Paul and I got a bit of a taste of Qatar on the way over to Southeast Asia; Doha Airport. We spent eight hours in a glorified shed, cramped up with thousands of other laid-over passengers from around the world and forced to share one coffee shop, one cafeteria and a greasy burger joint. We’d all booked with Qatar Airways expecting something like Dubai or Abu Dhabi; instead we got Avalon or Frankfurt Hahn.
So, for our twenty hour layover on our return flights, we were antsy to leave the airport. I may have even yelled at the lady at Ho Chi Minh City Airport when she told us we wouldn’t be allowed past customs in Doha. I told her – sounding more confident than I actually felt – that oh yes we would and please check our bags in all the way to Brussels.
Out of the sheer number of people transiting through Doha, not many people actually enter the Qatari capital. We were the only ones on our flight who jumped off the airport bus at arrivals, with everyone else continuing on to connections. I was ferried through immigration separately to Paul – with credit cards only for the visa – only to meet him on the other side. It was a bit of a sign of things to come.
We weren’t seeing Doha backpacker-style. In fact, you can’t really, with no budget accommodation in town. Paul had cashed in some of his frequent flyer points for the five-star Renaissance Doha Hotel, and by god they put us in a suite. The room, on the twenty-fourth floor, was bigger than our apartment and gave us sweeping views of the Doha skyline.
After being in transit for about twenty hours, all we wanted to do was collapse on the gigantic bed. But we pressed on.
Over a very Middle Eastern lunch of burgers at an Applebee’s in the City Center Mall, we figured out our plan. We were going to walk through the city centre towards the water, meander along the famed Corniche promenade and end up at the Souq Waqif. We’d then taxi it to the Pearl later that evening. It was a solid plan.
Well, it seemed like one. The main problem was, you just don’t walk in Doha. You can run along the Corniche, yes, but you can’t walk from A to B. There are no footpaths. There are no traffic lights. There is nothing to delay a motor vehicle, save for other motor vehicles. I’d never seen a city ignore pedestrians so blatantly.
So we’d walk along the sides of roads, inching along our hotel’s map which seemed to have little idea of the notion of a scale. We’d walked for half an hour and our hotel seemed to still be spitting distance away. So we cracked it, flagged down a taxi and headed towards the Souq Waqif.
Along the way, we admired the buildings. It seemed to be the thing you did in Doha; sure, there’s a sprinkling of museums around but I’m not exactly an admirer of Qatari history or art. You couldn’t go for long strolls around town, nor have a drink along the waterfront. You’d go to the waterfront and look at the buildings. You’d go up the buildings and look at the buildings.
Anyway, we made it to Souq Waqif. The souq is actually quite nice, filled with traditional-looking shops, restaurants and the like and clearly the place to be for young people in Doha. We wandered around, looking but not buying and enjoying the fresh breeze for the first time in a few weeks.
We checked out one last neighbourhood of Doha before calling it a night; the Pearl. This suburb, a good fifteen or so minutes by taxi outside of central Doha, summed up Qatar for me. It consists of dozens of gigantic, monotonous apartment buildings, all promising luxury, with landscaped gardens and water features aplenty. Underneath the buildings were an assortment of shops that looked hardly frequented; Bentley, Aston Martin, Maserati and the like.
We retired to our room after our brief flirtation with the Pearl. We’d seen Doha, and Qatar more generally, on a whirlwind but we’d gotten the idea pretty quickly. It’s a city, and country, on the rise, rich and getting richer.
The thing is, I just don’t really care for those sorts of places. I didn’t feel as if Doha had any heart. I’m not a driver, so I didn’t care for the fact that it completely ignores pedestrians. The architecture is modern, but there’s no culture. They try at the Souq Waqif but even then, in my jet-lagged state, I couldn’t summon the desire or the energy to seek it out further.
For dinner that night we had Nando’s on our emperor-sized bed. This followed our lunch of Applebee’s, but I didn’t feel the need to try out any Qatari food. Considering a stopover in the Middle East? Go with the original and the best; Dubai. I visited in 2011 and loved my three days there. Doha may be an option at the moment, but apart from some nice views of its skyline, in my opinion there’s little else that’s at all unique. Sounds harsh I know, and I was jet-lagged, but I couldn’t summon up any love for Doha at all. Let’s see how they do hosting the World Cup in 2020.