Doha - The Pearl of Qatar

Over the last 70 years, Doha has risen from the sands of the desert to become a major, glamorous regional power.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 5 - 2016


Qatar is a peninsula 160 km long and up to 100 km wide, lying halfway down the Arabian Gulf and joined on its only land border to Saudi Arabia in the south. As the financial hub of the country, over half the population of Qatar now lives in its capital city, Doha, although Qatari nationals are a small minority of its inhabitants, with large numbers of citizens coming from all over the world and particularly from south-east and south Asian countries. 

  • Doha’s modern skyline. (Source: Jane Whaley)

Pearls and Poverty 

Qatar and Doha. (Based on maps by the UN and TUBS) Originally a small settlement called ‘Al-Bida,’ the the part of Qatar which is present-day Doha has possibly been inhabited since as early as 4000 BC. By the 8th century, the area had become a fishing and pearl trading centre. A reasonably large town must have existed here at the time, as excavations have discovered 9th-century mosques and a fort. However, there is little trace today of these early inhabitants, or indeed the Portuguese or Ottoman Empire rulers who followed in the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries. 

The Al-Thani family, a branch of the ancient Tamim tribe of central Arabia, currently leads the country, and has been in power since the mid-18th century, when they settled in Al-Bida and made it the capital. The Ottomans officially renounced sovereignty over Qatar in 1913, and the Al Thani family signed a treaty with Britain, putting Qatar under British ‘protection’ until independence in 1971. 

Despite the pearl industry, the Al-Bida area was never affluent, and there was widespread poverty and malnutrition, as well as frequent skirmishes with their neighbours in Bahrain. With the collapse of the pearl market in the 1920s, due to the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s which made pearls an unaffordable luxury item, this poverty increased. The disruption of food supplies caused by the First World War further prolonged this period of economic hardship in the country. 

Economic Growth 

In 1935 the Anglo-Iranian Oil company was granted a concession to explore for oil onshore Qatar. Operating as Qatar Petroleum Co. it made the first discovery, Dukhan 1, in 1940, but due to WWII the first crude exports did not occur until 1949, marking a financial turning point for the country. In 1952, Shell Co. Qatar acquired exploration rights to most of the offshore territory, and in the mid-1970s the government took over these companies, and the oil and gas industry in Qatar was nationalised. 

Traditional dhows on the modern waterfront. (Source: Jane Whaley) Today’s Doha has been built primarily on the revenue the country has made from its oil and natural gas industries, turning Qatar into one of the richest per capita countries in the world. Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and RasGas all hold their headquarters in the city. 

In line with this economic growth, a hugely accelerated modernisation of the capital has taken place since the 1950s. Most traditional architecture in the Old Doha districts was demolished to make space for new buildings. By 2011, more than 50 glamorous towers were under construction in Doha. One of the more major projects launched by the government was ‘The Pearl-Qatar’, an artificial island available for ownership by foreign nationals (the first land in Qatar to be so) providing over 32 km of new coastline, and an anticipated 18,831 dwellings and 45,000 residents by 2018. The Pearl is one of the many waterfront attractions, where locals and tourists can stroll along the promenade in the cooler months, admiring the views across the waterfront of traditional dhows amongst the backdrop of the West Bay’s skyscrapers. 

In 2014 it was announced that Qatar would be spending $65 billion on new infrastructure projects in upcoming years, partly in readiness for hosting the 2022 World Cup. This preparation includes the building of three stadiums and a new metro system. In line with this, Doha has been developing as a growing tourist destination to rival its emirate neighbours, with many high class hotels catering for the visitors that fly in to attend some of the high profile events the city holds. Shopping in particular has developed as a popular past time for both locals and tourists, with lavish malls catering for all needs. Of note is the Italian-inspired Villaggio mall, which offers shoppers the opportunity to sail past high end stores on a gondola underneath painted clouded skies. 

  • The Souq Waqif is the social heart of Doha. It’s a wonderful place to sit in the cool of the evening and watch the world go by. (Source: Jane Whaley)

Traditions Endure 

The Souq Waqif. Built to replace the old market in 2003, it cleverly resembles a 19th-century souq, with mud-rendered shops, exposed timber beams and some beautifully restored original Qatari buildings. (Source: Jane Whaley) The rise in financial income has had an influence not only on the architecture of the city, but also social reforms. Education in particular has gone through continuing change since the first school was opened in 1952. Doha now proudly contains Education City, which comprises facilities from school to university level, including international Qatari branches of esteemed institutions such as University College London and Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as the locally owned Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies. It also acts as a forum from which universities can share research with businesses and institutions. 

Whilst there may be physically little left of the past, the roots of the country have not been lost in the traditions of the Qatari people in Doha today. The clearest display of these ongoing traditions can be seen in the winding alleys of the Souq Waqif. A souq, or market, has been on the site for centuries as a trading point for the Bedu and was redeveloped in the 1970s to resemble a 19th-century souq. Despite modern development, the souq continues the traditions of the country, and is a place to buy beautifully embroidered traditional dress, spices and incense, gold, and even camels and Arabian horses. It also contains the falcon market and hospital, demonstrating the important role the sport of falconry has always had in Qatari society, while the gold souq continues to be the destination for buying lavish jewellery.


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