Imagine 40,000 frenzied football fans, cheering their teams on and witnessing the spectacle that is the FIFA World Cup, a scene familiar to anyone who has ever been to a stadium to watch a football game. Standing inside Qatar’s newly minted Stadium 974, one of the venues for FIFA 2022, it’s easy to be swayed by the force of the historic occasion that will unfold here in November.
Constructed entirely out of 974 shipping containers, a play on Qatar’s international country code, the stadium represents learnings gleaned by the Qataris from the 2014 edition of the tournament held in Brazil. Much like this time, the 2014 edition saw the construction of many new football stadiums for the occasion. While many of the venues constructed at the time fell into disrepair once the tournament was concluded, the Qataris are determined not to make the same mistakes. Stadium 974 is a temporary installation and once it has served its purpose for the global tournament, it will be dismantled and transported to a location and nation where it would be needed. For now, I enjoy unfettered access to the stadium, including the stands and the box seats, which is part of a lounge with a rather enviable view of the Doha harbour.
From the moment I landed in Doha, the preparations for the impending tournament have been but evident. Museums, monuments, roads, flyovers, stadiums, everything in the country is either undergoing renovation or being built from scratch. It’s no mean feat to host an event of such epic proportions, and given that it’s the first time that it is being held in the Middle East, the excitement is palpable. Be it the bazaars, the waterfront or even the business district, most public spaces are festooned with football-centric signage and decorations.
Just how seriously the Qataris are taking the upcoming event is something that becomes clear, when at the stop after the stadium, the 3-2-1 Olympic and Sports Museum, the local guide appointed by Visit Qatar, Pia Sundstedt, reveals she is a former professional sportsperson herself. And not just any sportsperson, as I discover upon some googling, but a cyclist who is four-time Finnish national champion, world cup winner and two-time Olympian. She has lived and worked in Doha for nearly a decade, having moved here from Germany in 2012. So, naturally, she was deemed the perfect person to show me around, as knowledgeable about Qatari culture as she is about sports.
“The Qataris are a welcoming lot, and while the culture is a huge departure from what I was used to at home, over the years, it has become home in a true sense, so much so, that I don’t know when and if ever I would want to move back,” says Pia. But as much as local culture is in focus, Qatar, especially Doha, is a cosmopolitan melting pot.
“Over 90 percent of the population comprises expats. And it has been the case for quite some time now. It’s a testament to the country’s willingness to not just absorb people from across the world but have everyone live together in harmony. Of course, for those of us from Europe, it’s a huge cultural change from back home but I’m so used to it now, I’d feel the same about home if I were to move back today.”
I hold onto the SUV’s grab handles for dear life as we grind to a halt, the view ahead obscured by a cloud of sand kicked up by the car in front of us. It’s lodged at a rather awkward angle in the side of the dune, clawing and scratching the desert in a desperate bid to come unstuck. It’s when we hop out to help that somebody notices the view for the first time. I turn to check what has drawn such loud gasps from the group—past the dune to our right, the bright azure waters of the Persian Gulf, in what seems to me like the middle of the desert, make for a surreal sight. The Inland Sea or Khawr Al Udayd is an inlet of the Persian Gulf in the southeast of the country, on the border with Saudi Arabia. And while I was fully aware that this was our destination, I was unprepared for the moment you first get a glimpse of this incredible view. In fact, it’s a sentiment that Abdollah, who was driving us, seemed to share. “I’m from Palestine but I have lived in Doha for many years. I started with this job a few years ago, so this is obviously something that I see every other day. And yet, every time I see it, it still feels like when I saw it the first time—amazing.”
This isn’t the first time in Qatar this had happened to me, and it would not be the last. I had a similar reaction to discovering the existence of an ice-skating rink at Doha’s Villaggio Mall and upon learning that Qatar has a national men’s ice hockey team.
Then there was the time we visited Desert Falls, one of the largest theme parks in the Middle East. I turned into a 10-year-old for an entire morning, tumbling down water slides, paddling down moats, getting butchered at laser tag by 10-year-olds and then getting my revenge at the go-karting track.
By the time someone asked me if I wanted to go paddle-boarding or kayaking even as I was on a tour of the famous manmade island, The Pearl, I was already too used to Qatar’s breadth of experiences to be taken aback. If I had been approached with a parachute and asked whether I’d like to go skydiving, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. The Blue Pearl Experience, where towering skyscrapers provide the backdrop to water sports, is a unique adventure—something one is clearly never too far from while in Qatar.
As much as the stark emptiness of Doha’s newly minted metro stations (albeit in the middle of a working weekday) jarred my Indian sensibilities, I feel right at home in the alleyways of the Souq Waqif. Milling with locals and tourists alike, and lined with shops dealing in spices, textile, pearls, gold, handicrafts, art, this souq built on the site of a century-old traditional market is perhaps the best place to soak up local life. The air is thick with the chant of vendors and a smorgasbord of smells ranging from exotic incense and spices to cooking food. The restaurants see a constant stream of diners, the little carts selling a variety of street food have people queued up and thick plumes of smoke from sheesha bars pour out onto the streets in places.
After a fire in 2003 ravaged the old structure, the restoration by the government has stayed faithful to the souq’s century-old history. But along with the architecture, there are other ways in which Souq Waqif can transport visitors back in time. The Falcon Souq, a marketplace dedicated to the practice of falconry, provides an invaluable insight into an ancient human-animal relationship. This 4,000-year-old practice has been declared living human heritage by UNESCO; the kind of respect and care the birds are accorded by the community is evident at the Falcon Hospital, a two-storied facility at the souq where injured or ailing birds are cared for. As Farid, an attendant at the hospital, explained, “These falcons aren’t just pets, they are regarded almost as members of the family. We used to rely on them traditionally, but the bond that developed is clear to see. Even in these times, they are not just a reminder of our rich traditions but a piece of living heritage.”
And while Souq Waqif’s traditional design is in remarkable contrast to the modern cityscape around it, the Katara Cultural Village presents a wonderful amalgam of Qatar’s past and present. It’s also a fantastic showcase of the city’s brilliant planning when it comes to outdoor spaces. Right between the gleaming financial district of West Bay and The Pearl, is this expansive village that houses everything from an amphitheatre, a planetarium and a beach to art galleries, mosques, shopping galleries, coffee shops and restaurants. The attention to detail, when it comes to architecture and design, is incredible, as is evident when I walk up to Katara Mosque, a glittering blue construction undertaken by Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, a Turkish architect who is considered the first woman architect to specialise in mosques. The amphitheatre, built in classical Greek style, overlooks the bay and the city skyline and when not in use for performances, sees bunches of visitors spread across its over 3,000 square metres, testing out its amazing open-air acoustics.
As impressive as Katara is though, there are yet other feats of engineering that are bound to sweep you off your feet. One such is the Qatar National Library, located in the education district, surrounded by the campuses of various institutions. This building, spread across 45,000 square metres, was designed by architect Rem Koolhas to resemble two sheets of paper pulled apart and folded diagonally at the corners. In fact, so massive is it in scale, I had to walk a block away to be able to capture all of it on my phone’s camera. And as modern as the infrastructure is, it houses some of the oldest known copies of Islamic literature. Although I didn’t have more than half an hour to explore it properly, you’d want to set aside the better part of a day to truly immerse yourself here.
Then there is the Qatar National Museum, perhaps the most unique architectural expression in Doha. Designed by Jean Nouvel (also responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi), the museum is in the shape of a desert rose, a naturally formed crystal cluster that is found in deserts (and other sandy places). The museum, sitting across the Corniche (as the waterfront is called), and next to the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, represents the desert and a key element in Qatari life.
A million lights shimmer against the night sky, skyscrapers tower to impossible heights and the reflection from glass and steel facades seem to give off an impression of a parallel world in between the lines of the existing city. I snap out of my trance as a platter of shredded camel meat, mixed in with vegetables, grain and fruit is placed in front of me. I am at Jiwan, a fine dining destination on the fourth floor of the Qatar National Museum. The evening air is cool and I’m thankful given that we are dining alfresco. The view from here is magnificent and it speaks volumes about the fare that through the entire duration of the courses that arrive at the table one after another, I don’t look up once. It’s not a surprise since this is only the second restaurant by renowned chef Alain Ducasse in the country. The cuisine uses ingredients that draw from the region’s rich culinary culture and presents it with a contemporary innovativeness, that is the chef’s signature. So moved by this feast am I that once the meal is done and I’m on my way out of the museum, I almost forget to look back and take in the desert rose itself.
Of course, given the pattern with my experiences in Qatar, this is not the first or last time that I am left dazed after a delicious meal. The vast majority of the population being expats, the eateries in Doha serve up cuisine from across the world. I wolfed down Turkish Adana kebabs, Yemeni Zurbian (a rice-based dish that reminds me of biryani), Thai curry and foie gras, with great enthusiasm and admittedly, a little alarming frequency. I did avoid the weighing scale in my hotel bathroom like the plague while I was in Doha, but that’s hardly a price to pay for the remarkable experiences my tastebuds were put through.
It’s on the final day before my departure, as I sit down to a hearty brunch at the Ritz-Carlton, that I realise I had been focusing on the wrong thing at meals. Sure, the cuisines and flavours are delightful but what really holds such a meal together is the company. I see families, friends, colleagues of different nationalities sitting together, celebrating occasions, verily, a microcosm of the nation of Qatar—a harmonious melting pot.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2022. Get your copy here.
Qatar Airways and IndiGo have direct flights to Doha from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. For travelling in and around Doha, taxi services work best, although the newly inaugurated Doha Metro service is pretty well connected as well.
Banyan Tree Doha. banyantree.com
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.