We met at the appointed morning hour in a parking lot lined by freshly imported palm trees, blearily aware of the beckoning il bar, the desert that lay before us, under the screams of fighter planes. Our guides, three local men in the customary ghutrah head-dress and full-length white thobe, greeted us with solemn nods before entering earnest consultation among themselves. It was an appropriate signal to the start of our Arabian adventure.
There were 12 of us, armed with bottled water, sunscreen and an eager anticipation of the desert safari. This was not an excerpt from some Middle Eastern drama, nor were we a ragtag group of United Nations workers or diplomats in search of fabled weapons of mass destruction. And the only military units we'd encounter would be on holiday themselves, seeking rest and relaxation along the fingers of sandy beach reaching inland through the desert.
If our guides exuded an air of exotic intrigue in their crisp linen robes, they also wore Rolex watches and took drags from American cigarettes behind designer, duty-free sunglasses. On this safari, nary a flea-bitten camel awaited us but a cushy caravan of three newest-model, Japanese-made four-wheel drives, complete with a choice of Britney Spears or canned Middle-Eastern pop for our listening pleasure. This is Qatar, a peninsula kingdom adjoining Saudi Arabia; a knuckle of land jutting into the west of the Arabian Gulf, and among the richest per capita nations in the world.
We traversed from Doha, Qatar's seaside capital, mid-way up the east coast, to the Inland Sea just shy of the Saudi border. The sheer scale of sand mountains drew gasps that grew into squeals with the momentum of the free-wheeling roller-coaster ride, our vehicles travelling at extreme angles over shifting dunes. The tri-coloured sand of ochre, beige and ivory gave the mounds an optical illusion of movement, as if they were tumbling into the sapphire sea. We would have been lost in the romance of sea and desert were it not for the occasional herds of daredevil men racing cruisers and sand buggies in and out of mini-caravans like ours.
Before the drop-off at an isolated site two hours later, I glimpsed the smoky trails of a barbecue set up in a valley, next to a traditional tent fitted with oversized, tapestry-covered cushions, a makeshift recreation room surrounded by barrenness. Play things, too, were set aside for us: a snowboard and set of skis with which to ride the dunes. Lunch comprised lemon-steeped tabbouleh, creamy babaganoush and hummus, stacks of lamb kebabs and endless sheets of baked pita, topped by fruit and milky tea. The scent of salt-soaked sand hung heavily in the winter warmth (25 degrees Celsius in the afternoon sun). In January, the weather is still pleasant, returning to an inescapable sauna heat by the end of May.
There are no package tours to Doha. Nor will you find amusement parks there, although with its pristine wedding-cake homes, faux-Ottoman architecture and mega-malls with indoor ice rinks, one might be tempted to see it as the Middle East brought to you by Disney. But in this age of war and terrorist warnings, few conventional travellers except engineers, geologists and their families would venture to this pocket of Muslim anomaly.
Mention Qatar (pronounced 'cutter') and newsreels flash to mind of spired oilfields and Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's CNN, which is headquartered there, along with the only United States airbase in the area, from which the frequent jet planes hail. But on arrival in Doha, more whimsical incongruities are visible: shopping malls and office towers vie with the minarets of mosques, while women drive around in Bobbi Brown make-up and Christian Dior beneath abayas and headscarves. This is a place at once modestly Muslim and recklessly consumerist. It is a self-conscious aspirant to modern statehood, where pristine development unravels in fits and starts, interspersed by tracks of flat
dirt fields and a mess of souks selling everything from gold to spice.
Ruled by the Sunni sect, among the most literal adherents to Muslim law, it is also a kingdom led by a reform-minded emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, devoted to building universities, a responsible media (Al-Jazeera is government-owned) and empowering women through education. The emir deposed his own father, who had impoverished the state by skimming off oil revenues, in a bloodless coup. Having harnessed the world's third-largest oil and natural gas reserves in the 1980s, Qatar residents enjoy one of the highest annual per capita incomes anywhere, of more than US$20,000.
It may be a giant of wealth and social conscience in the area, but the tiny state is dwarfed geographically by its neighbours and in population by imported labour. In a twist of multiculturalism, only a third of the 600,000 habitants are Qatari; the rest are economic migrants. Qatar was settled
by nomadic Arab tribes, engineered by expatriate Britons, Canadians and Americans, administered by Southeast Asians and built and cleaned by workers from poor Muslim countries.
Doha's sprawl of merry-go-round traffic whips through a linear succession of roundabouts, and intersections are curiously named by the locals' approximation of the abstract statues featured at each, such as the 'Parachute' or 'TV'. The seaside boulevards climax at a startlingly pretty, seven-kilometre stretch called Al Corniche, where robed women in sneakers can be seen jogging or walking.
Foreign women do not have to cover up and the degree to which local women do varies according to family mores and personal choice. It is said some Qatari women, who have access to education, don abayas to escape prying eyes. In the tiny city, where most carry mobile phones and gossip spreads faster by word of mouth than by any media outlet, blending in represents freedom.
In 2006, the seaside kingdom will fall under international scrutiny as Al-Jazeera celebrates five years of broadcasting - that is, if it survives a bullying public-relations war with the world's most powerful nation - and Doha hosts the Pan-Asian Games. A well-known Muslim proverb goes: 'Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.' In Qatar, that faith is helped along with lucre and progressive ideals in a region known for the former but not the latter. Peace be upon it.
Getting there: Qatar Tours, tel: 974 436 2703; e-mail: email@example.com. Arabian Adventures, tel 974 436 1461; firstname.lastname@example.org. For hotel information, visit www.southtravels.com/middleeast/qatar/citytours or contact
the following: the Ritz-Carlton, Doha, tel: 974 484 8000; email@example.com. InterContinental Doha, tel: 974 484 4444; firstname.lastname@example.org. Movenpick Hotel, tel: 974 429 1111; email@example.com. Sheraton Doha, tel: 974 485 4444; firstname.lastname@example.org. Doha Marriott Gulf, tel: 974 429 8888; email@example.com. Rydges Plaza, tel: 974 438 5444; firstname.lastname@example.org. Sofitel Doha, tel: 974 446 2222; email@example.com. Oasis, tel: 974 442 4424; firstname.lastname@example.org. SeaLine Beach Resort, tel: 974 477 2722; email@example.com. Ramada Hotel, tel: 974 441 7417; firstname.lastname@example.org.