Peeling Back the Layers of Doha

Walking along the Doha waterfront at dusk.

Walking along the Doha waterfront at dusk.

Doha, the capital and largest city in the peninsular country of Qatar, draws many comparisons to its larger, flashier Gulf neighbor Dubai. To a great extent, these comparisons are valid… Both cities burst forth in a boom of construction powered by natural resource wealth. Both cities draw on Southern Asia and the Philippines as major sources of labor, creating demographic situations where foreigners outnumber citizens. Both cities exist within emirates that push the bounds of modernism technologically and financially, while adamantly clinging to traditional political, religious, and cultural pillars. But Doha is different for a few reasons…

Buses line up to take construction workers back to their labor camps as the day ends.

Buses line up to take construction workers back to their labor camps as the day ends.

First, Doha is much smaller than Dubai (and its native population even tinier). The reality that “everybody knows each other here,” creates a more conservative environment. Locals must go out of their way to protect their reputation in an insular, hierarchical environment where financial power is highly centralized. The caution of locals extends to foreigners by way of purported cultural traditions. I walked out of my living accommodations wearing shorts (because it was 102 degrees outside) only to run back in, recalling that shorts are, if not strictly illegal, not respectable clothing. The same goes for tank tops. Dress codes for women can be even more conservative, depending on the nationality of the woman, the setting, the time of day, and the particular law enforcement official that sees the supposed infraction. While this smaller environment may generate a more protective atmosphere overall, it is combined with Doha’s eagerness to advance artistic and architectural sophistication in “non-objectionable” ways. Because Doha insists on listing all of the music acts, exhibiting all of the artwork, and attracting all of the same lecturers that go to Dubai, I have heard that Doha is to Dubai what D.C. is to New York… You get all the culture, but in a smaller, calmer, family-friendly setting that usually costs a bit less.

City Center Mall lies low amidst rising towers.

City Center Mall lies low amidst rising towers.

Doha also differs from Dubai demographically; while perhaps 80% of Dubai’s workforce is foreign, around 95% of Doha’s workforce hails from abroad, countries like India, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Egypt, Kenya, and the UK (I know… one of these is not like the other). And many of these foreign workers are helping to build the city. Doha had a slightly later start than Dubai, and residents will say the entire city is essentially a construction site. The air is heavy with a mix of desert sand and concrete dust (naturally exfoliating!) as skyscraper after skyscraper is erected in Doha’s posh West Bay, and World Cup stadia foundations are laid around the city. The condition of workers on these sites has been decried in the Guardian and other news sources; many make less than $250/month, live in cramped rooms with 5-11 other men, and work at least 12 hours a day, six days a week. A visit to Doha merits casual observation of these work sites (you will likely be able to see one from your hotel window). Somehow, these crews construct enormous and complicated towers, often using outdated technologies and non-verbal communication (because there are too many languages). And so the city emerges from the desert.

Reggae Night on the beach at the St. Regis--but no dancing in groups allowed!

Reggae Night on the beach at the St. Regis–but no dancing in groups allowed!

Places to not miss, should you find yourself in Doha before 2022 (when the World Cup kicks off here):
– the W Hotel: My favorite hotel ever thus far, even just to walk in. Note that lounges/bars essentially only exist in hotels here.
– Reggae Night at the St. Regis: Thursday and Friday nights, since the weekend is Friday/Saturday.
the Souk: It is a traditional market “built old,” meaning that it is not actually ancient, though it resembles old architecture.
– City Center Mall: Malls are a central gathering place here, and City Center reveals some of Doha’s incredible ethnic and economic diversity.

 

Author: Casey Weston

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