Qatar capital Doha makes leap from sand dunes to skyscrapers


doha-museumAsk your average American where Doha is, and you'll likely get a blank stare. But the booming capital of Qatar, a wealthy, stable Arab emirate in the Persian Gulf, increasingly merits a place on Americans' global travel itineraries.

The emirate's gas- and oil-fueled prosperity is reflected in a wealth of world-class tourism, architectural and cultural attractions springing up in Doha, which has grown in population to nearly 1 million, up from just 340,000 as recently as 2004.

On the horizon where sand dunes once dominated now stand futuristic skyscrapers, many housing luxury hotel outlets from the likes of Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Starwood and Movenpick. Man-made island Pearl-Qatar, rising on 985 acres off the coast, is being promoted as "the Arabian Riviera" and is similarly endowed with luxury residences and businesses.

The new structure of most interest to visitors, however, may be the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei around classical Islamic themes, the 376,737-square-foot museum sits in splendid isolation in Doha Bay, on yet another man-made island located just off the city's Al-Corniche promenade.

Even Doha's largest, most historical souk, or market, is actually new. The Souk Waqif, or Main Souk, dates back hundreds of years but was torn down and rebuilt with modern amenities on the orders of Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Souk Waqif, packed with souvenirs such as waterpipes, dates and headscarves, sits next to the Al Koot Fort, alongside seven other souks specializing in gold, falcons, secondhand goods and more.

Camels and flying carpets

Before Qatar's boom first started gathering steam, with the current, forward-looking emir's seizure of power from his traditionalist father in 1995, large swathes of Doha were still desert. Visitors can explore the stark, serene sand dunes still found south of the city on desert safaris, daytime or overnight, with local operators such as Gulf Adventures. Speeding up and down mountains of sand to the Inland Sea by four-wheel-drive vehicle, complete with a stop for a camel ride, is not to be missed.

Flying carpets are harder to come by, but Qatar Airways does its best impression. Much as Qatar has sprung out of nowhere to become one of the world's wealthiest nations, the airline, relaunched in 1997, has rapidly grown into a "five-star" carrier serving 84 international destinations, including nonstops to Houston, Washington and New York.

Qatar Airways offers extensive connections within the Gulf and to India and Southeast Asia. Business-class passengers enjoy access to the carrier's $90 million Premium Terminal in Doha. Starting in 2011, operations begin moving to the $9 billion New Doha Airport.

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