometric man-made islands from the sea. At the centerpiece is the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art, a stunning angular cube inspired by an ancient mosque in Egypt and which Canton-born architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to build. Boldly jutting out of Doha’s newly developed corniche (Pei insisted that the museum be constructed in the water so it could never get built out) the museum houses the most encyclopaedic collection of Islamic art in the world. The works, from Mongolia to Spain, India to Uzbekistan, span more than a thousand years.

I’m wandering behind my dashing young Qatari guide, Mohammed, who in an ankle-length white thobe and matching turban-like ghutra, is every bit as exotic as the 6th-century glass document holder he is showing me. While the collection isn’t extensive, and interpretation is limited (brush up on your Islamic history beforehand), what is here is wryly mystifying. The Mongolian soldier’s outfit looks as if it has just thundered down from the steppes. There is the favourite carpet of Tamerlane the Terrible, on which he used to play chess; the world’s smallest Koran; and the personal jewels of Shah Jahan, India’s first Mogul emperor, who built another iconic world building, the Taj Mahal, to mourn his dead wife. “This is all part of the Emir’s plan to make Qatar the cultural heart of the Middle East”, says Mohammed.

Ever since Dubai embarked on its “biggest, tallest, fastest” quest, its wealthy neighbours have been competing for the title of cultural capital. Abu Dhabi is building a Louvre as well as a Guggenheim. But a nose ahead is Qatar, whose Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, slapped down a reported $US130 billion to reinvent the capital of his pint-sized nation of 1.5million people as the art and culture hub of the Arab world. And while some Gulf economies are tail-spinning with the recession, Qatar is powering ahead.

The list of cultural projects in the works employing a raft of high-profile names is dizzying. Under construction is Arata Isozaki’s spacey National Library, which will also house the Contemporary Art Museum and Museum of Science and Natural History in its two podiums. Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava has designed the dramatic new Photography Museum, and French modernist Jean Nouvel is building a new national museum. Souk Waqif, Doha’s charismatic old bazaar, has been rebuilt and Qatar has founded its own symphony orchestra. More recently the Tribeca Film Festival has announced that it is jumping onboard with an annual event in Doha.

Uninterested in repeating Dubai’s razzamatazz, Qatar is hoping culture and tourism will sustain it when the oil dollars run out. But not any old tourists – Qatar wants only the discerning type, “classy tourists that don’t compromise Islamic values”, the former acting CEO of the Qatar Tourism Authority, Jan Paul de Boer, once told me.

Qatar has a typical rags-to-riches story. Thirty years ago this tiny thumb of a nation jutting out from the belly of Saudi Arabia was considered one of the poorest in the world. Although home to the world’s second biggest gas field (the largest is in Russia), the population of mainly Bedouin nomads largely subsisted off fishing and pearling while remaining a British Protectorate until 1971. Emir Hamad overthrew his father in 1995, tapped into the country’s immense natural resources and went about transforming Qatar into one of the most liberal and forward-thinking nations in the Arab world. At $110,000 it now has the highest per capita income in the world.

The scale of the developments – especially considering Qatar’s shoebox size – is stupefying. There is the construction of Education City, a 1011 hectare satellite campus housing six of the world’s leading universities and a $US7.9 billion state-of-the-art medical research centre; a big feat for a little country that built its first school in 1952. The Qatar Science and Technology Park promises to be an “incubator for start-up enterprises”. Doha is also building a new airport, increasing the city’s transit capacity from 12 to 50 million.

Hoping to position the nation as a medium between Israel and the Arab world, the emir established the Doha Debates in 2004, a public forum hosted by the BBC, which discusses ongoing controversies in the region. He also founded (and largely still funds) the Al-Jazeera television network, which has its headquarters in Doha.

City Centre is the new central business district in Doha, with more than 50 skyscrapers under construction. On the far side of City Centre, Lu Sail is currently a sand box, but in a few years the 35 square km development will house 200,000 residents. North Beach Resort will include 10 hotels, two golf courses and 3,000 villas. The almost finished West Bay Lagoon is home to the most glamorous addresses in the city, each with beach access and its own private jetty.

Next door to West Bay Lagoon is The Pearl, a 400-hectare man-made island with 32 kilometres of sandy beaches, dozens of glitzy shopping malls, a 700-yacht mariner, lavish accommodation for 45,000 residents, several hotels, a mini Venice (complete with gondolas), and nine private islands, which sold out before the first bucket of sand was even poured. But the best bit? Buy an apartment (from $US500,000), and the government will throw in a free residency visa.

Only one question remains: who on earth would want to live here? Despite the emir’s do-gooding, the media is censored, alcohol is banned (expats are permitted to spend only 10 per cent of their wage on booze, and that’s only if you have a well-paying job) and strict dress codes are enforced (despite what The Pearl’s bikinis-laden advertising suggests; a professional Australian friend living in Doha was recently escorted by police from a shopping mall for showing too much knee). It’s relatively expensive and temperatures skyrocket to 50 degrees and higher in summer. Oh, and it’s quite often labelled as the most boring place on earth.

For me, as a stopover or short-break destination, however, things look far more appealing. A big sand pit flanking the Arabian Gulf where 90% of the population live in the capital and the rest in a scattering of barren villages scattered around the coast, Qatar doesn’t have a lot to sell- hence the government’s enthusiasm for museums. For city goers, there is more than enough to amuse for a few days. Alongside the new museums are a host of luxury hotels, including two Ritz-Carltons and a W, Starwood’s premium label; big- name brands that wouldn’t usually gamble on risky markets. There are another 40 hotels in the pipeline, including a new high-tech establishment based in the 318-metre Aspire tower, which was built as the centerpiece of the 15th Asian Games.

The pick of the bunch is the sumptuously grand Sharq Village, modelled on a traditional Qatari village that once stood on the same site and is managed by Ritz-Carlton. It has 170 guest rooms spread over 14 merchant-style houses, all with four-poster beds and bathtubs, and quite possibly some of the best hotel service in the world. Don’t miss the rustic, desert-hued Six Senses Spa, with treatments such as a sugar scrub with date, rosewater and Hasawi red rice, several hammams and gender-segregated wings. Just steer clear of the mini bar, where bottles of home-grown Rosemont Estate shiraz sell for a staggering $AUD135.

Jet-setters might prefer the snazzy new W – risque for Doha with its sexy `60s ski-lodge look in shades of white and purple. The suites are enormous; the E WOW Suite has a lamp perched on top of a full-sized model horse, aquarium, pool table and $US10,000 a night price tag.

As far as the government is concerned, Qatar’s future in tourism will be five-star all the way. They even bill their national carrier as “The world’s five-star airline”. It’s perhaps a slight stretch of the imagination; although they have some spanking new planes (and some very old ones), and a savvy young crew hailing in from all corners of the globe, the current airport is a shambles. With no docking bays, just getting to and from your plane can take half an hour in a bus.

If you’re lucky enough to fly in the nose, in either Business or First Class, you’ll be treated to a few hours in the premium lounge, with its own entry and butler check-in service (just drive up, jump out and head to one of the seated check-in counters while somebody else deals with your bags). Upstairs, a left-hand turn takes you to the business-class lounge, which isn’t to rave about, but if you’re lucky enough to be flying First Class, turn right to the dedicated lounge with its own spa, huge jacuzzi and steam room to relax in, and napping rooms dressed in Frette linen and pyjamas. Get your heart racing in the Sony Playstation hall, or if you’re travelling with tots, leave them at the creche while you indulge in those essential pre-flight glasses of bubbly.

Service in general, from drivers to waiting staff is excellent. With a population of about 250,000 Qataris, there are about four foreigners to every one Qatari in Doha. Service staff hail mainly from the Philippines, clerks from Lebanon and Europe, and construction workers from south Asia. In fact, except during a tour of the museum, you’ll be lucky to meet a Qatari at all.

Such a small population teamed with a huge petro-dollar income explains Qatar’s enviable GDP -and might also explain a pervasive lax work ethic. My relentless attempts to speak with government officials, for example, go almost unnoticed, and the promise of a meeting with the Ministry of Culture is preceded by an ultimately fruitless two-hour goose chase around the city.

“Its imbedded into [Qataris] people’s psyches that they are rich, and that has created an attitude of not caring,” says Omar Chaikhouni, a Syrian national and the media officer at the Qatar Foundation, the umbrella for much of Doha’s cultural development. “This is something the Emir and Qatar Foundation are desperately trying to change. We want to develop empathy.”

A quick glance at websites such as (which is, ironically enough, banned in Qatar), reveals many others have witnessed the attitude that Chaikhouni is wrestling with: that migrant workers building Doha’s future are disposable.

Like as the old saying goes: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Qatar already is a remarkable achievement for such a slip of a country having little more than a pocket of gas and a big pile of sand. Especially considering thirty years ago most Qatari’s were still living as Bedouins in the desert. By pouring money into education, culture and the arts, they are forging a more tolerant face for the Islamic world.

“The difference between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East is that Qatar has a master-plan” says Lauren Fryer, an Australian expat working for Ritz Carlton in Doha. “It’s not a “build it and they will come” attitude like Dubai or Bahrain, but part of a long term vision to raise the profile of the Middle East. They have had it all worked out for years.”

I get a glimpse of this vision on my last afternoon in Doha wandering through Souk Waqif, a warren of whitewashed rammed earth walls fragrant with spices and one of the few places you can still get a feel for early 20th-century Qatar. There is an entire section devoted to falcons, magnificent birds that Qataris use to hunt game, and which fetch a whooping 5000?? Qatari Riyals each. Restaurants and hookah bars draped in thick camel hair rugs and filled with men gossiping over fruit-flavoured shisha pipes line the main alley.

A Qatari man approaches and offers me a book on Islam. He explains it’s a new government initiative to introduce the culture of Islam to foreigners. “We don’t want to convert you,” he says laughing, perhaps in case I had the wrong idea. “We just want you to understand.”

This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age travel pages in April 2009.