A twenty-first century oasis, constructed from nothing in the scorching-hot desert, fueled only by the economic power of fossils (pun intended). It’s too impressive to omit, too exotic to ignore and too tempting not to dedicate a few hours in transit for exploring and verifying, what little we knew about the capital of Qatar, against reality.
Doha is obviously far away from Bali (geographically, socially and in many other ways), but it nonetheless is part of our travel story, because we spent a total of twelve hours there—nine on the way to Denpasar and three on the way back. Courtesy of Qatar Airways, we got to see not only the 2014-opened Hamad International Airport, but also take a short guided tour of the city, offered to transiting travelers.
Hamad is one of the nicer airports I’ve ever been to. Built from scratch, partly on land reclaimed from the sea, and designed for capacity of up to 50 million passengers annually. It’s an elegant structure alright, but what counts is the inner layout, affecting the (dis)comfort of travelers, and that’s done really well.
There’s no one, single commercial zone. Instead, restaurants, cafés and shops are sprinkled around the building. The majority, including a sizable food court, are located in the middle (with the odd bear-under-lamp sculpture), but one can enjoy just as good a sandwich and as bad a coffee in the more remote parts, closer to the gates. WiFi’s free—very welcome and still far from standard worldwide, and power outlets are everywhere.
We tested the quiet room and that was the only portion of the experience that truly sucked. The first issue was the smell. Imagine a hundred or so people dozing off in a relatively small, closed room. They really need to beef up the ventilation there. Worse, the area wasn’t even that quiet. Some of the inhabitants kept having casual conversations, people walked in and out, the door making a loud bang every time it closed, and the entrance was located in a corridor frequented by airport staff, who made a fair amount of noise just going about their daily business.
The highlight of our stay was a complimentary (yes! completely free!) tour of Doha, arranged by Qatar Airways (thanks!) for anyone with a minimum six hours of layover time. That saved us approx. €25 a person on the entry visa and removed the whole hassle of getting into, around and back out of the city.
The full tour covers four major tourist attractions in the space of 1.5 hours: the Museum of Islamic Art (without entering it; that’d take hours alone), Souq Waqif, Katara Village and The Pearl—an artificial island built right on the sea. Sadly, we only got to see the first two because the queues in immigration (and their lengthy procedures, including face scanning) delayed our departure.
From stop at the Museum of Islamic Art we got to admire the view on Doha’s “Manhattan” across the bay—a district of flashy, modern, high-rise buildings, with their colorful nighttime illumination. They reminded me of the Strip in Las Vegas, sans the Eiffel Tower, Pyramid and all the other nonsense, but otherwise in the same, somewhat kitschy, over-the-top arrangement.
Then there was the Souq Waqif—arguably the most interesting part of the visit. An old, traditional street market, popular with locals as with tourists. We pleasantly spent our time here just walking the narrow streets and corners, checking out the wares on offer and doing a bit of shopping. An enchanting oriental experience—just what I imagined years ago reading novels from colonial times.
The whole city is very orderly, fixated on buying its way into modernity. The road from the airport was busy with new-ish Japanese cars (Honda and Toyota, pretty much exclusively), broad, smooth, and lit with beautiful street lamps, poles of which are colorfully illuminated and inscribed with Quran quotations. We saw a neat park, with lots of greens, benches, playgrounds for children and a street workout installation for the grown-ups.
Exciting buildings are springing up everywhere, including the National Museum of Qatar, with its design inspired by the curious shape of the desert rose. And a whole, new metro system is under construction—not just one line, mind you, but two full lines of sixty four stations in one go, followed by another two lines and twenty four stations shortly. That’s some perspective, considering Warsaw will build a grand total of six metro stations for one of its lines by 2019.
On top of infrastructure spending, there’s a lot more that the oil & gas money is buying the Qataris. All citizens are guaranteed employment and generous retirement benefits. Health care and education are free. Plus, there’s no income tax. In return, the country remains a constitutional monarchy, where the Emir decides who gets to be in government, and forming any political parties is illegal. No representation without taxation.
The Qataris are well aware that their time is merely borrowed and the aim of all these infrastructure investments is to build an economy that will outlast the end of the fossil fuel era. They’re trying to attract the world’s most successful companies and professionals to help make the country an innovation powerhouse.
However, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer convincingly argue in their book Start-up Nation, the way Qatar and other Gulf countries are approaching the matter is incomplete, to say the least. No foreigner may own real estate in the country (with the notable exception of The Pearl), nor can they ever acquire Qatari citizenship. If I cannot own anything I build here, why would I invest myself at all?
Companies and expats are coming to Qatar. In fact, 86% of the population and 96% of the workforce in the country are migrant workers, while only about 278,000 are citizens. Why? Well, for the money of course. There’s plenty of it around, so the plan is to get in, earn as much as possible and get out. Plus, expats are not allowed to bring their families, adding another reason to limit the stay. There’s hardly any innovation coming out of Qatar and plenty of it imported, in exchange for oil cash.
Looking at Doha through this lens brings back the comparison with Las Vegas—a city built on and around money, that is at the same time breathtaking and superficial. A scenic postcard from the trip on the way to more welcoming places.