Published 27 January 2011
The desert before us seems endless, a sea of off-white sand dunes and a brilliantly blue sky clashing at the horizon. No sooner does the Toyota Land Cruiser we’re following slip and slide its way down another dune, than the desert wind removes any evidence of its passing. In the distance, across a body of steel-coloured water, purple-hued mountains mark the border with Saudi Arabia.
Text by Nick Walton
I’m spending an afternoon with the young men of the Qatari Peninsula. Once an obscure if not immensely wealthy Gulf state, Qatar is on the up and up. Recently awarded the football World Cup in 2022, the people of this pint-sized peninsula are already gearing up for the event, with massive development pegged for the next decade.
After racing, tumbling, bouncing and sliding our way through the dunes of the Khor al Adaid, Qatar’s inland sea, which juts
into the desert from the Persian Gulf, we cruise around the base of one spectacularly-sized sand mountain and stumble across a distinctly more modern side to desert life. More than 300 SUVs, mostly the iconic Land Cruiser so popular in the Middle East, are fanned out around a flat plain of hard packed sand, their occupants having spilled out, dishdashes and all, onto the sand to watch crews rev their souped-up 4x4s and gallop towards the steep incline of the largest dune. Some fair better than others, climbing two thirds of the way up the slope before having to turn and surf the sand back down. One 4×4 rolls several times before coming to a stop, the right way up, at the base of the dune. Its occupants grin and wave to the crowd.
Qatar is an emerging destination. The latest of the Gulf states to flex its wealth, massive development, including a world-class convention centre, universities, hospitals, hotels, commercial buildings and even a new international airport, are underway. The nation’s ruler, King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz, is navigating a new course for the tiny nation, one that embraces its oil wealth, diversifies its economy and removes it from the shadow of obscurity, all the while protecting its unique heritage and learning from the mistakes of its more flashy neighbors.
An early morning drive testifies to the rapid growth of Doha, home to the majority of Qatar’s 1.7 million residents. At the end of the Corniche, a belt of green which follows the curves of Doha Bay, modern, shiny office blocks leap from the earth, reflecting the already dazzling desert sun. Cutting-edge architecture, including a stunning other-worldly building by Jean Nouvel dressed in steel mesh, and the city’s own ‘Tornado Tower’, recently named the region’s most beautiful building, is redefining the landscape.
At the other end of the Corniche, residing over a marina packed with traditional dhows, is the stunning Museum of Islamic Art, created by influential Chinese American architect I. M. Pei. Although the geometric design was said to play with the shapes and shadows of the passing sun, I’m told by my hotel doorman to look for the eyes of a Muslim woman peering out from her veil. Located on its own man-made island, the museum is a stunning showcase of Islamic art from the 7th to 19th centuries, it’s elegant exhibits including ancient swords, delicate potteries and ornate tapestries.
In December, it was joined by Mathaf (museum in Arabic), the Arab Museum of Modern Art, with its collection of more than 6,000 pieces representing artistic movements from the 1840s to the present day, while Jean Nouvel is already working on plans for the new National Museum, themed on the quickly disappearing Bedouin culture and pegged to open in late 2013.
To see both modern and ancient Qatari culture, take a short drive out to Al Sheehaniya, a dustbowl town on the cusp of the desert and home to the nation’s largest camel racing track. Both camel and horse racing feature extensively through Qatar’s history, and while the desert track used for the camels is a stark contrast to the air-conditioned stables and pedigree stallions of the Qatar Racing & Equestrian Club in Doha, both undeniably represent big bucks.
I arrive at the camel races while the towering desert steeds are taking a morning run, their Sudanese trainers perched casually on top of swaying humps. The animals are beautiful, their limbs moving with the fluid gracefulness of a Bolshoi principal as they canter, their thick eye lashes flicking away the desert dust while their trainers coo in ancient tongues.
After allegations of human rights abuses across the Middle East, Qatar was among the first countries to ban the use of child jockeys, replacing them with ‘robots’, shoebox-sized contraptions which whip the animals along via a metallic arm and remote control. It’s all very George Jetson.
“The robot is very good,” claims my guide Mohammad, a Bangladeshi by birth and one of a small army of migrant workers that keeps Qatar running. “No need to feed, no need to house, just press a button and the camel runs!” And run they do; camels can gallop at up to 65km/hr, making for an exciting day at the races.
But Qatar’s oil wealth isn’t just going to gambling, the flash sports cars of the Corniche, or the lavish mansions which fringe the desert. Infrastructure has been deemed the path to the future, with massive projects like the sprawling Aspire Academy for Sports, Pearl Qatar, a man-made island oasis reminiscent of Dubai’s Palms, and Education City, home to six elite US university campuses, emerging from the hard desert landscape.
The underlying theme throughout all this development is retaining Qatar’s heritage, from the towering ‘Sindra Trees’ of the new Qatar National Convention & Exhibition Centre, which traditionally shaded town meetings, to the new look Souk Waqif, a hundred-year-old market place that’s popular with nobility and commoners alike.
I spend an afternoon exploring the Souk, which was recently renovated to its original glory. Here families come to shop for jewelry and Persian rugs, clothing and spices, while men drink strong Arabic coffee and smoke sheesa, leaving the air scented with sweet apple. In the Souk, you’re as likely to see a man taking his falcon for a walk as talk on his cellphone, and as likely to see men in European suits as spotlessly clean thawbs. Qatar is unashamedly embracing the future, but it’s doing it with sustainability in mind.
I watch one father and son leave a falcon boutique, their bird of prey sitting patiently on the boy’s arm, its head covered with a leather hood. The father shows his son how to hold the bird correctly, and how to stroke its back, while they wait for their chauffeur-driven Bentley to arrive. Behind, the call to prayer can be heard from the top of the picturesque Fanar Islamic Centre’s winding minaret. If the Qatari can maintain the balance between antiquity and their relentless drive towards modernity, then there might just be a little bit of desert mystic left when the masses arrive in 2022.
Getting There: Qatar Airways have direct flights between Doha and several Asian cities, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta and Bali.
Where to Stay: The Sharq Village & Spa is located a short drive from the Corniche and Souk Waqif. www.sharqvillage.com
Getting Around: Fal TravelMart organise a comprehensive range of tours. www.faltravelmart.com