You might assume that Qatar is just a man-made wonder but that would be to dismiss it. The world’s richest country is more than just skyscrapers in the sand. We Brits, being from such a green and historically rich land, might not feel naturally drawn to the tiny, sandy and sometimes searingly hot country of Qatar, a peninsula in the Arabian Gulf.
We might find it hard to understand such a man-made landscape, with its mini-cities dedicated to culture, sport and education. An entire residential development has been created in the sea, including Venetian-themed homes complete with their own version of the Grand Canal.
But these are things to marvel at, too, and the rapid pace of development means the country is ever-changing.
Until relatively recently, Qatar’s capital, Doha, was little more than a fishing town. Then in the early 1970s it became an independent sovereign state (it was a British protectorate from 1916 to 1971) and even as recently as 1995 there were no high-rise buildings on the skyline. Now its natural gas and oil resources mean it is the richest country in the world by GDP.
The country is currently spending its money on huge development projects: not only will it host the 2022 FIFA World Cup (which has attracted its own controversies), it is also in the middle of building its themed cities, all with the intention of being ‘the best in the world’ — or certainly better than neighbouring Dubai, its larger cousin.
Both business and tourism are focused on the Corniche, a curving waterfront promenade lined with skyscrapers along Doha Bay. One of the best views of the skyline is from Al Mourjan restaurant, which serves great Lebanese food right on the water.
We spent our first night at the uber-cool W Doha. Arriving at the hotel after midnight the vibe was club-like, with young men and women in the lobby dressed up for a night out.
The rooms are huge and luxurious, but I was less keen on its tendency to brand everything: the hair salon is called CUT, the gym is named FIT and even the swimming pool is labelled WET. But the bed was feather soft and the enormous bathroom came with decent-sized Bliss Spa products.
We needed a good night’s sleep as our first excursion the next day was dune bashing in a four-wheel drive. To start with, it was terrifying: we slid sideways down sandy slopes and skidded across the flatter parts of the dunes, but after a while got used to it.
We stopped for a delicious fish barbecue lunch on the coast and jumped into a choppy sea to cool off, then asked the driver to take us back over the dunes without the bashing part.
I was glad we got to see Qatar’s natural sandy landscape, but the highlight for us was the museums, especially billionaire businessman Sheik Faisal’s extraordinary collection. Most of the country’s cultural experiences are beautifully curated and expertly displayed. The excellent and free Museum of Islamic Art is a highlight, but the Sheik Faisal Museum is outstanding.
It’s essentially a huge warehouse full of the things he has gathered since he was a teenager: an amazing mishmash of everything including beads, cooking pot, tenth–century Iraqi ceramics and beautiful rugs which take up every bit of spare floor space.
There are life-sized statues of camels and a collection of planes and vintage Chevrolets. There is even a 250-year-old Syrian home, which took nine months to transport and put back together piece by piece.
Not everything is labelled, and display cabinets block the view of paintings hung on the walls behind, but that is the beauty of the place, a complete contrast to the organised and clean spaces of the rest of the country.
Qatar has also encouraged public art, and is exhibiting Damien Hirst’s The Miraculous Journey, a series of 14 bronze sculptures showing embryos at various stages of development, outside the new Sidra hospital near Education City. You can’t miss them: they range from five to 11 metres tall, and weigh more than 200 tonnes all together.
Architect Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar is to open next year, a vast site sitting next to Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jassim Al Thani’s palace, and covering the history of the country from the desert and Bedouin culture right up to the discovery of oil.
Art also comes in the form of food: the world’s largest Nobu restaurant opened in its own building in the sea next to the Four Seasons hotel, three floors which curve around to a roof terrace with great views of Doha’s skyline.
We tried the lobster tacos, black cod yuzu miso, rock shrimp tempura and wagyu beef flambe, which were all delicious. The restaurant buzzes until late at night.
We laughed when we were offered a car to take us from the hotel to the restaurant, which is all of about a 100-metre walk, but this is Qatar, where it was touching 40 degrees in April, so any later in spring and you’d be glad of the lift.
The Four Seasons is as luxurious as you’d expect from the brand, with a grand lobby complete with a stunning flower and glass display, a lovely spa and private beach. My room overlooked the bay, with Juliet balcony doors that opened, a bonus when you don’t like the feeling of being cooped up in an ice-cold air-conditioned room.
If it’s bird’s eye views you want, revolving restaurant Three Sixty at The Torch hotel is 47 floors above Sports City, where the World Cup venues are being built, and shows the scale of some of the development going on in Doha.
You could happily spend 48 hours in Qatar on a stopover, or a day or two more for a long weekend, soaking up the sun. In December it gets an average of eight hours’ sunshine a day, and when I visited in April the temperature was approaching 40 degrees.
EXSUS has five nights in Qatar for £1,659 per person, based on two nights at the W Doha and three nights at the Fours Seasons Doha. The price includes airport transfers and return flights from London to Doha with Qatar Airways. Phone 020 7337 9010.
Qatar International Adventures offers a range of tours including desert safaris, Doha city tours and museum tours including the Museum of Islamic Art and the Sheikh Faisal Museum.
For more information on Qatar, visit Qatar Tourism