Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2007, page 72

Travel Tips

Doha: Pearl in Motion

By Michael Keating

Souqs, malls and construction surround the Islamic Center, built to resemble a ziggurat, in downtown Doha (Photo Michael Keating).

DOHA IS LIKE New York. Qataris refer to its rising skyline as “little Manhattan.” Indeed, one is reminded in many ways of the New York of the early 20th century, when startling skyscrapers were flung up, money was easy and plentiful, and America was an emerging world power.

Doha is like San Francisco. Like gold in the American West, oil and natural gas in the Middle East built a major city. Entrepreneurs crowd the hotel lobbies; the sweet smell of money wafts through the air, attracting businessmen, dreamers and grifters from all over the world. Both cities grew from sleepy little ports on the edge of the world into world centers of business and commerce.

Doha is like Phoenix. Gleaming tall buildings mount from the desert floor. Cranes swirl in slow motion, moving girders into place. Out in the suburbs, the new roads are clogged with SUVs and BMWs and bordered by McDonalds, Hardees and KFC—but in Doha the well-known names are repeated from right to left in Arabic.

“I guess the traffic will be even worse next year,” I note sympathetically to my cab driver.

“Next year!” he exclaims in exasperation. “Tomorrow!”

Doha is like Bombay, and to walk downtown amid the souqs (markets) and the Islamic Center is to be in south Asia. The streets are crowded with Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Men spill out of closet-sized tea shops, and wait in long lines at the Western Union to wire their wages home. Nearly 600,000 foreign workers vie for Doha’s construction and service jobs.

But despite all these influences, confluences and historical precedents, Doha is above all an intensely Arabic and Islamic city. The city seems to revolve around the parabolas of the Islamic Center’sziggurat. Spreading out before it are the many souqs: Souq al Ahmad, Souq Faleh, Souq Nasser bin Saif, and Souq al Asiery all offer a huge variety of shops selling both ready-made and custom-tailored clothing, electrical appliances, stereos and appliances, toys, and household goods.

At Souq al Deira, beautiful but expensive fabrics—some beaded, some embroidered, some exquisite—are on display. But those with expensive tastes may be tempted as well by the nearby Gold Souq. Although the shops are inauspicious and tiny, inside each is a glittering collection of gold brooches, bangles, necklaces and pearl jewelry.

People-watchers drift to the Gold Souq to watch the veiled Qatari women examine and admire the gold filigree or purchase traditional bridal jewelry. It’s a good place, too, to watch American servicemen and women, who are also attracted by the dazzling craftsmanship and modest prices.

Souq Waqif is Doha’s oldest souq, but it’s being extensively restored to preserve its traditional culture. Much of the unsightly clutter of recent years has been discarded and replaced by more traditional structures and facades. Neon and tacky plastic are gone. Instead, Souq Waqif recreates Doha’s traditional market.

Should one weary of the souqs, however, there are a variety of modern shopping centers. City Center Doha may be the largest, its five floors crammed with shops and food courts which all converge on the ice skating rink. Because this is Doha, where extravagance is welcome, why not take a break from shopping in the desert to watch the local ice hockey teams practice?

Despite living in a rapidly evolving and quickly changing culture (witness the skyline), Qataris dress in handsome traditional dress—the men in white, the women draped elegantly in black.

In the evenings, when the ferocity of the sun has abated, Qataris take to the Corniche, the broad walkway which hugs the bay. Children frolic, sound systems are tested for the evening’s concerts, friends talk quietly, men and women jog. The water changes colors during the day and glitters with city lights at night. Near the fishing harbor, clogged with wooden boats, is the massive sculpture of the pearl oyster, a monument to one of Qatar’s most storied and dangerous professions.

It’s a profession that conjures another time, a simple time when Qataris looked seaward to make a living: diving for pearls or drawing up nets of fish. The pearl business was destroyed by the far-away invention by the Japanese of cultured pearls, and modern Qatar was reborn with the discovery of oil and natural gas.

Michael Keating is a free-lance photographer and managing editor of the VVA Veteran. His Web site is <www.mkeating.com>.