I have a list of countries I would like to visit, but Qatar is not on it. Nonetheless, I sit here in its capital, Doha, on a rooftop terrace looking out over the city, skyscrapers lighting up the skyline in brilliant blues, greens and purple, warmed by a dozen artificial fires burning in nearby lamps, slowly sipping a $35 glass of wine and munching on nuts and nachos.
Getting here involved one of my guilty indulgences, no, not wine (although that probably qualifies as another guilty indulgence), but business class flights on long haul journeys. Back in October, when I was searching for ways to make the minimum 24 hour trek from Bali to Paris, 2 things caught my eye. First, business class was not even double the price of economy fare and second, I could take it on Qatar Airlines.
Here comes another guilty confession. Tons of blogs, websites and videos are devoted to reviewing, analyzing and rating different airlines’ business class experiences (see, eg: thepointsguy.com or onemileatatime.com). The self appointed business class critics, who usually fly on points, detail whether flight attendants fail to smile enough, do or don’t address the passenger by name, if the lie-flat bed comes with a thick enough mattress and whether the wifi speed measures up to their expectations. Food and food service is portrayed in minute details: is real china used (plastic is a big no-no), is white linen put pleasingly on the tray, is the meal served in separate courses or, the horror, all at once, and does the wine list meet their exacting standards? They are all pretentious as can be, but I cannot help myself. I lap them up. The one thing they all have in common is identifying their favourite airlines and Qatar is always in the top three (Emirates and Singapore Airlines also earn high accolades).
I couldn’t resist booking the flight, even though it initially entailed an 11 hour wait in the Doha airport. As the date grew closer, I started dreading the layover followed by a 1:00AM flight to Paris. I examined alternatives, and the one that made the most sense was a 3 day layover/mini-vacation/opportunity to get closer to the century mark achieved by visiting 100 countries. I changed my outbound flight and booked 3 nights at a Doha hotel.
I was in for a treat after arriving at 3:00 PM Doha time. Business class passengers are directed to a private lounge where they are invited to sit while waiting for immigration or, as I was the only one there, to go to the dedicated immigration officer. A quick stop at the HSBC ATM delivered local cash -Riyals – and I was off to the taxi line 15 minutes after landing. The ride into the city goes along side the Corniche, a horseshoe shaped road lining the harbour, affording views of the skyline, replete with architecturally unique skyscrapers shaped like shards or vases, but all having their basis in Islamic Art. Away from the downtown, more traditional buildings made of sandstone, in various hues of white to beige, with flat roofs and arched windows lined with carved awnings, prevailed.
My hotel was clean and modern and advertised that guests could relax by the pool with a drink from the pool bar. It failed to mention that the “drinks” were limited to soft drinks and mocktails. No alcohol was served in this hotel, but the one down the street did. To get in, I had to show a passport (or have a special resident’s permit which I did not). I doubt they were checking for age. Alcohol was ridiculously expensive – the cheapest glass of white wine was $35, although it was half price during happy hour. Going to a liquor store was not an option. State run monopoly stores do exist, but a permit is needed to buy alcohol and I had no desire to get one. Bringing a bottle or two of alcohol into the country is also not an option; it is illegal along with importing pork or drugs.
Despite the alcohol issue, Doha has some pluses. It has lots of sidewalks, unlike Bali which, in the few streets where there was something that might qualify as a path separate from the roadway, cars and scooters saw them as convenient parking spots or large trees sprouted up, cracking the concrete and making the whole thing a long, uneven obstacle course. It was the one thing I disliked in Bali, my inability to go for long walks unless I risked life and limb walking on the streets.
On my first morning in Doha, I started walking to the Corniche, a distance of about 3 kilometres, enjoying the wide, empty sidewalks, the pedestrian crossing lights and the lack of scooters honking. But, halfway there, I was stymied. The sidewalk ended with construction barricades and there were no pedestrian detours. My choices were to tempt death crossing four lanes of speeding traffic in each direction to reach the sidewalk on the other side or retreat, admit defeat and catch a cab. I chose the latter. It was a pattern that would be repeated more than once during my 3 days, starting down a nice sidewalk only to have it end abruptly with no alternatives but to go back. In Doha, the car is king and pedestrians are an annoyance.
The cab dropped me at the Museum of Islamic Art, another architecturally stunning building. I will quit saying this – all the buildings in Doha that are meant to appeal to tourists are designed by world famous architects, cutting edge design, with no expense spared. The airport terminal, the sports stadiums (for the 2022 soccer World Cup), the newly built subway stations, and especially the museums all elicit oohs and ahs.
The museum’s third floor traces Islamic art from its origins in the 7th century through its evolution to today, illustrating its variety with Chinese, Indian and other Asian influences. The second floor illustrates Islamic art in textiles, carpets, calligraphy, buildings and books. It was informative, well curated, with beautiful examples of each type of art without being overwhelming.
A few blocks away is the Souq Waqif, and using the only pedestrian underpass I saw in Doha (no doubt so that the thousands of cruise ship passengers walking between the Museum and the Souq don’t get killed crossing the road), I walked over. It is a true Souq, an Arab bazaar filled with dark alleyways, men transporting goods in wheelbarrows, vendors politely asking if I would like to see their wares. Although a bazaar has stood on the grounds for at least a hundred years, the Souq was renovated in 2006 but maintains many traditional Qatari features: single story, no set pattern, wooden beams jutting out from the walls to hold the structure. Best of all, very few of the 100 plus stalls sell tourist related items. Spice stores, candy shops, textiles galore, toys and hundreds of colourful tiny birds jammed together in cages. Restaurants and hooka bars surround the Souq. I had my best meal in Doha there, a mutton curry served with the largest piece of a roti-like bread, with complimentary lentil soup and yogurt.
A short walk away is The Pearl, which as its name suggests, is a sculpture of a pearl, a reminder of Doha’s beginnings as a pearl diving town.
Highly recommended was a visit to The Grand Mosque (aka the Imam Muhammad Ibn Wahab Mosque), the largest and most important mosque in Qatar. Women were welcome, although in separate sections, but children under the age of 5 were not. All religions were also welcome, but with warnings that the mosque had recently been the scene of some anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sermons. I passed.
That night, I read about the grand opening the next day of the National Museum of Qatar. As reported by Qatar’s daily newspaper, a speech by the Qatari Minister of Culture and Sports indicated this was part of Qatar’s commitment to its multiculturalism and diversity (thepeninsularqatar.com/November 17, 2018). Huhhhhh???? I read highlights of the speech. Qatar was very multicultural as there were over 150 nationalities who lived in the country. Its cultural diversity manifested itself in a variety of cultural pursuits: a film festival, art museums, sporting events, conferences promoting interfaith dialogues. Okay, I guess multiculturalism and diversity have different definitions.
Intrigued, I scoured the internet for more information. Of the 2.8 million people living in Qatar, only about 12% are Qatari. The rest are temporary workers, with large numbers from India, Pakistan and The Philippines, making the country truly multicultural. I don’t know if the foreign workers worship in the main mosques, but I saw no churches, Hindu temples or synagogues. I also doubt that most of the migrant workers (westerners aside) could afford the lifestyle lived by most Qataris – private drivers, air conditioned apartments, even the hamburger at the fast food chain was $25. Instead they are housed in cramped compounds on the outskirts of town, transported in on decrepit buses (unlike the air-conditioned buses used in the center of the city) to work long hours for low pay. One Pakistani taxi driver I spoke with had moved to Doha after 12 years in Dubai. He worked 12 hours a day, non-stop every day, for 11 months and returned for the remaining month to Islamabad and his wife and 4 children.
I decided to brave the crowds and attend opening day at the The National Museum of Qatar to learn more about the nation. Not unexpectedly, the museum is housed in a magnificent building, with its contours evoking the desert rose.
Inside, it was refreshing to be greeted by Arab women dressed in long black abayas, all with their hair covered, some with their faces hidden, employed as cashiers and guides. The museum starts at the beginning, explaining the land formations millions of years ago, then identifying the animals and fauna that exist, or did exist in the desert (the Arabian ostrich was hunted to extinction).
The next part focuses on the people, hunter gatherers for thousands of years who converted to Islam in the 7th century. They lived in small tribes, diving for pearls in the Arabian Sea during the summer and heading inland to the desert in the winter to graze their animals. Doha was also a trading stop, with the pearls exported all over the known world. Until the 17th century, little is known about the Qatari region, but it eventually attracted colonial attention. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the tribes variously fought or allied with British, Dutch and Ottoman forces and did the same with other local tribes in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
1930 was a pivotal year in Qatar. The Great Depression hit with devastating effect – the economic crisis decimated the demand for pearls and what little remained was filled with the newly manufactured and cheaper, cultured pearls. Fortunately for the Qataris, vast quantities of oil were discovered that same year. Today, Qatar has the second largest reserves of oil, its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living and it is often considered the world’s richest country with a GDP of about $130,000 per citizen.
The remainder of the museum highlighted the achievements of the ruling family – an autocratic monarchy which rules with a tight fist (this wasn’t mentioned at the museum) – establishing schools, hospitals, banks etc. using Qatar’s significant oil revenues and lastly, the growth of Doha as a modern metropolis.
Conspicuously silent at the museum were a number of issues: conditions of foreign workers, women’s lack of equality, constitutional rights, freedom of the press or lack thereof….I could go on and on about its omissions. It highlights the Qatari state owned Al Jazeera cable news channel, which is highly respected and is permitted to air critical stories, so long as the stories are not critical of Qatar. For example, a recent story by Danish journalists about the horrid working and living conditions of construction workers in Doha was banned ion Al Jazeera, but this is not referenced in the museum. Despite the museum being housed in a beautiful building and providing historical and geographical background of the Qatari people, it completely lacks introspection. Words like “shallow” and “superficial” keep springing to mind.
I decided to do a little more internet research about Qatar and its commitment to “multiculturalism and diversity.” To become a citizen of Qatar, one must live in Qatar for at least 20 years and have a good grasp of Arabic. Some exceptions exist for wives of Qatari men (up to 4 of them) but none for husbands of Qatari women. “Surely there must be leniency for people like Syrian refugees,” I thought. But no, Qatar is not a signatory to the UN Convention relating to Refugees and therefore does not recognize refugees. A grand total of (depending on the source) 42 (Wikopedia) or 83 (borgenmagazine.com) Syrians were granted refugee status in Qatar by 2017. Qatar points out that it did extend visas for about 50,000 Syrians already in Qatar, but since those people would already have been living and working in Qatar, the gesture seems rather futile. Qatar also provided significant funds (half a billion $) to aid in the feeding and sheltering of refugees in camps, as long as the camps were not in Qatar.
All this left a bad taste in my mouth. Qatar is super wealthy and touts itself as a leading global citizen (it had a seat on the UN Security Council a few years ago), but it does so with elaborate sporting events and grand buildings. It fails miserably in sharing its wealth in any meaningful way, welcoming immigrants (except as cheap labour) or upholding basic (albeit Westernized) human rights.
It does, however, have a very nice airline.