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Skyscrapers of Doha
The seven-hour flight aboard the Qatar Airlines Airbus went surprisingly quickly. Leaving behind the frost and cold of England, Angela and I arrived at Doha International, straight into the scorching heat of the desert. The temperature was easily hitting the middle thirties. Welcome to winter in the Middle East!
Clare Jackson, Angela’s old neighbour who now lived in Qatar as a teacher at an English-speaking school was there to meet us. “This city is changing very quickly,” she told us as we drove through central Doha. Outside, a forest of skyscrapers was being built, about ninety of them Clare told us. “People say it’s the new Dubai.” Looking at the skyline, I could easily see why.
Qatar (pronounced cutter by the locals) is a relatively new nation, only becoming independent from Britain in 1971. Comprising of a small thin peninsular jutting out into the Arabian Sea, its only land border is with Saudi Arabia to the South. And like much of the Middle East, the country has been blessed with oil. Since the 1940’s, Qatar’s economy has been transformed. And to fuel the massive construction going on around us, thousands of migrant workers have been brought in from overseas,
Doha Spiralling Mosque
mainly from Asia.
“It’s appalling the way they treat the workers,” said Clare, as we hit the main highway leading north from Doha. “They get paid a pittance and have no rights at all. It’s really quite sad.” But for the residents of Qatar, the benefits are rather good. For instance, there is no income tax. Moreover, fuel only costs 8p a litre. To prove it, Clare pulled into a local filling station. Next to us, a dilapidated bus pulled in at the pumps. Its passengers were all Indian or Nepalese men.
“Watch out for men staring at Angela,” Clare warned as we waited for the car to be filled up. “She’ll get lots of looks because she’s blond.”
I looked over at Angela, who was gesturing at the bus to my right. All eyes were staring at Angela. The were not being discreet either. Some were even pointing. And though I probably imagined it, one man was actually drooling. Angela looked embarrassed, and as we drove away Clare told us we’d eventually get used to the staring.
“How much was it to fill up the car?” I asked.
Clare smiled. “Twenty-three Riyals.
Just over three pounds.” I did some quick maths. It would’ve been close to £35 in the UK.
An hour later we arrived at Al Khor Housing Community, a gated community for Foreign workers like Clare. After a bit of dinner, we all retired for the night. It had been a long day.
The next morning, with Clare at work, Angela and I headed off to the community’s large outdoor swimming pool. We were the only people there, and after swimming in the warm, tranquil waters, we headed to the café was for a coffee and a cake, all at remarkably cheap compared to British standards.
“Where you from?” asked the waiter behind the counter. He was a young man in his twenties wearing a perpetual grin on his face. I told him we were from England and asked him where he was from.
“Nepal!” he beamed. “I go home in two days time. I so happy. I been here three years.”
After lunch, we arranged to meet Clare at her school. The Al Khor International School (British Stream) was located inside the community, and Clare wanted to show us around her place of work
The King Of The Desert!
for the last seven years.
“Sixteen kids to a class is the average here,” she told us. “And they’re so lovely. All want to listen and learn - not like back home. And if we want anything, there is always money to get it.”
For the afternoon (a school day in Qatar is 7am-1pm), the three of us headed into Doha City. We ended up in a souk, browsing the spice stores. Old men sat on sacks outside the shops, happily talking among themselves, or occasionally pushing wheelbarrows filled with bags of spices around the place. In another area of the souk, we all sat down for a coffee and a shisha pipe. This was a first for all three of us. A waiter brought out the contraption, laid it before us and lit the top. I volunteered to go first. After putting one end of the coiled pipe in my mouth, I sucked, hearing water bubbling in the main pot. After a few moments, I felt smoke in my mouth and exhaled, producing a rich smoke with a hint of apple. Then Angela and Clare had a go, but gave up after only the briefest of goes.
Al Khor Village - Like a postcard
As the afternoon turned into evening, we browsed the handicraft shops of the souk before heading back to the Al Khor Community.
The next day was a busy one. First up was a drive into the centre of Doha to meet the King of the Desert. The night before, Clare rang him to check some details.
“Hi, she said, “Can I ask who I am speaking too please?”
“Yes,” the man said in Arabic tones. “I am the King of the Desert.”
“Okay, but I feel a bit silly saying that. I’d prefer your real name please.”
“The King of the Desert is my name. That is how you should address me.”
Because she was working, Clare arranged for us to meet him in the Sheraton Hotel, Doha. Getting there meant I had to drive the hire car in a foreign city for the first time in my life. The fact the steering wheel was on the other side of the car, and everyone drove on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was only half the problem. The other was the knowledge that I knew. As a foreigner, in the event of an accident,
Coffee Pot Statue, along the Corniche of central Doha
I’d most likely be deemed responsible, no matter what the circumstances. Simply put, if I hadn’t have been in the country in the first place, then the crash couldn’t have ever happened. It was straightforward logic. And, God-forbid, if I had a crash where somebody died, then blood money would come into play. Under Qatari law, I’d have to pay money to the relatives of the deceased as a penance. Moreover, I’d then the wrath of the courts, not known for their leniency. All these things prayed on my mind as I traversed my way around a roundabout in what seemed the wrong way. I gripped the steering wheel and gritted my teeth.
As it happened, I would have nothing to worry about driving in Qatar. As soon as we hit the desert highway, I calmed down significantly. Outside, on both sides of the car, settlements soon gave way to desert, broken up every now and again by the odd piece of vegetation. But occasionally there were camels to look at.
After a phonecall rendezvous at the Sheraton Hotel, we went outside to see the King. His vehicle of choice, of course, was a White Toyota Landcruiser.
The Inland Sea
It gleamed in the scorching heat, but inside, the temperature was pleasantly cool. We eyed the King as we settled into the back. He wore no crown, instead opting for a traditional Ghutra, the red and white headdress many Arab men wear in Qatar. Without a word to (the King was speaking on his phone) we set off. Fifteen minutes later, at what seemed the very edge of the desert, the King pulled over into a hotel, picking up two more passengers. They were both young women from Scotland visiting a friend we later found out.
For the next two hours, the King of the Desert lived up to his name and took us across the rolling dunes of the Arabian Desert, sometimes careering down dunes at death-defying angles, or else stopping, allowing us to venture out onto the hot sand.. When we did this, the King would get his mobile out and jabber away to unknown persons.
Half way through the trip, he parked up near a large expanse of water. By common consensus, we presumed we were at the Inland Sea, a large expanse of water in the southern part of the country. Across the sea
we could see land, Saudi Arabia we supposed.
Later, we made another stop at a camel farm. An authentic looking Bedouin tent stood close to an enclosure containing many camels. Some men sat outside, watching us with interest.
“You want camel ride?” asked the King, in a rare moment of conversation. The girls sat behind us said no straightaway. Angela and I didn’t really fancy it either, but we did want to get out and see the camels up close.
The beasts seemed a friendly bunch, and while we wandered around their enclosure, the King and the Bedouin men sat talking, obviously enjoying each other’s company. Ten minutes later, we were off once more, with the trip being closed by a nighttime journey through the desert.
The next day, our last day with Clare, Angela and I headed off to Al Khor village, once the centre of Qatar’s pearl trade. It was only about twenty minutes away from Claire’s apartment.
A rather sleepy fishing village, Al Khor offered a fish market, a busy quayside, a mosque and a few shops. Parking the hire car, we wandered along some of the shops, noting the men lounging
A friendly camel
about outside many of them. All of them stared at Angela wherever she went. Seeing a blond woman was a rarity in Qatar, especially one baring her shoulders. After a short while, we grew too hot and headed back in the car for some much-needed air conditioning.
Next we headed to the Beach Club, a members-only resort on the Arabian coast. Getting there involved a twenty-minute drive through the desert. We had the road largely to ourselves, and all around us was the unmistakable landscape of the desert, bleak and desolate. “Let’s hope we don’t break down here,” Angela commented.
Eventually we reached the club, and after some hasty consultation with the security guard (we were not members) we were allowed entry. We were the only people there. It was almost like paradise. The only thing spoiling the effect was the gas works further down the coast. Nonetheless, we spent a few hours sunbathing and swimming in the exquisitely warm clear sea.
Later that afternoon, Clare dropped us off at the Sheraton Hotel so that we could spend our last night in the capital itself. After saying goodbye, Angela and I stepped into the hotel, becoming
Me smoking a shisha pipe!
enveloped in the sheer opulence of it all. President Bush, Princes Diana and Muhammad Ali have all stayed in the hotel. Built in 1982, we actually knew someone who had been involved in the building of the hotel. He was a friend of ours back in the UK. He was called Dave. “I remember when it first opened,” he told us when he found out we were going to Doha. He’d not been back for a quarter of a century. “The Emir was going to do the grand opening so they got loads of green spray-paint to make it look like there was loads of grass! It looked good on TV.”
Though expensive, the Sheraton did have a bar. It was a rather small, faintly seedy room, and Angela and I only stayed there for one drink before going for a meal in one of the hotels’ many restaurants. Our fellow diners were made up mainly of mainly far eastern businessmen, all wearing shirts and ties. After our meal, we sat out in a section of the restaurant overlooking the gulf. It was all very lovely.
Then we caught a taxi to the Villagio Shopping Mall, the
Private Beach Club - we managed to infiltrate it though!
newest shopping mall in Qatar. To Angela’s delight, it was filled with all the usual western brands and many more besides. To make it even more interesting, one section had been constructed under a Venetian theme. It even had a canal complete with Gondolas to hire.
The next morning, our last day in Qatar, we decided to go for a walk along the Corniche, a road running along the coast. The hellishly hot temperatures meant we didn’t do a lot of walking. But one thing we did notice though was the quietness of the traffic. Even though there were lots of vehicle, there was no beeping of horns. This was in direct contrast to Dubai which we would be visiting later. After twenty minutes or so, we headed back at the hotel, soon savouring the cooling air conditioning. And then it was time to head to the airport for our quick one hour flight to Dubai, the next stage of our Middle Eastern adventure.
• Cheap fuel
• Cheap food
• Cheap taxis
• Beautiful beaches
• Desert scenery
• Lack of tourists
• Expensive alcohol - if you can find it all
Inside a souk, Doha
Lots of construction going on - some parts of central Doha seem like a gigantic building site.
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