After our epic four-week trip through Thailand, we stopped off in Doha on the way home. We’d been invited to a birthday bash and never one to say no to a good party, it was a no-brainer. I’d been to Dubai a couple of lifetimes ago for a World Bank meeting and hadn’t been back to the Gulf since. I’d a fair idea what to expect – or I thought I did – but I’d forgotten more than I’d remembered.
Doha by night is spectacular. The view of the city from the Museum of Islamic Art is amazing. I was reminded of a night in New Jersey, way back when, looking across at the Manhattan Skyline. Nothing has come close until now. When H&N said they were taking us to the museum, I cringed a little. I’m not one for clay pots and bronze bowls or ornate gold jewellery. I more partial to my sculptures, my mosaics, and my paintings. And I was coming down off a prolonged spate of sensory overload. I didn’t think I had it in me to deliver the requisite mews of appreciation with any great conviction. But I surprised myself. It’s definitely worth visiting. Regardless of its exhibits, the building itself is nothing short of gobsmackingly simple. It has a definitely shush feel to it, big enough to be a cathedral but plain enough to leave religion outside. The architect, I. M. Pei (said to be the greatest living member of the modernist generation of architects), had hung up his liner pens and tracing paper and long-since retired. And, at the ripe age of 91, why wouldn’t he? But he came out of retirement to design this building. His name rang a bell. It took me a while to put him together with the glass-and-steel pyramid that I’d seen a couple of years back at the Louvre in Paris, another of his creations. Rumour has it that he spent six months travelling through the Muslim world to get a feel for this project. With an eye to the future and the lack of restraint and good judgement shown by many a city planner, Pei decided he wanted his the museum to sit on an island. So one was built. In Doha Bay. Off an artificial peninsula. At one end of the 7 km Doha Corniche. It’s open till 7 pm every evening and admission is free. You can’t leave Doha without visiting.
I was struck by the newness of everything. The Sheraton was the first hotel chain to build in the city, but now, everyone is there. With 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants expats, the curious mix of cultures is evident in the architecture. And what you see by day (am thinking in particular of the Emir Palace) looks completely different lit up at night. The city’s electric bill must be huge. Be careful though, some areas are no-photo zones, so watch out for the signs. And the cameras. Nearly every streetlight has a camera attached to it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of being watched. And I doubt it’s something I could get used to. That said, there’s no crime to speak of in the city. It’s safer than safe to walk around. And why wouldn’t it be with your every move being recorded for posterity?
Having had the Muslim/alcohol experience in southern Thailand, I wasn’t expecting liquor shops on every corner, but I was completely flabbergasted when I found out that there is only one in the whole city! And to buy booze, you have to apply for a permit. And your monthly alcohol spend will be capped at a percentage of your salary. Then you drive out to what was once the desert and is now a suburb in the desert and join the long line of customers waiting to be served. It was like Brown Thomas’s during the Christmas sales. Now, on the one hand, I can see how this would be good for me. I’d become a far more conscious imbiber of spirits. No more opening another bottle just because the weakness in me was strong. No more gulping it back as if it were going out of fashion. No more ‘one for the ditch after one for the road’. I’d be measuring my measures. In all likelihood, one of two things would happen. I’d lose the grá I have for vino or I’d become obsessed with where the next glass of plonk was coming from.
When we were kids, on long drives to see my grandparents, we’d count number plates, trying to check off each county in Ireland. I found myself doing something similar in Doha once I heard that the fewer digits on your plate, the more it’s worth. Another outward manifestation of wealth. I spotted one 3-digit plate on a big, posh, land-cruisery jeep, driven by two young princely looking lads; one four-digit plate; and a few five digits – but most were six-digit. And even then, pairs and triplets and sequences of numbers can attract big money. It’s not unheard of to see a plate you fancy, then follow that person till they stop, and offer to buy their plate. In Doha, you can sell your plates and vehicle separately and some cars are bought for the plate alone. Mad.
We spent an evening at the Souq Waqif but didn’t do it justice. Jet lag has set in and we were seriously flagging. We ate – everything ordered for us, which took the pain out of making a decision (I just love their passion for food) – and we shopped. But having read up on it since, I want to go back, in the whole of my health, with energy and time to see it all. It’s the country’s oldest market and definitely one to be explored. The people watching alone is seriously rated. There’s so much going on, so much to see, you could sit with a coffee for hours and just watch the world go by. A tip worth noting though – go early in the week to avoid the crowds that descend from Thursday to Saturday.
We spent a morning in the desert, driving up and down sand dunes in a Land Cruiser. There were Land Cruisers everywhere, the cheapest of which will set you back a minimum of €50,000. The camels were on hand to give the tourists something to do as their drivers/guides let the air out of the tires to get ready for the dunes. And then it was into the desert to be bounced around and scared witless as your car rocked over a very steep slope and then went downhill, nose first. I wanted to drive. I so wanted to drive. In fact, driving in the desert (in someone else’s heavily insured rig) is now on my bucket list. I’d been on a desert safari in Dubai and remember the sand being quite uniform in colour. But in Doha, perhaps because of the unseasonably heavy rains/floods they’d just had, it was exquisite. So many different shades of greys and browns. It reminded me a lot of Michael Pettet’s digital art.
It was a little weird, looking across the water at Saudi Arabia, having just learned of the ongoing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Where have I been? And then reading of Saudi’s plans to cut the country off – literally – by digging a 60km channel along the border. And then reading more about how close Qatar came to being invaded last year. Two hours, by all accounts, and the Saudi army could have been in Doha. That was close. It would seem that Qatar is bucking the trend.
From the onset of the crisis, the Saudi-led bloc cut diplomatic ties and hit Qatar with embargoes, including air land and maritime restrictions. They also deployed bot-fuelled hashtags and social media attacks. It was clear that the Saudis and their allies were not only targeting Qatar’s leadership, but also its institutions, citizens and residents. The Saudi-led bloc confronted Qatar with 13 demands, mostly focused on curtailing the Qatari approach to foreign policy, counter-terrorism and media freedom.
The image of the much-loved Emir is everywhere. And love him they do. The international jury is still out though. According to Human Rights Watch…
Qatar’s penal code punishes “sodomy” with one to three years in prison. Muslims convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced to flogging (if unmarried) or the death penalty (if married). Non-Muslims can be sentenced to imprisonment.
For the most part, those I met there seem to enjoy their lives. They like the money they make and the lifestyle it affords them. And there is something quite appealing about buffet dinners, long lunches, and fabulous shopping malls. The people and the diversity they represent is refreshing. Theirs is a very international set, with, I think, 12 nationalities at the house party we attended. You wouldn’t be long getting first-hand accounts from most of the world – the best form of social media. Everyone is so hospitable, so friendly, so generous. Customer service is incredible. But I couldn’t live there. My latent streak of paranoia would get fat of a diet of societal norms that wouldn’t sit well me with. You’d acclimatise, they said. You’d get used to it. But the question is, would I want to?
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