World in motion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
 

Asking for directions in Doha, the gleaming capital of Qatar, is a hit or miss business. It's not that you need to speak Arabic - few passers-by would understand you, anyway. The problem is that nearly everyone you meet has been in town for only slightly longer than you have.

Just one in five of Qatar's population is native to the tiny Gulf peninsula. Making up the numbers is an army of foreign workers, often on short-term contracts. In fact, there are so many guest workers you start wondering where all the Qataris are.

Vast reserves of oil and natural gas have transformed the emirate over the past 60 years. Now the world's richest nation in terms of gross domestic product per capita, Qatar punches above its weight in roles as diverse as regional peacemaker and host of international sporting events. It is also home to Al-Jazeera, the most influential news broadcaster in the Arab region.

Doha is positioning itself as an upmarket stopover destination to rival Dubai. It boasts an array of luxurious hotels and opulent restaurants. A championship golf course has been developed in the desert; shopping malls come with ice rinks and Qatar Airways has opened an airport terminal solely for premium-class passengers.

I have the option of staying with friends in an enormous apartment. They know I live in Hong Kong and remind me about their 'three sofa living room'. They even offer me the use of a spare car, adding that petrol only costs one rial (HK$2) a litre.

I politely decline the invitation (jealousy would get the better of me) and decide against a five-star hotel - I'd find it hard to drag myself away from the poolside. Instead the plan is to delve beneath the well-heeled hedonism. Surprisingly, it's rather easy.

On the street outside my hotel you can drink milky Indian chai, order a pad Thai, buy a Tagalog newspaper and read it in a Turkish coffee shop. Doha bus station is a two-minute walk away, although a Sri Lankan shopkeeper explains most people prefer to take taxis.

Bus No76 shuttles along the corniche, a broad promenade that encircles Doha's deep blue bay. The friendly Bangladeshi driver wants to chat to his only passenger but I'm distracted as we pass an imposing structure that appears to be built on its own island. Designed by architect I.M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art would be worth any amount of admission money - but it turns out to be free. The collection showcases Mughal jewels, Persian carpets and early Koran manuscripts among treasures dating back over a millennium. It's also a good place to gather information about football.

Qatar hit the headlines in 2010 when it was selected to host the 2022 World Cup. Incredulous bidding rivals, most notably England, cried foul and protested at having to play football in a desert during summer. The Qataris promptly offered to build air-conditioned stadiums.

The country has a reputation as a hotbed of footballing fervour so it seems a good idea to go to a game and find out what all the fuss is about. This proves easier said than done. The energy expended on mounting a successful World Cup bid hasn't extended to promoting matches in the recently renamed Qatar Stars League.

A Palestinian museum assistant is sure Al-Rayyan are playing against Al-Khor 'in a few hours' but his online search reveals conflicting kick-off times and no one answers when he phones the club switchboard. The museum security team are bemused anyone should even think of heading 30 kilometres into the desert to watch two local teams play. They can't understand why I don't join them in a shisha cafe to watch an English Premier League match on television instead.

Qatar's roads are among the world's deadliest and my Moroccan taxi driver gives a master class in overtaking on the sandy hard shoulder and ignoring oncoming traffic at intersections. Through a sandstorm of his own making, it is just possible to discern the outline of the Al-Rayyan Stadium. The Nepalese groundsman isn't sure what time the match will kick off; neither is a tall Ghanaian - and he says he's playing. The 25,000 capacity all-seater stadium remains eerily empty. The authorities have done an excellent job of keeping the game a secret.

Eventually, word filters through from a TV crew that the match will start at 4.30pm. A few minutes before play is due to get underway a small convoy of four-wheel drives and Mercedes with darkened windows arrives in the car park. In Qatar, it's the fans that have the fancy cars, not the players. At last - a chance to rub shoulders with some locals.

Spectators marginally outnumber players as the game gets underway. The football isn't of a high standard but the modern stadium has wireless internet so fans are able to update their Facebook accounts during dull stretches of play.

At half time the Qataris congregate in the prayer room - a useful addition to any sporting venue. Play deteriorates further after the break and it becomes clear it's Al-Rayyan who don't have a prayer. Or a goal scorer. The white-robed faithful start heading back to the city long before the final whistle.

Doha is abuzz at dusk and Souq Waqif is a rewarding place in which to spend an Arabian night. In Qatar's headlong rush to demolish all that's old and replace it with shiny new, the souk was nearly obliterated. Fortunately someone saw its potential as a tourist attraction in the nick of time and the ancient bazaar was given a makeover.

The mazy lanes are crammed with stallholders selling jewellery, antiques, perfumes and waterpipes. Pungent smells permeate and alleyways echo to the sound of frantic haggling. There's a good choice of cafes, so prop yourself up on a pile of comfortable cushions with a mint tea and enjoy the spectacle.

If it's atmosphere you're after, Souq Waqif beats watching a Qatar Stars League match any day.

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com/hk) flies twice daily from Hong Kong to Doha.

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