Saturday, September 30, 2017

Qatar: It's Getting Hot in Here

Doha, Qatar is hot. Really hot, even in September. Prepare to use Uber and Careem apps a lot. Careem is better--use the Go option if you want a cheaper fare but an older car, and Go+ if you want to pay a little more and get a newer car model. Regular taxis have a 10 Qatari Rial minimum. 
Despite the heat, or perhaps because of it, Doha has had to be creative to attract visitors and workers. Its Museum of Islamic Art is incredible. I've never seen so many different and unique items in one place. Guns, pottery, bowls, rugs--you name it, it's here. 

Even the building itself is a work of art, and the view on Friday evening is nice. Not as nice as Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, but a pleasing replica nonetheless. 
Dhows on the water

Before you visit Doha, remember it's a Muslim country, so hours will vary on Fridays, the start of the weekend. Thursday afternoons are the worst for traffic--most government employees seem to get off work around 2:30pm, and they all want to head back to their homes at the same time.

Regarding the airport experience, Doha is average in terms of service but its security is hi-tech and requires eye scans to enter. It recently waived visas for most developed countries and is now "the most open country in the [Middle Eastern] region," according to the UNWTO's Secretary General. If you fly Qatar Airways, you are eligible for a complimentary city bus tour, but it's first come, first served, and you must go to a specific counter before passing immigration. 

When booking a hotel, try to stay near or in the Souq Waqif, a faux Middle Eastern bazaar. You'll be near most attractions and a lively nighttime experience. I stayed at the Saraya Corniche hotel after seeing a good deal on Agoda, and I liked it. 

Doha's mosques are understated, so you can skip those. In case you want to visit one, the largest mosque is the State Mosque aka Imam Abdul Wahhab Mosque. 

Nearby the Souq Waqif is the Al Shouyoukh Mosque, a small mosque.

Another building near the Souq Waqif is the Sheikh Abdulla Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Center aka Abdullah Bin Zid Almahmud Cultural and Islamic Center (IG: @binzaidqatar). Its displayed literature is too heavy-handed on religion, but it has a mosque (understated, of course) upstairs and a few unique items. I'll post two of them below, both sermons. (Click to enlarge.) 
Other than the MIA (Museum of Islamic Art), the other must-see is Msheireb Museums. It's a collection of four separate houses, with the most interesting one, Bin Jelmood, showcasing a fascinating slavery exhibit. 
Each time a mosque leader calls his community together
for prayer, he follows in the footsteps of a freed black slave.

If you come to Doha, you should see the MIA, preferably at night, and the Bin Jelmood Museum. The third must-see is Katara Cultural Village. 
Nothing in here now but birds and bird poop.
I checked. My nose hates me.

Katara Village demonstrates the Qatari leadership's vision. Unlike Dubai, which seems to believe architecture is an extended pissing contest, Qatar has not built its sites primarily as tourist destinations. (Remember its understated mosques?) Ideally, if a place attracts local residents and has interesting exhibitions as well as cafes and restaurants, it will become a tourist destination by default. As such, Katara Village includes a music academy, an arts center, a film institute, and even an engineering society. (By the way, if governments built unique places for their most creative residents, they might actually attract the avant-garde, not just prep school wannabes.) Perhaps Katara Village should be judged on whether its 2020 graduates can compete with Julliard and the Royal College of Art, but as a tourist, you will want to visit in the evening, when the restaurants are open and the weather suitable for outdoor seating and a stroll. 

I managed to inveigle my way into the National Library of Qatar, part of the Qatar Foundation's complex. Not to be confused with the forgettable and prosaic Dar Al-Kutub Al-Qatariyya, once the National Library opens to the general public, it will be worth a visit.
National Library of Qatar

A place you ought to skip, at least for a few years, until it is completed and better organized, is the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum. I could only handle being there for ten minutes, and I felt like washing my eyes out afterwards. If the MIA is an example of world-class design and organization, the current state of the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum--basically a house that looks like it threw up its eccentric millionaire's belongings--is an example of how not to run a museum. I won't bore you with details, but the security guard takes the key after you deposit your bag in the designated locker, increasing the risk of theft and confusion the locker was installed to prevent, and the museum charges 15 rial to enter but a whopping 50 rial if you want to take pictures. (I foresee the guards following tourists around if the museum maintains its idiotic additional charge policy.)

I didn't personally see any of the following locations, but I'll list them in case you want to do more research. Qatar's unofficial mascot is the falcon, and its Falcon Souq is probably worth a visit--I didn't go, but I can't imagine Qatar would screw up an important part of its claimed heritage. 
NOT at the Falcon Souq. At a conference.
The bird was eyeing me the entire time,
even blindfolded. Freaky.

The only major cities in Qatar are Doha and Al Rayyan, about 30 minutes from each other by car. The government is trying to promote sites outside of these two places, but I can't find reliable information about them. Al Khor is allegedly a coastal village known for fishing. Al Shamal and Al Zubara--apparently located in Madinat ash Shamal, though I'm not certain--are supposed to have a few interesting forts and archeological sites. In development: Al Wakrah Park, part of Luna Park, and the National Museum of Qatar. 
Construction is everywhere in Qatar.

Qatar's best tasting food are its desserts and sweet drinks. I especially enjoyed the Um Ali dessert and the sahlab drink (cinnamon and cardamom with hot milk). Saffron-based desserts are everywhere and usually delicious.

Given the widespread construction and renovation happening now, I wouldn't visit Qatar until after December 2017, unless you are already going to Oman or the UAE. You'd need about 5 nights to see everything properly, and the MIA alone will take 5 or more hours. (If you just want to see the museums and Souq Waqif, two nights is sufficient, and traveling now won't be an issue.)

Additionally, Doha's heat--much hotter than Abu Dhabi and Oman, which are near large bodies of water--requires more innovation. If I were in charge, I'd use drones to drop thin ice packets from the sky every 30 minutes and install more portable air conditioning units. I'm surprised Qatar isn't collaborating more actively with Singapore to improve its adaptability to heat. Singapore had a similar problem regarding the weather, leading its founder to remark, "
Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics."

In Doha, it's difficult to walk outside or even be outside between 1pm and 5pm, even in September. Use Careem or Uber and check opening and closing times so you can maximize your time sightseeing. To truly be open to outsiders, the time has come for tropical and desert countries to move beyond air conditioning and try more innovative ways to encourage outdoor activity. 
For now, Doha's museums are world-class. It remains to be seen whether Qatar can take the lead in other areas. Its corporate CEOs, including from Qatar Airways, recognize the next four years are a wonderful opportunity to take market share from overpriced and overhyped American and European destinations. Qatar certainly has the vision. The next three years will answer whether it also has the ability to execute its ambitious plans. 

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