Unravel the Mysteries of the Middle East

Qatar is a destination filled with wonders where no two days are the same

TEXT BY: NAMITA GUPTA

Qatar Skyline

It’s the old-world charm blending seamlessly with the bustling vibes that makes Qatar a unique destination. With constant construction everywhere, Doha is clearly the fastest growing city in Qatar, the richest country in the world. And with good reason. Qatar will have nine stadiums with a colossal seating capacity for the FIFA World Cup 2022. It will be the first time an Arab country will host the FIFA Soccer World Cup. Some of the stunning new designs of these stadiums are already going viral. This dynamic modern country is also lauded to be the richest country in the world. Yes, that’s right! Qatar is the richest country in the world, as it not only sits on one of the largest natural gas resources but is also home to a large military base for many countries. That answers where all those big moneybags come from. The Qataris have some serious muscle to flex in terms of their GDP too. But that’s not it. This small country hemmed by the Persian Gulf offers some incredible experiences and stunning sights with its pristine beaches, uninterrupted soft sands, stunning dunes, rock formations, caves, mangroves, flora, fauna and more. With skyscrapers, hotels, stadiums and museums, I almost felt lost in a large Legoland as I marvelled at the shiny, tall buildings, each built with style, class, elegance and innovative design.

Camel walk

The National Museum of Qatar on Doha’s waterfront corniche is one such architectural marvel that is truly a feast for the senses. This museum is probably the most eye-catching design of all of Qatar’s new buildings, courtesy the vision of Sheikha Amna bint Abdulaziz bin Jassim Al-Thani, the museum’s director. I was amazed at the ingenuity of Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect’s designs, as I strolled around the spiral walkway surrounded by the petals of the desert rose museum walls, inspired by the local desert rose. The museum’s multi-curved roof is made up of 76,000 panels in 3,600 shapes and sizes in sandy-coloured interlocking gypsum discs, the size of flying saucers. I was lucky to have been one of the first visitors, as the museum opened doors recently on March 28, 2019. A true reflection of Qatar’s heritage, it is split into three themes — Beginnings, Life in Qatar, and The Modern History of Qatar showcased across 11 galleries. It is a living experience on exploring the geography of Qatar while evoking the history and culture of the nation in an immersive manner with short films and artefacts about life in the desert that make it interesting and engaging.

National Museum of Qatar. Photo Courtesy: Namita Gupta

I sat down to watch a short on the pearling trade in the olden days Qatar and then moved on to the area that traces the tribal conflicts that followed with the rise of the Al Thani ruling family. The way oil and gas was discovered here and how it transformed the history of this desert peninsula is also extremely arresting and kept me glued throughout. Doha, the capital of Qatar, used to be a fishing village, where pearl fishers were seeking to strike gold. It was a pitstop for traders exploring and shipping goods from India and China and became a British Protectorate after World War I. It gained independence from British rule only in 1971. Besides Qatari history, there are many glimpses of Indian history too. Among the many exhibits at the gallery space is a 19th century pearl carpet of Baroda embroidered with 1.5 million Gulf pearls carpet that was commissioned by India’s Maharaja of Baroda, Gaekwar Khande Rao in 1865 and was originally the chadar of the tomb of Prophet Mohammed at Medina and the oldest Koran yet discovered in Qatar, also dating back to the 1800s. The Arabic culture in Qatar is deeply connected to horses, camels and falcons, as these have aided Arab tribes to survive in the desert for thousands of years, if not more. Qatar used to be a famous centre for horse and camel trading. The ancient Arabic culture of equestrianism, camel racing and falconry are being adapted even today with much passion. They were the mode of transportation when the tribes roamed the deserts and continue to remain a sought-after possession by the Sheikhs.

Camel Race at Al Shahaniya

Every Friday and Saturday, you can spot the Sheikhs indulging in camel racing during winters. A camel usually costs the same as that of the price of a Ferrari and most Qatari Sheikhs own camels. The owner of the camel that wins the race gets a Ferrari or a similar car as a prize. Thousands of Ferraris and other luxury cars are parked at Al Shahaniya, as their owners probably haven’t taken them home even after victory.

Qataris are passionate about falcons

I wonder if they already have a fleet at home. It’s truly the land of riches. My love for horses led me to Al Shaqab next, to understand the Qatari equestrian culture. The Arabian horses are prized possessions too and play a significant role in how the state of Qatar was founded. Sheikh Jasim bin Mohamed Al Thani united the Qatari tribes in the Battle of Al Wajbah to defeat the Ottomons. It’s all about equine indulgence at Al Shaqab, where you can understand the cultural legacy and appreciation of the Arabian breed handed down from generation to generation.

AL SHAQAB

If you’re looking for souvenirs, spices, teas, garments, accessories or handicrafts, then Souq Wakif is where you should be. The site of this souq dates 100 years back to a time when Bedouin and local traders gathered to buy and sell livestock, pearls, spices, wool and other staple goods. What really intrigued me here was the falcon market or the Falcon Souq. Sheikhs buy falcons, the National Bird of Qatar and get them ready for the race next season. Almost every Qatari owns a falcon and when they fly they book a separate seat for Falcons on the aircraft. There’s also a falcon hospital at Souq Wakif. Today falconry is still practised as a sport. After walking around the colourful and bustling souq, I stopped at Parisa for dinner. It’s a hidden gem housed in one of the lanes of the Souq Wakif, where you can tuck into some lip-smacking authentic Persian delicacies over live Persian music and striking interiors that combine hand-painted Persian artwork of myths and legends, intricate mosaics, ornate chandeliers and thousands of tiny mirrors that were handpicked from Iran and assembled in Doha. A meal here is an experience in itself.

Souq Wakif

The next morning, I woke up with a spring in my step. Desert Safari was on the itinerary and I was already excited. Qatar’s 563 km long coastline is always teeming with adventure activities where you can take to the desert with some extreme sports, spectate a camel race, glamp in style at a luxury beachfront resort, marvel at Bir Zekreet’s peculiar rock formations or scuba dive in the warm turquoise waters. I knew I was in for a superlative thrilling experience as I plonked myself in the SUV, with seat belts on bashing my way through the sand dunes.  The driver knew exactly what he was doing as he drove up and down the sand dunes on the desert safari. The adrenaline high that you get from this adventurous drive in the Land Cruiser into the heart of the Arabian desert and then stopping on the seaside is simply unforgettable. I got my ‘wind in my hair and sand at my feet’ moment and the glee on face said it all. A hearty lunch followed at the Regency Sealine Camp with panoramic views of the Persian Gulf.

Qatar Dhow Boat

The evening was reserved for the dinner at Dhow Cruise, another of Qatar’s iconic experiences. We set sail at dusk along Doha’s Corniche for the dinner cruise in a wooden boat called dhow, which was traditionally used as trading and sailing vessels. Can’t think of a better way to see the wondrous and magical land than from the sea and also experience this Bedouin tradition of sailing on a dhow boat. Qatar International Adventures curates all kinds of experiences and sight-seeing for visitors to Qatar, based on their needs.

Katara Cultural Village

Know more about how the foundations of this emerging nation were laid at Mshereib Company House that is built in the same place that was once used as the headquarters for Qatar’s first oil company. Qatar is filled with colourful street art and installations everywhere that are a delight for any explorer. Walk around the Katara Cultural Village, to experience the cultures of the world. With theatres, concert halls, exhibition galleries and open spaces, it will leave the culturati beaming. I particularly liked Indian artist Subodh Gupta’s sculptures that are based on his take on Gandhi’s Three Monkeys assembled with kitchen utensils and kitchenware making a powerful statement about war and peace.

Museum of Islamic Art

The Museum of Islamic Art is another iconic building on the Doha waterfront. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei, known for his landmark glass pyramid in the forecourt of the Louvre, this five-storey museum is a treasure trove of Islamic art spanning three continents over 1400 years. The stunning facade seems to be inspired by the Battoulah, a mask traditionally worn by Muslim Arab women. Get a taste of the luxurious life in Qatar at The Pearl Qatar, where you can spend a relaxed evening. My dinner at The Pearl – Burj Al Hamam was drool-worthy Lebanese cuisine, with spectacular night skyline views of the Porto Arabia Marina.

St. Regis Doha

When in Qatar, you know you’re never far from the sea or the desert. In fact, The St. Regis Doha, my host hotel, right in the heart of the rising city, adjacent to the Pearl-Qatar, Katara Cultural Village and West Bay business district, has its private beach connected to the hotel. The beautiful beach is packed with breathtaking views. There are lots to explore within The St. Regis Doha itself, besides soaking in its timeless elegance, luxury, impeccable service and Qatari hospitality. I loved the local influences that are brought to life using design details like the Middle Eastern-inspired archways, an eye-catching La Ferrari bronze real scale replica by Ahmed Al Bahrani in the lobby, larger than life-size Oryx installation on the poolside and so much more. The Arabian Oryx is one of four species of antelope that thrives in the deserts and is the National Animal of Qatar. It is also the logo of Qatar Airways.

Caroline Astor Suite Bedroom at St Regis Doha

When you’re hungry, just head to any of the 12 award-winning dining outlets and lounges inside The St. Regis Doha, including two restaurants by the internationally acclaimed celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, The Gordon Ramsay Mediterranean and Opal by Gordon Ramsay. The hotel is also home to Doha’s finest New York steakhouse restaurant, Astor Grill, the breath-taking Raw Bar, the prestigious Lebanese seafood restaurant, Al Sultan Brahim and the famous international Chinese restaurant, Hakkasan. A hearty breakfast is laid out every morning at the all-day dining restaurant Oyster Bay and Vine restaurant. There’s plenty of lounge options too, including the afternoon tea destination, Sarab Lounge, Vintage Lounge, the popular night spot, The Rooftop and the region’s centre of blues and live music, The Club. Opal by Gordon Ramsay is easily one of the best restaurants in Doha and offers everything that defines the Gordon Ramsay experience with simple, fresh and delicious classics such as the Opal Wagyu burger, Sushi that’s oh-so-good and Maki to die for. Complementing the menu is a lively Sommelier’s selection, featuring the largest collection in Doha besides interesting cocktails. After a day filled with sight-seeing, you can unwind at The Rooftop or The Club, where globally renowned artists and DJs put on a stellar performance.

Brunch with a view at St. Regis Doha

There are many modern meeting spaces and lavish function rooms in addition to a variety of recreation facilities and activities, an Olympic-size swimming pool and the legendary 5-star Remède Spa. The hotel is undoubtedly an epitome of luxury with 336 elegant guest rooms with sea view, including a wide range of suites with Butler Service. My sea view plush room had its pillow menu and private butler service, fit for a queen.

Oryx the National Animal of Qatar

Qatar is also becoming popular as a wedding destination for many Indians with some of the most luxurious hotel properties in this side of the world. The St. Regis Doha with its wide range of impeccable event venues, including the Grand Ballroom, the largest 5-star ballroom in Qatar with natural daylight and a terrace overlooking the Arabian Gulf and huge open spaces is ideal for a dream wedding. With its rich cultural tapestry, new experiences and adventures, what’s not to like about this diverse country, that combines the best of Bedouin heritage with an ultra modern sleek style. My trip to Qatar was curated to perfection by Visit Qatar and I’m definitely coming back for more.

Qatar Airways

How to Reach: Qatar Airways has direct flights from Bengaluru (4 ½ hours), Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram to Doha. Indian Nationals do not require prior visa arrangements and can obtain a visa waiver upon arrival in Qatar without any visa fee.