RISING FROM THE DESERT
Travel+Leisure India|November 2021
WITH ITS CUTTING-EDGE ARCHITECTURE, COMMITMENT TO ART AND CULTURE, AND FOCUS ON SUSTANABILITY, COULD DOHA, QATAR, OFFER CITIES ACROSS THE WORLD A BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE?
WHITNEY RONINSON

During my time as editor in chief of Elle Decor, my colleagues and I talked a lot about the future. Conversations about everything from architecture and building materials to inclusive, universal design would make us consider how these elements might influence our collective tomorrow. And, inevitably, these conversations would focus on the trajectory of cities. What would they look like? How sustainable would they be? Would there still be cars? Would humans figure out a way to coexist more harmoniously?

Today, these questions are more pressing than ever as the effect of the pandemic on our urban centres is furiously analysed. In the COVID-19 age, it seems everything about the way our cities were created needs re-examining—and even, in some cases, reimagining.

As we ask ourselves what cities of the future should look like, we naturally look around for examples. Places like Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York City seem to fit the description on paper: each has vast neon-tinged skylines, sprawling (albeit sometimes out-of-date) public-transportation infrastructures, and a renewed focus on the pedestrian experience, thanks to forward-thinking projects like the High Line—an elevated park on an abandoned railway line that brought a little bit of nature to Manhattan’s far west side.

But to me, the designation ‘futuristic city’ isn’t a formula— it’s an ever-changing experiment that evolves to meet the needs of the people. And I’d argue that no city better encapsulates that definition than Doha, the capital of Qatar.

QATAR OCCUPIES AN oval-shaped peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, with Iran across the sea. (The name of the news network Al Jazeera, which is headquartered in Doha, comes from the Arabic for “The Peninsula.”) For centuries, the territory was a fishing and pearl-trading centre, ruled by various Arab tribes until the Ottoman Empire expanded its reach there in 1871. The Ottomans left at the beginning of World War I; Qatar’s modern history dates from 1916, when the then sheikhdom became a British protectorate. The discovery of oil in 1938 was a turning point, too, as it was for many of Qatar’s neighbours, bringing a swell in revenue that led to an expanded government and increased public services.

The sheikhdom declared independence in 1971, when Britain pulled out of the Gulf, citing financial constraints. But the 1980s and early 90s saw a languishing economy, resulting, in 1995, in a shake-up of the country’s leadership. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (known as ‘Father Emir’) laid the plans for a modern state after overthrowing his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, who had ruled since independence. One of the younger Al Thani’s most significant reforms was known as National Vision 2030, a grand blueprint for the country.

Now, under the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar is the richest state per capita in the world, thanks to its reserves of oil and natural gas. This wealth has allowed the government—especially in the past two decades—to heavily invest in everything from art to medical research and education, with the nation achieving a 94 per cent literacy rate.

SO WHAT DOES it feel like to be in Doha, this prosperous city of the future? Does everyone drive a Ferrari and shop all day? Well, yes and no. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Qatar a couple times a year for the past 15 years as part of my work as an editor and design consultant, and a few things always stand out. Qataris get up early, with the first call to prayer at around 5 am. The desert sun rises fast and blazes hot. (It can be 43°C in the shade in summer, but from October to February, it’s a pleasant 23°C on average.)

Malls are plentiful, and are popular places to hang out. Outposts of high-end restaurants, like Nobu and Dani García’s BiBo, abound. Meanwhile, there’s been a movement led by young Qataris to promote fresh produce and organic food, and healthy juice bars and eateries—like Torba Café in Education City, which serves an amazing buckwheat-and-mushroom pizza—have followed.

But what makes Doha so fascinating are its incredible contradictions. One day I might be meeting expat English friends at the old Souq Waqif, where many of the wealthiest locals still do their market shopping, after wiping their hands clean from digging into fresh Yemenite cuisine at Bandar Aden restaurant (I always order the fahsa, a lamb stew). The next day I’ll find myself riding in the back of a Qatari friend’s souped-up Mercedes G-Wagon (or Rolls-Royce, or Ferrari, often painted in signature Qatari burgundy) to full-moon yoga, a night-time ritual held on the edge of the Persian Gulf, with amazing views of the water.

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