Posted by: Tommy | February 23, 2011

One Day in Doha

On our way from Cape Town to India, we had a 13 hour layover in Doha, Qatar.  We had an overnight flight that got into Doha at 7 am, then an 8pm flight that arrived in India at 4am.  We were torn between staying at the fancy Doha airport, using their free wifi and enjoying their giant duty-free shop versus spending $60 for a 1-month visa and exploring Doha for the 13 hours that we had to wait.  If we’d known about the “sleeping lounge” at the airport specifically designed for long layovers, we might have stayed in the airport.  But we didn’t, so we opted for the visa and a quick exploration of Doha.

When Anna originally started researching Doha (about three days prior to departure – such is the nature of this trip), she thought the simplest and best option was just to do a tour. We had only one day, and transportation was a problem. We couldn’t rent a car there because neither of us has an international drivers license (you don’t need one in Africa). There is essentially no public transportation, although the Qatari government is certainly working to change that – building a metro, buses, trains, and more.  Additionally, we’d be there on Friday (the Muslim holy day) and most of Doha would be closed until 1 pm. We had tried to change our flight to be able to stay one night, but it was going to be very expensive. So – one day.  The tour would definitely be the easiest, most effective way to really see Doha in only 13 hours on a Friday.  Sadly, the only tours we could find required 5 people minimum…they’d take just the two of us, as long as we paid for 5 tickets ($50/each).  Um, no thanks.  So we’re on our own, in Doha on a Friday – coming off of an overnight, no-sleep flight (damn you, incredible movie selection on Qatar Airways) and prior to another overnight, no-sleep flight.

We paid for our visa, then left the airport and got into a taxi. We asked the taxi driver to take us somewhere that would be open so we could have breakfast, and he suggested the “City Center”. We said – sure. We thought, “Center of the city, a logical place to find something that would be open.”  Alas, the City Center is in the center of the city, but it’s also the name of a giant mall, strongly reminiscent of the Dallas Galleria. Four stories of upscale stores, built around an ice skating rink in the center and surrounded by a Starbucks, Burger King, Coffee Bean, Subway and Pizza Hut. The mall was mostly full of white people – I think this is because most of the locals were at a mosque or celebrating the holy day.

Transported back to Dallas

We wandered the mall some, stopping in at a Carrefour (French Walmart) for cheap Oreos, peanut M&Ms, and other essentials, including breakfast pastries. After eating, we stopped in at the Starbucks – Anna got coffee, I took a nap in one of their chairs.  After about three hours, we were sleepy and bored.  Anna got up to stretch her legs and go to the bathroom. When she returned, she said she’d found two things I’d be excited about.  She tried to make me guess what they were, but my brain wasn’t functioning properly.  Eventually, she just told me – first, she’d found a cafe with wifi.  We immediately started packing up our things, preparing to change venues for lazing around.

But the other thing she found changed that – she’d seen a Hispanic looking man wearing a cowboy hat and a Harley t-shirt.  A Texan, we were pretty sure.  I asked her to point him out – she told me she wouldn’t need to…and she was right.  As we came around the corner, still in the Starbucks, I saw him.  His eyes went straight to the Longhorn on my shirt.  We awkwardly looked at each other, then started talking at the same time.  He asked me if I was from Houston, I said no, Victoria.  He told us he’s from Pasadena (suburb of Houston) but has been working in Doha for a year and a half.  While we were exchanging Texan credentials, his wife walked up and couldn’t have been nicer.  After they determined that we have only been in Doha for a few hours, and had no idea what to do, they insisted on showing us some of what Doha had to offer during the short time we had there.

Hook 'em Horns!

They told us the place to see was called The Pearl – a luxury man-made island that was home to all sorts of opulence.  A Ferrari dealership across the street from a Maserati dealership.  BMW’s on every corner, except for the corners occupied by a Bentley, a Jaguar or a Mercedes limo.  I’d heard of Hermes, Ralph Lauren and Chanel.  I hadn’t heard of most of the others -stores where the average watch sells for $20K.  Anna explained that she’d heard of them and that I hadn’t because I’d never be willing to buy anything at any of those stores.  So true.

On the way to The Pearl, we asked questions about life in Doha.  They said it was interesting.  Like so many ex-pats we talk to, their social lives generally revolve around the ex-pat community, mostly getting together at each others houses since Qatar is a Muslim (read: Alcohol-discouraged, if not banned) country.  The work is interesting and pays a lot better than it would in the States (I inferred this – that’s the only reason I can think of to live in Qatar).  As in most Middle Eastern countries, the weekend is Friday Saturday, to account for the Muslim holy day.  Mike was obviously planning on staying for a while, as he’d just relocated his wife from Houston the previous month.

We ended up spending the rest of the day at the Pearl.  We ate at a nice Italian restaurant they’d recommended, then walked around the harbor admiring the zillion-dollar yachts (it’s a harbor, inside a man-made island, and surrounding a smaller man-made island on which a Four Seasons resort is being constructed).  The whole complex reminded me of 22 copies of the Aria (the brand-new Vegas casino that had just opened when I was there in September).  We ended up finding a coffee shop with free wifi and spending about an hour chatting with American Express, still trying to clear up the mess with Thrifty car rental (aka The Devil) before getting a ride to the airport.  Of course, since we were at The Pearl, they couldn’t get us a regular taxi.  But for only $3 more than regular car fare, we could take a Mercedes limo to the airport.  $20 for a limo ride to a place we have to go anyway?  Sold.

The Pearl - Doha

We did not know anything about Doha before we came. On the plane, from the advanced in-flight entertainment center, we learned that Doha is a small, thumb-shaped country in the Arabian Sea, with the highest GDP per capita in the world, growing at a rate of 18.5% (in 2010). Natural gas is the name of the game here.

Doha is also experiencing a construction boom. Everywhere you look, you see cranes. I mean everywhere. The buildings are almost all shiny, modern glass towers, with interesting architecture. The skyline of Doha is surprisingly dramatic for a small city. And construction is not merely limited to buildings. Doha feels like the future, in short. It feels like a place with no past, like a place that did not exist five years ago. Everything is new. Everything we have seen is upscale. We kept saying that it reminds us of Vegas. I think it is the constructed nature of everything, as if someone intentionally created every sidewalk, every building, every window – one creator. It does not feel like a city that evolved, piece by piece, like almost every other city I’ve ever been to. But Vegas is like that – a constructed experience. A place built to impress, to show a certain image – wealth, success, flash.

The people here appear (from our brief visit) largely young or middle-aged. The internet is fast, the cars are big and new, the roads are clean and wide. Doha looks to me like I imagine America might look to a European – shocking in its newness because my frame of reference is so much older.

We thought that we’d been soured on the Middle East after Egypt, but it took only 13 hours in Doha to convince us that we should come back at some point and give it another chance.  Doha really provided a counter point to the view of the Middle East we got in Jordan and Egypt. Preferably sometime when we aren’t on such a budget – it was tough to spend half a day in Doha, I can’t imagine what the bill would look like for a week or so.


  1. Hey,
    It was very well written.
    In fact, I’m travelling to Doha next month with the same number of hours in transit. So was thinking to do what u guys did:)
    Thanks for Sharing the experience


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