Pearl of Arabia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am

The US started it. Then, not so long ago, it was East Asia - Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore - that dazzled the world with futuristic cityscapes. Now all the buzz seems to be coming from the Arabian Gulf, particularly Dubai. But another Gulf state, Qatar, is suddenly waking up and making waves, too.

Seventy years ago, Qatar was a place of poor fishermen and pearl divers. A mere thumb of land sticking out from the vastness of Arabia into the shallow waters of the Gulf, Qatar was an unadorned traditional emirate. The pearl beds of Al-Zubara at the thumb tip were its main source of income, the pearls exported to hang around wealthy necks in Cairo, Paris and New York.

And then came disaster. Japan invented cultured pearls and flooded the world market, devastating the demand for natural pearls. The divers of Qatar were down - and out.

Little did they know that it wasn't going to matter.

Soon after, oil was discovered in enormous quantities and from the 1950s onwards, Qatar had completely new horizons - the infinite possibilities that gush forth with petroleum wealth.

Today, in the capital city of Doha, an old fishing village conquered by concrete and turbocharged by petrodollars, you are in a world of grand boulevards, towering ministries, gleaming monuments and splendid hotels. In copiously stocked shopping malls Japan has been forgiven as affluent citizens snap up Sony home theatres, Panasonic air-conditioners, Sharp refrigerators and Hitachi DVD players.

The vast City Centre Mall is the largest in the Middle East, overflowing with imported goods, perused and purchased by men in all-white robes and head-dresses, plus some women in head-to-toe gowns, called abbayas, the outfits updated with designer sunglasses and shoes. Gliding around on travelators and escalators, the Qataris are served not by their own kind but by expatriate workers from Egypt, India and the Philippines.

A nation of shoppers, not shopkeepers, Qataris are now firmly fixed in a technological, consumerist world of which their fishing and diving great-grandfathers had no inkling, and their ancient desert-nomad forebears would have seen as an unbelievable Aladdin's Cave.

In their eyes, Doha's Aladdin's Kingdom, a mega amusement park, would be just one wonder among

1,001 amazements.

No matter how far or how high Doha reaches, however, the desert still serves as most of Qatar's landscape. Its classic dunes have escarpment ridges, where, in romantic moments, you see one side glowing golden in the setting sun as the far side dims to a deep purple. You don't

find any camel caravans, but Land Cruiser caravans instead. With the bedouins now ensconced in villas and apartments, the desert sands have morphed from harsh wilderness to tourist attraction, a dune buggy and four-wheel-drive playground.

Doha, the Big Date in this almost barren land, hosts most of Qatar's 860,000-odd people, of whom

only a third are citizens, the rest being guest workers from non-oil-blessed countries in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia. That means colourful souqs and bazaars full of the aromas of Indian curry and Asian stir-fries as well as the whiff of roasting lamb shawarma, which the Qataris favour. Souq Waqif is a jumble of covered alleys where shops sell everything from frying pans to frankincense. In the gold souq, just off Al Ahmed Street, a mass of tiny jewellery shops is crammed with the glitter of gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

Doha is the honeypot of an otherwise sparsely inhabited 11,437 square kilometres of sand and salt flats, a garden city curling round a bay on the east coast. You sample the best vista by walking the Corniche, a 7km tree-shaded promenade that curves elegantly around the shore. Your eye is irresistibly drawn along its great crescent sweep of palm trees to an extraordinary concrete pyramid at the far headland: a luxury hotel.

Occasionally, your gaze is distracted by bizarre monuments. An enormous oyster gapes wide open, revealing a huge glowing pearl sitting in a shell full of water constantly brimming over. This is the Pearl Fountain, an affectionate tip of the hat to the pearl-diving past. At another point, a huge sculptural representation of an Arab coffee pot rises in white concrete, symbolising Arab hospitality.

On the Corniche is a harbour in which dhows, traditional Arabian sailing boats, are moored. Daytime dhow cruises go out to Palm Tree Island, a fun-day fabrication favoured by Qatari families for its beaches and amusements. Taking an evening cruise in an atmospheric old dhow, you sail into the bay and look back on a fairyland of multicoloured illuminated tower blocks lining the shore. Imagine Sinbad the Sailor coming upon this after a centuries-long voyage. What genie has been at work?

The oil genie, Sinbad, whose gigantic lamps burn fiercely day and night. Sail along the western coast where the onshore oilfields lie, or around the offshore rigs extracting most of Qatar's oil, and there he is, pumping about a million barrels a day.

Oil installations carry a fascination that your usual factory can't match, because they stand exposed with their glistening webs of pipes, gantries, towers and tanks. You feel you can see what's going on, especially in the stark desert light. You can also meditate that without this stuff, for better or worse, our civilisation wouldn't exist.

Back in buzzing Doha, despite a fever of construction and consumption, contemplation is also on the menu. The city is carving itself a niche as the place where people think in the Gulf. Here you find the independent Arabic television station Al-Jazeera, the feisty Doha Debates aired on BBC World television and Education City, with branch campuses of US universities.

Turning from the cerebral to the animal, our four-legged friends provide plenty of interest. The beautiful oryx antelope, the origin of the legend of the unicorn, is indigenous to Qatar and the national symbol. Rescued from near extinction by captive breeding, the elegant oryx can be seen in numbers at the Shahaniya Oryx Farm. The Al Shaqab Stud Farm, meanwhile, provides an opportunity to enjoy pure-bred Arab show-and racehorses close up. Superb racehorses can also be viewed at the stables of the Qatar Race and Equestrian Club and the Rayyan Racing and Equestrian Club, which hosts races and show-jumping events.

But for sheer fun, the camel races win. At the Shahaniya race track, outside Doha, these haughty beasts lumber into action - if they feel like it. They can be reluctant to start a race and even more reluctant to finish, so they are frequently chased off by trainers as the starting gate goes up. The young jockeys, meanwhile, have to contend with animals that stop, turn round or wander off before the finish. Forgoing the grandstand, Qataris love to drive alongside the track urging on the camels, in the company of trainers shouting instructions to the jockeys through megaphones.

All being well, the camels notch average speeds of 35km/h over distances of 5km to 10km. Today, in a bizarre example of Qatar's progressive attitudes, robot riders are being tested. Sheik Abdullah bin Saud, the official in charge of the project, says the goal is to 'improve the speed, the weight, the aerodynamics, to reach the ultimate goal of completely phasing out children used as jockeys'.

Qatar has resolutely optimistic eyes and in one particular project the pearl is making a dramatic comeback. The Pearl-Qatar development is an artificial, 400-hectare island emerging offshore. Its intricate lace-like form is dominated by two huge shell-shaped marinas, around which will cluster luxury apartments, five-star hotels, pleasure palaces and refined emporia, all enhanced by lush greenery.

It's scheduled for completion in 2009 - and then the three-generation transformation that has taken Qatar from pearl-diving penury to the wealthiest per capita country in the world will be complete.

Getting there: Qatar Airways ( flies from Hong Kong to Doha. Its stopover programmes incorporate Doha's big fourresort hotels: the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, InterContinental and Sheraton.