Ultratravel - Sand Castles
Summer 2005

Today the Gulf state of Qatar is no more than a tourist’s aperitif, a stopover on the way to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. Michelle Jana Chan flew in before the crowds.

Qatar? You might not even be able to pronounce it, let alone find it on a map. Yet very soon you will find that tour operators and travel agents are suggesting you drop in. In hte next couple years, they will send you there simply to change plane. Before long, though, they will be urging you to take the whole family on a winter holiday.

For Qatar [pronunciation: somewhere between “catarrh”, “guitar” and “gutter”], an Arab emirate protruding into the Gulf like a thumbs-up, has grand plans. Following the lead of other Gulf states, it wants to become an important air travel hub, serving travellers bound for the Indian Ocean, the Far East and Australasia. Ultimately, though, the capital, Doha, aims to rival Dubai as a place to escape for a tan in the heart of the European winter.

The change is already under way. The country’s national carrier, Qatar Airways, has quietly become one of the world's fastest growing airlines, notching up another route every month to add to a list of destinations that already stands at 65. Earlier this year, the airline announced plans to buy up to 80 new Airbuses and Boeings at a cost of £8.9 billion -- effectively tripling the size of the fleet over the next decade.

As for Qatar’s hopes of becoming a holiday destination in itself -- see what has happened in nearby Dubai. Ten years ago, the city looked like a construction site: a hick ribbon-strip development with a few business-oriented hotels. Then came the super-airline Emirates, a fancy new airport, man-made islands propping up ambitious hotel developments – and suddenly the city was Europe's favourite winter destination.

Dubai’s most remarkable achievement may be its image: safe, stable and secure – particularly post-9/11 – in spite of its proximity to geopolitical hotspots. Ten years ago, we might have worried that it was too close to Gaza or Baghdad. Now we ponder peaceful days lounging by the pool -- in the heart of the Middle East.

That shift in perceptions has aroused interest in other Gulf States that also want to become luxury travel destinations of the 21st century. They too are using airlines to lead the push for tourism dollars -- as with Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, and the regional conglomerate Gulf Air.

It is Qatar, however, that may be the most serious about achieving this -- and also the most capable. The capital’s existing airport is getting a multi-million pound facelift while the $3 billion New Doha International Airport is rising out of the sea on reclaimed land. This is the first airport in the world to be designed and built specifically for the new double-decker, 555-seater Airbus A380-800. Qatar Airways will take delivery of its first “superjumbos” in three years, when phase one of the airport is complete, with a capacity of 12 million passengers a year. On full completion in 2015, the airport will be able to handle 50 million. Expect extensive duty-free shopping, as in Dubai.

But Qatar has ambitions beyond being a flash airport selling cheap electronic gadgets. At the heart of a multi-billion-pound tourism masterplan is a Museum of Islamic Arts designed by IM Pei, the architect who boldly put a glassy pyramid in the heart of the Louvre in Paris. The £110 million museum, rising up on an artificial island off Doha’s waterfront, will be the first of its kind in the Gulf. Arguably, there is arguably no better time for the West to be learning about Islamic culture, and Doha believes the new museum will set it apart from the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their bigger-is-better seven-star hotels.

Close to the museum will be a new National Library, designed by the Japanese architect, the creator of MOCA -- the Museum of Contemporary Art -- in Los Angeles. There will be a Museum of Photography, designed by Santiago Calatrava, whose elegant, futurist curves grace buildings such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

Meanwhile the Corniche, now a bleak five-mile seafront, will be remodelled by Jean Nouvel, the architect behind the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. His design calls for a pedestrian promenade with “a thousand piers” -- wooden jetties, fixed over the illuminated water. Seven towering lighthouses -- “columns of chiselled light” -- will punctuate the sweep of the bay.

These projects should be complete by 2007, but Qatar will already undergo its first serious test as a world-class host in just over a year, when Doha stages the Asian Games. In the meantime, the skyline is slashed with cranes, and the curved roofs of sports stadiums are bubbling up around the city. In the long-term, Qatar has plans to become an international sports hub, regularly staging crowd-pulling events.

By the time of the games open on December 1, 2006, eight new four-and five-star hotels will have doubled the number of beds available. An artificial island, called the Pearl of the Gulf, will boast three luxury hotels, smart restaurants and four marinas. Yet the Pearl is already losing its shimmer next to plans for the North Beach Development, with its ten resort hotels, 3,000 villas, upmarket shopping strips and two golf courses. With these two projects, foreigners will be able to buy land in Qatar for the first time.

This is just one sign that the country is slowly but surely opening up. Another is the rise of the 24-hour Arab news channel Aljazeera, a household name throughout the world -- even though few would know it is based in Doha. Its reputation for fearlessly broadcasting news that in almost any other Arab country would be censored by the government suggests that Qatar is determined to make a break with the heritage of its region.

Yet this is officially still a devout Muslim state. Five or six years ago, women weren’t even allowed to drive, and outside Western-style hotels, dress is still modest and alcohol forbidden.

What is happening? I decided to visit -- in advance of its first tourist, as it were -- to find out.

From the air, this sand mass extending out of the barren bulk of Saudi Arabia seemed flat and scrubby. As the aircraft descended, Doha looked less like a capital than a low-rise town.

On my first morning I took a tour of the city’s souks, a network of stalls in giant warehouses. Traders lay around listlessly, hardly moving for the heat. It felt very Mediterranean -- like everything might happen mañana, but probably not.

The shelves were bursting with fruit and vegetables, beautifully laid out, but with few shoppers to disturb the still life. Rows of red tomatoes, pyramids of peppers piles of polished aubergines, with the country of origin branded on the boxes: Indonesia, China and the Philippines. Even products I expected might be local -- dates, honey, walnuts, coffee, cardamom -- were imported, mostly from Oman. A single customer stopped by one sleepy spice seller, who half opened an eye, before turning over to snore.

The fish market was livelier. I scanned the trays of feathery shrimp, craggy lobster and the glassy deep-water grouper. It looked a whole lot better than it smelt. The traders hustled me to buy a flipping fish for a bargain price; unused to tourists, they didn’t realise I was just there to gawp.

The most unusual market was the falcon souk, actually a string of falconry shops in an open mall. The birds, row upon row of them, were clinging to perches balanced over patches of artificial grass, their heads covered with hoods.

A buyer pointed at one of the falcons, and the shopkeeper took a thick leather glove with which to hold the bird. He gently stroked the bird to calm him, and pulled off the hood with his teeth to reveal a tiny twitching head, bright eyes flickering. He told me that the Bedouin used falcons to hunt for game; now they use them only for sport.

Around the room, half a dozen men were lounging around, sitting cross-legged on benches, dressed in dazzling white gowns and crisp head scarfs. The sweet smell of apple tobacco hung in the air as they drew on their water-pipes, occasionally plucking sticky dates from a dish. They told me they were local Qataris, here to socialise -- maybe for an hour, perhaps the full day. Most didn’t have a day job; they don’t need to, they said.

For Qatar is one of the world's richest nations, thanks to its vast oil and gas reserves. When Qatari men reach the age of 18, the government gives them money and a plot of land. The same happens when they marry, and each time they have a child -- and since they can wed up to four times, the sums can mount up. Health care, electricity and water are all free – and there's no income tax. At 10p a litre, petrol is pretty much given away.

So who’s doing all the work? Foreigners, brought in for the purpose -- and who now account for three quarters of the resident population. Doha has become a cosmopolitan city of Pakistanis (the taxi drivers), Indians (construction workers), Filipinas (domestics) and Westerners (the driving force of many new projects).

With them have come foreign ideas and influences. The city’s streets are beginning to resemble Americana. At the “Ramada Junction” in downtown Doha, Dairy Queen, Hardee's, McDonald's and KFC sit side by side, their drive-thru clientele cocooned in air-conditioned four-wheel-drives.

As for traditional culture -- the Qataris forefathers were nomadic Bedouin who left little to show for their centuries of survival. When they unpegged their tents, they left no trace, and their footsteps filled with sand. Few people live within the shifting boundaries of the dunes, and they are only there to serve the growing numbers of tourists who want to spend a night under canvas.

Indeed, modern Qataris proudly claim that the only difference between them and their nomadic forefathers is that they no longer live in tents. “I am a Bedouin, of course,” said 27-year-old Rashid Al-Marri, whom I met at the City Center, which claims to be the largest shopping mall in the Middle East. “I still believe in family, in respect for old traditions, in the importance of Islam.”

One tradition that survives is on show at the Shahaniya camel race track (one of the few places, incidentally, where the timeless silhouette of these creatures can still be seen). I reached the northern edge of the city at dusk, just as hundreds of camels were crossing the road on their way from their stables to a training session. As they ran around the eight-mile circuit, their Qatari owners drove alongside in Toyota Land Cruisers, shouting instructions to the Nepali trainers.

Balanced on their humps, bouncing as the camels cantered, were skinny children, some as young as three. New rules mean these jockeys must wear helmets and be strapped into the saddle, but the practice is nonetheless controversial. Ali, a four-year-old from Sudan, told me it was fun but admitted that he was sometimes scared.

What no visitor should miss, however, is a trip into the desert. This is, after all, the Arabia of Lawrence – with a modern twist chapter. Watching the sun set behind sand dunes, with flares of gas refineries in the foreground, is oddly romantic.

We set off south from the capital and in just half an hour reached virgin dunes. Before driving on to the soft, deep sand, Ahmed, our Palestinian driver, let some of the air out of the tyres, to stop us sinking in.

In our four-wheel-drive, we sped over the dunes, our wheels spinning as we climbed , skidding all the way down, billowing clouds of sand behind us. At one very steep drop, my fellow passengers – two restrained Swiss men – shouted at Ahmed to stop. But our front wheels had already risen over the lip of the dune and we were floating in air, briefly balancing on the car’s belly, before slipping down the other side, out of all control. There was a collective giggle of relief at the bottom of the hill, before Ahmed turned to us and said he’d never done that before.

After that, we traversed the sands more tamely, coursing to Khor Al Adaid, where the Arabian Sea pierces the desert to form a saltwater inlet. We cruised along the salty sheen of valley floors, down to the barely noticeable border with Saudi Arabia.

While the desert has a timeless appeal, visitors will find facilities in the city limited for now. Accommodation has until recently been bland at best, with few places to eat other than restaurants within international hotels. The most alluring of these is the Four Season, which opened in April with a luxury spa, private beach and marina. Next May will see the opening of the Al Sharq Village Resort & Spa, the first hotel to incorporate authentic Arabian architecture into its design, with souk-style shops and a spa housed in a recreation of a traditional village, formed of winding streets and 23 treatment suites each resembling village houses.

In the meantime, frustratingly, everything in Doha is “nearly ready”, and the sights that the city hopes will make if famous are not yet open. During my visit, the National Museum was closed for refurbishment (for a re-design, again by Jean Nouvel); and the Oryx Farm -- where these gazelle-like animals are being bred, for reintroduction back into the wild -- was shut for improvements.

For the next couple of years, then, Qatar can only realistically offer stopover tourism. A pause for guaranteed sunshine and desert sand; an Arabic aperitif before a holiday in the Maldives, the Seychelles or any other paradise Qatar Airways flies.

The pioneering miracle of neighbouring Dubai, though, is strong encouragement -- and Qatar has even more money than its neighbour to make such plans become reality, with 60 years’-worth of oil reserves and a couple of centuries’-worth of gas on tap.

Visiting now is like seeing a bleached snapshot of the old country -- more poignant, perhaps, before its push to metamorphose into the Gulf's Next Big Thing.

Michelle Jana Chan flew with Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com).