With a flurry of new luxury hotel openings, Qatar has designs on being the next Dubai...
31 January 2019| Last updated on 31 January 2019
All credits: PA
Does Doha have the same allure? Ryan Hooper finds out...
Reclining on the sun-drenched terrace of the Al Shurfa restaurant – a light selection of Middle Eastern meze to one side, a small cup of piping hot Arabic coffee known as qahwa to the other – it’s almost impossible not to gaze at the stunning skyline across the water of Doha’s West Bay and smile smugly.
Beyond the impressive Museum of Islamic Art in the foreground – a tribute to modern geometrical design and free to enter, Doha’s financial district stands tall and proud. In answer to our own capital’s ‘Gherkin’ and ‘Cheesegrater’, there is an ‘Ice Cream Cone’ and, ahem, well, let’s just say the rounded and tapered outline of one particular tower causes locals to whisper its bawdy moniker under their breaths.
The vista from where we are sat on Doha’s Corniche promenade screams out to be plastered all over social media, long before the sandstorm that approaches us – a rare occurrence, apparently – gives everything a sepia hue.
A city with big ambitions
Al Shurfa belongs to one of nine boutique Tivoli-branded hotels clustered together around the Qatari capital’s bustling souqs, where locals gather to chat in tourist-friendly majlis lounges, drink coffee and haggle for goods.
The oldest property, Bismillah, was built in the early 1950s and is still going strong, but Tivoli has more ambitious future plans.
Ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there’s a flurry of development in the small but wealthy Arab country, which juts out like a thumb from Saudi Arabia and is washed by the Arabian Gulf. Developers are constantly working to create around 40,000 new rooms in the region, in time to welcome guests.
Opened in August last year, Tivoli’s Al Najada Doha is one example. Located within a new development in the heart of central Souq Al Najada, the five-star property blends Arabic flair with European elegance. All 151 indulgent guest rooms and suites have been exquisitely designed, with upper floors offering spectacular views of the Doha skyline, including the Corniche and the West Bay.
The other, which also opened at the same time, is Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar – based just to the south of Doha, and next to a 3km-long public beach. Converted from dozens of homes belonging to pearl fishermen dating back half a century, it features five restaurants and lounges, and its location promises relaxation.
Is Doha the new Dubai?
Many of Doha’s new properties have beachside views and luxurious facilities, but there are some sticking points which could deter European tourists. Rules stipulate people must dress conservatively, swimming in the sea is discouraged and many of the hotels are dry, offering mocktails rather than beers, wines and spirits.
So how are hotels appealing to westerners?
“We are finding that people are coming here for wellness, and it is easy to do here when it’s dry,” says Mohammed Zameer, assistant director of sales at Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar.
“But obviously it’s not for everyone. The first criteria is having a set of guests who are interested in the culture or the heritage. We are not far from the places where you can get alcohol – seven minutes by car, in fact.
“Second, the people who really want isolation and peace, not the hustle and bustle of the city.”
But while Qatar’s Islamic values are not as strict as Middle Eastern neighbours Saudi Arabia – nor as famously liberal as the likes of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – there is evidence the championships are unlikely to see the sort of disorder seen in other host countries.
The alcohol prices – as much as £125 for a 1ltr bottle or whisky, and £3.80 for a can of beer following the introduction of the ‘sin tax’ in January – are likely to deter many, while strict rules on where patrons can and cannot drink will also limit the prevalence of booze.
A stop-over success story
Another draw for visitors is the ease of incorporating the destination as a short stopover on longer journeys to Southeast Asia and Australia.
A 20-minute ride from the airport, Tivoli’s Al Najada Doha is conveniently close to many of the bustling souks, where punters can haggle for spices and scarves for just a few pounds, or pedigree falcons at the other end of the scale. The hotel’s calming ambience is a welcome contrast to its energetic surroundings, and a place to really wind down.
“What I think is important about the properties under the Tivoli brand is the cultural link to Doha and to Qatar,” says Al Najada Doha general manager Nicholas Chalmers, originally from Bath, who moved to Qatar with his young family to open the hotel.
“It’s very prevalent in everything you see in the hotels – it comes through in the architecture, touches within the room, staff, cuisine.”
What else is there to do?
While metro stations are being built to link Qatar’s emerging sports stadiums, the relative lack of public transport currently available in Doha means visitors might wish to spend much of their time wandering along the historic Corniche waterfront or weaving throughout the souqs.
Those wishing to explore a little further afield, though, may wish to venture to the Torba outdoor market (farmersmarket.qa) – where traders sell health juices, flowers, food and even doggie treats under plush canopies, scored by a soundtrack of mostly English-language music, such as David Bowie and The Rolling Stones.
And no trip to the Middle East is complete without a desert safari (falcontoursqatar.com) where for around £35 per person for a half-day session, visitors can enjoy the incomparable feeling of drifting backwards down a near-vertical sand dune, before coming to rest at another magnificent photo spot.