Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On and Off the Brochure: Doha, Qatar

Arriving in Doha

On our delivery flight from Seattle to Doha, the coach cabins were completely empty. Only 20 business class seats were occupied on the 259 seat Boeing 777-200LR. But we weren't complaining. We relaxed, slept, read, and watched movies.

When we arrived in Doha in the afternoon, the pilot announced that we would make an approach low over the field but not land. We assumed this was the airplane's "salute" to its new home. We discovered it was something else entirely.

Traditionally, the first time a new model of an aircraft is delivered to Qatar Airways, fire trucks welcome the plane with an archway of water. Since our plane was the second Boeing 777-200LR, there would be no ceremony.

When we flew low over the field we saw that we were in fact getting a welcoming. There were a hundred or more yellow jacketed men and women and dozens of men in traditional white Arabic robes and headdresses.
When the plane landed, red carpeted stairs were pushed up to the plane but we couldn't leave, not just yet. We were part of a commemoratory photograph. We discovered that our plane had been christened "Gaza" in support of the Palestinian people after the recent conflict.

At that moment we learned that in the Middle East, everything can become political, even the delivery of a new airplane.

Qatar

Qatar occupies an elongated peninsula on the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia. Jutting into the Arabian Gulf, the landscape is dominated by flat, sandy expanses. Imagine the Oklahoma panhandle surrounded on three sides by water.

Most of the 1.2 million inhabitants of Qatar live in and around Doha. Only a few decades ago, Doha was a small fishing and pearl diving village. Historically there weren't reasons to travel to Doha. It was not at the nexus of trade routes. No ancient archaeological sites declared Doha as an important city in the ancient world. Cruise ships rarely stop in Doha, the capital and main port, preferring instead Bahrain and Dubai.

The discovery of oil and immense natural gas reserves changed Qatar's future. In a few decades energy development has made Qatar one of the richest per capita countries in the world.

A self-described, moderate Muslim country, religion and politics are as tightly interwoven in Qatar as anywhere else in the Middle East. There may not be Saudi style religious police patrolling the streets, but this is not Cairo or Dubai. Visitors to Qatar are told to enjoy their pleasures "modestly". Women are asked to cover their arms in public. Drinking alcohol is forbidden except in licensed venues. "Public displays of affection between men and women are discouraged" (Qatar Tourism and Exhibitions Authority).

Travel to Qatar

Several airlines fly to Doha, but the easiest to use is Qatar Airways. Doha is its hub, so there are frequent flights to most parts of the world, including the U.S. From personal experience I can say that the planes are new and very comfortable, especially in business class. The food is first-rate. The flight crews are friendly and solicitous, qualities that are to be prized.

Doha

The business of Doha is business. New medical buildings, universities, condominium developments, business complexes, shopping centers, sporting arenas, hotels, and spas rise up before your eyes. Driving through town it's easy to believe that every single building is under construction.

Doha is an expensive city. Many expats come to work in Qatar, hoping to save a good deal of their salaries, only to discover that they can barely pay for housing and eat out occasionally.

The transformation of Doha from a sleepy, backwater village into a dynamic modern urban center was the vision of one man, the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. He assumed the leadership of the country in 1995 when he deposed his father as Emir.

From the beginning of his reign, Sheik Hamad had big plans for his country. Rejecting narrow parochial interests, he used Qatar's vast wealth to make Doha an important center for Middle Eastern life.

In 1996 he created Al Jazeera, a global television network devoted to putting an Arab perspective on the news. In 2006 he hosted the Asian Games. In 2009 he opened the Museum of Islamic Art, home to one of the world's preeminent collections of Islamic art. He upgraded Qatar Airways into a premium airline, expanding its routes to the major cities in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the U.S., with non-stop flights to New York, Washington D.C., and Houston (beginning March 30, 2009).

In 1997 he gave women the right to vote. In 2008 he donated the land for a Catholic church. He supports Palestinian causes, at the same time he allowed the U.S. to establish a large military base outside of Doha and he donated $100 million dollars to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sheik Hamad is a magician, balancing the interests of the Arab world on the one hand and an alignment with the western democracies, especially the U.S., on the other.

Hotels, Restaurants, and Spas

The major hotel chains are represented in Doha: the Marriott, Four Seasons, InterContinental, Movenpick, Ramanda, Starwood, Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, and Sofitel. The room rates are comparable with those in London, Paris, and New York.

Most visitors to Doha eat in the hotels where the food can be very good and very expensive. We had a delicious dinner at Il Teatro in the Four Seasons, but it cost a small fortune.

Besides dates and the local hammour--a delicious white fish that we ate as often as it was on the menu--very little food is produced locally. With poor soil and scorching heat in the summer, Qatarian agriculture is a contradiction in terms. Top soil imported from Iran, Syria, and Jordan has improved the situation so that Qatar now produces 20% of its leafy vegetables.

For Arabic food in an upscale setting, the Al Liwan, in Sharq Village & Spa operated by the Ritz-Carleton, serves a Lebanese buffet in an airy dinning room next to the pool. With the only sushi bar in town, Asia Live in the Doha Marriott features Japanese and Chinese dishes. The Doha Marriott serves Indian seafood at Taj Rasoi. For less expensive Indian food, catering to the many expats from the subcontinent, Bukhara in the Khalifa Tennis & Squash complex has a full menu including tandoori chicken. Za Moda at the InterContinental has a wood-fueled oven and turns out a pizza that would make any Italian proud.

For the most part, hotel restaurants are the only places in town to have alcoholic drinks. Many hotels like the Movenpick Towers are dry, so if you want a glass of wine or a cocktail, you have to go across the street to the Four Seasons.

An advantage to being in a Muslim country is the wide availability of fresh fruit juices. During our visit it seemed as if every restaurant competed to have the freshest, widest variety of fruit juices. At the Al Liwan, for example, we were offered freshly made watermelon, mango (delicious!), pineapple, papaya, melon, mint-lemonade (another favorite), apple, orange, and grapefruit juice.

If you don't want to eat in hotels and you want to go off the beaten path, the choices are limited. There are American fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King but that's probably not what you were looking for.

If you enjoy grilled meats and Arabic mezze--falafel, homous, olives, pickles, yoghurt, mutabbal or babaghanoush, labneh, tabbouleh, fattoush, fried kibbe--try the restaurants in the Souk Waqif, Al Bandar Restaurant and Al Tawash Restaurant, the Lebanese restaurant Assaha on Hamad Al Kibir Street or the neighborhood Turkey Central Restaurant in the old downtown area.

Getting around Doha isn't easy. There are only a few taxis and renting a car isn't advisable. Although the actual roads in Doha are good, there is so much construction, detours make a simple trip incredibly complicated. If possible, share the cost of a driver with friends. Check with your hotel's concierge for recommendations.

If you can find someone to take you, there is a block-long stretch of storefront restaurants on the access road that runs parallel to Sheik Khalifa Street, between the TV and Markya Roundabouts just behind Al Jazeera. Besides the McDonald's there were also candy stores, bakeries, and rotisserie chicken shops. At Al Omara Sweets & Restaurant, I had the best falafel I've ever eaten. Made fresh, the falafel was crunchy outside, studded with sesame seeds, and soft as a pillow inside.

Spas in a desert climate seem especially soothing. As you would expect, the best spas are at the luxury hotels. The Ritz-Carlton has spas at both of their hotels, as do the Marriott and the Four Seasons. A massage costs roughly what it does in the U.S.

I had a massage at the Six Senses Spa at the Sharq Village & Spa. You begin to relax in the waiting room which is shaded from the harsh sun outside. You are further soothed by the pool of water in the center of the room. After the massage therapist confirms what kind of treatment you'd like, you're led into the changing rooms. Supported by aromatic oils and heated towels, the massage itself was refreshing and therapeutic. After the treatment you are invited to spend as much time as you'd like in a quiet room where the chaise lounges face an inner courtyard with another pool of water. A cup of hot mint tea, a bottle of ice cold water and a tray of dry roasted nuts and dates stuffed with candied orange slices complete the atmosphere of pampered indulgence. Only the airplanes taking off from Doha International Airport across the street remind you that the real world is close nearby.

Cultural Stops

In many cities of the world, visiting a church, mosque, or temple gives visitors a view into the culture, art, and history of a people. In Doha, mosques are only for Muslims but the new Museum of Islamic Art offers a historical look into the heart of Islamic culture. Designed by the world famous architect I.M. Pei, the exquisite building sits on its own island perched on the edge of the Gulf.

Inside, well-mounted exhibits fill three of its five floors. Using a collection of manuscripts, household objects, jewelry, and tapestries, the exhibits tell the story of Islam's spread through the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Shopping High, Shopping at the Souks

If you like Prada, Dean & DeLuca, Tom Ford, Armani, Dior, Cartier, Givenchy, Valentino, and Cavalli, Doha is a shopper's paradise. In the desert climate, air conditioned malls provide not only great shopping but welcome relief from the heat. The best products offered by upscale designers from around the world are available at the Royal Plaza, City Center Doha, Landmark, The Mall, the newer Villaggio Mall, and the soon to-be-opened, shopping complexes on The Pearl, a large development built on an island of reclaimed land.

Remember, though, there are few bargains here. The prices are the same as in any major U.S. or European city.

The local shopping areas are called souks which are frequently organized around what they sell. The Gold Souk is off Grand Hamad Street. Souk Al-Jabor on Al Ahmed Street focuses on leather goods.

Souk Waqif, the large souk, has a mix of tourist curios, native dress, beads, spices, perfume, clothing, falcons, out-door coffee shops, and restaurants. Although Souk Waqif looks old, it is relatively new. Building a new complex to look old could have a Disney-touch, but locals and tourists have embraced the new Souk Waqif and pack its narrow alleyways at night.

What you'll find at the souks probably wasn't manufactured in Qatar where there is little native industry. You'll see goods from other parts of the Middle East, most likely from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Morroco, or from India and China.

For my visit, I read up on Doha's history. So much was written about the pearl divers of the Gulf, I wanted to buy a pearl necklace for my wife. Unfortunately the pearl divers are long gone. The pearls available in the souk come from Japan and China.

Night Life

Most Qatarians and the expats who work in Doha do their entertaining at home. Unlike Dubai which has a Vegas-like atmosphere, life in Qatar is more subdued. With alcohol only available in hotels, that's where you'll find most of the clubs and bars frequently by tourists.

At the Ritz-Carlton the Admiral's Club serves alcohol and has a terrace that benefits from a cooling sea breeze. Also at the Ritz-Carlton, Habanos is a cigar bar where you can enjoy a quiet moment sitting in plush leather chairs, sampling a good selection of fine liquor. If you want to watch sports on tv while you have a few beers with friends, try Aussie Legends in the Rydges Plaza Doha or Garveys in the European Family Club on Al Aziziyi Street. The Four Seasons' Library Bar & Cigar Lounge has a good wine list and an excellent selection of cocktails. Be fore-warned, the prices at the Four Seasons are downright scary. You'll need to be oil-rich just to have a couple of perfect Manhattans and a snack.

Outdoor Activities

In the summer months, the temperatures push past 120 degrees and the humidity keeps pace, so Doha isn't a city to visit in June, July, August, or September unless business demands it. In the fall and winter months, the temperatures are moderate and, at times, down-right chilly.

Walking along the Corniche, the seafront promenade, is one of the great pleasures of Doha. The view is terrific although in some spots the traffic and construction noise detract from the effect. There aren't public beaches for sunbathing. The Ritz-Carlton's Sharq Village & Spa has a small man-made beach for guests but it faces the port and doesn't have the best view. In a few years the Emir plans to relocate the port facility to better exploit the natural beauty of the bay.

If you want to get a view of the city from the water, tours are offered on the Arabian wooden sailing boats, dhows.

Being inside one new building after another, it's possible to forget that you're in the Middle East. A trip outside the city helps remind you where you are.

When expats working in Doha want to take a break from their jobs and the noise of 24-hour a day construction, they head south of the city to the sand dunes and the Inland Sea where they can take camel rides, have dune buggy tours of the desert, and enjoy barbecues on the beach.

For our trip to the dunes, we hired a guide from Gulf Adventures (www.gulf-adventures.com) who gave us a tour of the dunes that included his driving straight down a steep dune as fast as he could. At first scary, we loved them so much, we'd egg him on to find another big dune and dive bomb to the bottom.

He encouraged us to take a camel ride. I had my picture taken so I could show my sons that I'm not really as square as they think. Enjoying a glass of sweetened mint tea, we finished the tour sitting under a tent next to a sand dune, listening to Mohamed, our guide, tell us the story of how his family got from Gaza to Doha in the 1960s.

Sports

To make Doha a destination in the Arab world, the Emir made sports a priority. The staging of the Asian Games in December, 2006 at the Aspire Zone announced to the world that Doha was a world-class sporting venue. If you are a horse racing fan, you already knew that. The Arabian horses bred and trained in Qatar are renowned in the Arab world. Sheikh Hamad din Ali Al Thani's equestrian complex Al Shaqab showcases the talents of purebred Arabian horses as do the Thursday races at the Racing & Equestrian Club (October to May). Although not as elegant, go to Al Sheehaniya Camel Race Course to see the very popular camel races.

Given the heat of the Gulf, maintaining grass is a difficult and expensive proposition. Even the small patches of grass that decorate traffic islands require a thorough soaking three to four times a day during the summer. So it is amazing that Doha actually has a golf course, the 18-hole Doha Golf Club, with a putting green, driving range, and 8 artificial lakes. As improbably there is also one ice skating rink at Winter Wonderland at the City Centre Mall. Nothing like the ski slope at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, the rink is still a refreshing change from the heat.

Visit Doha Now or in Five Years?

If you're a person with business in Qatar, this is an exciting time. The city changes every day with new and dynamic projects. Because the Emir took a less frenetic approach to development, it looks as if Qatar will weather the global economic slowdown more gracefully than other places such as Dubai.

To get the full benefit of what Doha offers the traveler, it might be best to wait awhile. Within the next several years the major construction projects will be completed. The new International Airport will have opened. The port will have been relocated, giving the new luxury hotels and office high rises unobstructed views of the Gulf. In that time the transportation system will have expanded and more restaurants will have opened. New museums like the National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel, will be open. Robert De Niro will have launched the Tribeca Film Festival in Doha.

When all that has been done, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani will have achieved his vision of Qatar as a cultural center for the Arabic world and as a bridge between east and west.

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