“Doha Welcomes You”. That was the first sentence that marked my arrival in Qatar’s capital last Thursday. Painted on a tower at the airport, it appears Doha is expecting quite an influx of visitors. Whether it be expat workers settling for a couple of years, or sports buffs with tickets to the upcoming Asian Games, the emphasis is on providing a warm reception.
‘Warm’ being the operative word. As I stepped off the plane, I was slapped in the face by the heat. Being used to chilly Wales, this was a test. I staggered to the airport bus, my shirt already clammy with sweat, muttering.
Immigration was pretty simple. A short wait in a holding office was followed by a lift back to my temporary residence, the Retaj. It’s pleasant – new furniture, a clean kitchen. But crucially for me, it has internet access – useful for my dissertation, which I still have to write after returning from Beirut.
The following day, I braved the fearful midday heat and went to the City Centre mall. On the way, I got an impression of what Doha looks like by day. It is, to be polite, a building site. Piles of rubble are everywhere, and half–finished skyscrapers stand apologetically next to shiny new apartment blocks and office towers.
One of the oddest things here is the colour of the sky. Sometimes blue, it is more often a gold-grey colour. Everything looks bleached. Along with the dust and heat, it makes Doha a difficult place to acclimatise to.
Arriving at the City Centre mall, I ran up the steps, eager to get back into the air-conditioning. I was initially overwhelmed by the mall's size. Starbucks? Check – it’s the first shop you pass, just after the steps. Giant Carrefour hypermarket? Check. Over 20 jewellers, offering more bling than P Diddy’s dressing room? Check. Every fast food restaurant you can name? Just head up to the third floor – McDonald’s is next to the Syrian Chef.
Bookshops? Er, no. This was a major disappointment. On the face of it, Doha has set itself up as the Singapore of the Middle East, where gold trinkets and plasma-screen TVs are in abundance, yet finding a bookstore was impossible. I looked in my Qatar guide (definitely a shrewd buy before I left the UK). "Ah – there’s one in City Centre after all," I murmured to myself. Except – no there isn’t. It’s not even on the centre map. Amazon it is, then.
Taxis are plentiful, though not always in ways you’d expect. Laden with groceries and crockery, I stepped outside the mall and was flagged down by a man who asked: “Taxi, 25 riyals?”
I thought I would get shown down the steps to a liveried taxi. Instead I was directed back into the sheltered car park. He was not a taxi driver, just a guy looking to supplement his earnings. I asked to go back to the Retaj, and gave him directions.
Yes, directions. Doha has grown so fast that even the official taxi drivers don’t know their way around the place. Those who are due to visit in December should carry a map. After four or five taxi rides, I have yet to find a driver who knows where my residence is. It’s only when I say “Sports Roundabout?” that I get a nod. The Sports is one of Doha’s many roundabouts, close to the athletes' village for the upcoming games.
First impressions are that Doha doesn’t have the soul of Beirut, the place I fell in love with just six weeks ago. Shops abound, but there is little of the charming café culture, friendliness and inquisitiveness and spirit that I witnessed in the Lebanese capital. Expats and visitors will find every need catered to, but it’s been made almost too easy for them. The result is that Western influence has taken over at the expense of a tangible Qatari identity. I hope I will see at least some instances of that identity over the next two years.
Photos soon, by the way...