Old and New Intertwine in Qatar
by Julian Worker
Qatar was recently awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup by FIFA, the governing body of world soccer. I decided to visit Doha, the capital of Qatar, to find out more about what soccer fans could expect to find there.
There is no income tax in Qatar – the government makes so much from oil revenues that the roads and the hospitals are built as and when they are needed. This is the attitude that Qatar would have to the FIFA World Cup – eight new stadia? Just get them built, we can afford it.
There are 200,000 Qataris and ten times as many “foreigners”. The hospitals are free to all Qataris, while everyone else pays 15% of the actual cost of the treatment. No-one has to pay for emergency surgery or care.
Doha has some interesting experiences for the visitor. There is a Camel Market with the different types of camel segregated – for example Qataris buy their racing animals here. The area is scrubland/semi-arid desert which is full of fenced pens and the camels munch contentedly whilst looking deeply upset with the world. Nearby is the Omani souk, a drive through garden market where people can buy plants, bamboo canes, furniture, and garden tools. People who walk through are stared at as though they are mad.
Doha does have a Sports City area which was largely built for the 2006 Asian games. There’s a hospital just for sport’s injuries, so future Ledley Kings wouldn’t have to go far for treatment. I wasn’t allowed to look inside the indoor stadium as I didn’t have permission. The architecture is impressive and the facilities are well used judging by the number of vehicles in the car park.
Next door is the Villaggio Mall. Imagine your local Trafford Centre or Bluewater Shopping Centre where all the shops are Hermes, Armani, Yves St Laurent etc and you have the Villaggio.
Should you be looking for some excitement, there is a small, delicate canal running through the mall and you can take a gondola ride under two mini Rialto bridges – the cost was 15 rials, which is around 2 pounds. There is also an ice hockey rink where the Qatari Raiders play. This place is all air-conditioned too. I felt very poor.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is a collection of artistic gems dating from the 7th to the 19th Centuries. The building was designed by IM Pei, the man responsible for the Louvre Pyramid. The Museum is free and is open until 11pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s located near the Dhow Harbour and within walking distance of the recently renovated Souk Waqif, Doha’s other world-class tourist attraction.
The Museum’s top two floors house the permanent collections. My favourites were: the bejewelled falcon from India dating from 1640, whose plumage comprised precious stones; a 12th Century Incense Burner in the form of a lion from either Iran or India; a later 14th Century ceramic cenotaph from Central Asia; a mid-16th Century painted illustration from the story entitled The Nightmare of Zahhak; and the late 12th-Century Cavour Vase, which was probably crafted in Syria.
The museum is close to the Corniche which is pleasant to walk along around 7pm in the summer when the temperature has dropped to 40 degrees C. I saw some joggers who were soaked to their skin and a woman in a burqa who was power walking along.
Sweat and Souk
Even the 15-minute walk to Souq Waqif at this time of day caused the colour of my shirt to change from light- to dark-green due to the perspiration. Please bear in mind that the humidity was low too (42%) otherwise who knows what it would be like. My camera lens, viewfinder, and mirrors all steamed up making photography difficult.
Souk Waqif was restored in 2004 after years of neglect. Souk Waqif means “Standing Market”, a name that dates from the time when Doha was a village split in two by a wadi. This waterway would regularly flood and the villagers would be forced to sell their wares on the banks of the flooded wadi with no room to sit down.
The most enjoyable aspect of the souk is that it has something for tourists and locals. Visitors can be buying bric-a-brac and T-shirts while nearby a Qatari is buying a toilet plunger and a rake. The architecture is almost perfect and the photo opportunities excellent as women in burkas and Western tourists mingle contentedly together.
Taxi drivers also know Souk Waqif as the Old Souk. The souk opens up around 4pm and there are many excellent cafes and restaurants to explore as well as the spice stalls, weavings, and food delicacies. This is a place to wander around in, get lost, and then rediscover yourself. The Waqif Arts Centre is found in Souk Waqif. Nearby are the Gold Souk and the Doha Fort, also known as the Al Koot Fort.
A new diplomatic quarter is being built in Doha – around 50 high-rise buildings are under construction in close proximity to each other. Each building has a different design and an individual touch. This same attitude towards building new structures is behind Qatar’s bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Building eight fully air-conditioned arenas won’t be a problem, indeed one of Qatar’s selling points is that fans will be able to see more than one game per day, due to the closeness of all the grounds.
Many new hotels are being built, again with different designs – one hotel will have three individual towers connected to a central lobby area. I wonder whether a soccer fan could afford to stay there.
There’s also a brand new island called The Pearl. The first brands you see are the Maserati, Ferrari, and Rolls Royce garages. Then you spy Hermes, Alexander McQueen, and YSL. Just in front of these shops are the yachts of the people who have bought apartments in one of the blocks beside the faux Italianate waterfront. It’s a different world and the construction isn’t stopping.
When I saw this evidence of incredible wealth, I felt Qatar had no chance of staging the event; they have all the money in the world to build eight air-conditioned indoor soccer stadia – they can’t play the matches outside as it is too damned hot in the summer (45 degrees C) – but the country just isn’t big enough to support 750,000 visitors over a period of four weeks. Almost all the hotels are very expensive and luxurious. By 2022, there will be enough beds but few people to fill them, unless the Qatari government subsidizes each room.
Food is quite expensive including fruit and vegetables, all of which has to be imported. I wondered whether some of the land in Qatar could be covered with greenhouses so that fruit and vegetables could be grown there. It’s always really warm so a great crop would be guaranteed.
Soccer is a popular game in Qatar. I watched both World Cup semi-finals in the Old Manor House, an English-style gentleman’s club on the top floor of the Hotel Mercure in Doha. The food was good English pub grub and there was no ban on smoking. The signal was intermittent so it was like watching the game at night via flashes of lightning; players and the ball changing position frequently while the ‘E48 – No Signal’ message was displayed on the screen.
For some reason the Spain vs Germany captured the locals’ attention more than the Uruguay vs Holland game. As Spain’s tight control of the Germans increased the locals applauded their ball retention and a couple began to shout “Ole”.
The Indian man sitting next to me said, “The Spanish will win because the German octopus has said so,” a reference to Paul from Oberhausen who had correctly predicted the result of every German game.
As the Spanish made a breakaway, a Qatari who was on his second bottle of wine (mine had been confiscated at the airport by immigration) leaned forward in his chair, stretched his arms out, and then stood up. He move closer to the TV as Spain got closer to the German goal, until the move broke down and he then emitted a loud roar of frustration with his nose almost touching the screen.
“He is very enthusiastic,” said the Indian, “but why does he want Spain to win?”
The Qatari retraced his steps to his chair and sat down, before shouting “Adios” to some Western ladies who were leaving the club.
“Perhaps he doesn’t know any German,” said another Indian.
If the enthusiasm of everyone in the club is anything to go by, then the World Cup of 2022 will be a great success and I look forward to returning to see a few games in the brand-new, air-conditioned stadia where the games will be played.
Julian Worker has written travel articles that were published in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Fate Magazine, National Catholic Register, and Northwest Travel.
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