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The capital Doha (Arabic: الدوحة,) is Qatar’s sole substantial city, hosting over 65% of the nation’s population, with well over a million inhabitants. Doha’s name may be derived from the Arabic word for ‘big tree’, referring to a prominent tree that stood in a fishermen’s village preceding Doha. Or, Doha’s name might come from the Arabic word for bay, as Doha is built on a bay. Any form of documentation on the city cannot be traced further back than halfway the 18th century, as for a long while it must have been inconspicuous. However, during the first half of the 19th century Doha became the focus of fierce armed skirmishes involving the Al Khalifas of Bahrain, the Ottomans and the British, each aspiring to establish their power over the Gulf. The British turned out to be the strongest. At one point, when they landed in Doha, they were met by the chief of the Al Thani family offering a peace treaty, claiming to act on behalf of all the Sheikhs and tribes on the peninsula. This resulted in the Al Thanis becoming the preferred communication partners for the British. In 1971 Qatar became independent, with the Al Thanis as rulers.
Extensive land reclamation led to the crescent shape of the bay that we see today. While Dubai is arranged along straight lines and rectangular corners, the arrangement of current Doha may look as if the high-rises were planted randomly. A more coherent planning, however, becomes manifest when one observes the new parts of the city from a distance. For instance, the windows on the bay side of the Museum of Islamic Art provide a magnificent opportunity to view the city’s skyline.
Although, initially, most of its foreign relations centered on the petroleum industry, Doha today follows in Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s footsteps in wanting to become an international tourism and culture destination. Numerous new hotels are joining Qatar’s booming travelers’ market. The Pearl Island is an example of a new grand residency complex, “a natural hub for British and American expats to meet for cocktails” as the Independent wrote; even Bahrain’s royal family has acquired a private island (finally securing a foothold on the peninsula).
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who handed power over to his 33-year old son Sheikh Tamim (bin Hamad Al Thani) in June 2013, made a tremendous effort of shaping Qatar into an international player in the political and cultural field, on as high a level as possible. He quite masterly balances his country’s traditional conservatism with the desired image of a technologically advanced country that politically and culturally moves in the forefront. Qatar also played an active role during the ‘Arab spring’ by supporting the rise to power of popular parties mostly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, first in North Africa, and now in Syria. For more about Qatar’s geo-cultural positioning read the dedicated chapter in the Gulf Art Guide essay.
Doha held the 2006 Asian Games, the largest Asian Games ever held. It hosted the 2011 Pan Arab Games and most of the games for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and it will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Al-Jazeera is an important player among the world news media. Sheikha Mozah, wife of the Emir, plays a prominent role in promoting the nation, with a prominence uncommon among rulers’ wives in the region. She was on the 2010 Forbes list of the hundred most powerful women in the World.
Sheikha Mozah also played a prominent role in promoting Doha as a main player in the world of arts. Initially, this role was taken up even stronger by another royal family member, Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani, an avid art collector too, who stood at the cradle of the Museum of Islamic Art and whose collection formed the base for the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art.
Currently, however, the most powerful Qatari in the field of arts is Sheikha Al Mayassa, daughter of the Emir and Sheikha Mozah and director of the Qatar Museums Authority, who at the moment of writing still is under thirty. ArtReview magazine found her the most powerful person in the global arts world in 2013, disposing of, on average, nearly 1 billion USD yearly to buy art over the preceding eight years.
Similar to the case of Abu Dhabi, there is no clearly defined indigenous cultural tradition. Architect I.M. Pei, who was commissioned to design the magnificent Museum of Islamic Art, literally said: “Doha hasn’t much of a history. There was almost nothing there,” which might even be more of a dilemma for Qatar’s National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel, a huge building dedicated to the national heritage. The Museum of Islamic Art, however, is dedicated to art from the entire Islamic world. And in the case of the National Museum, with its architectural references to Bedouin tents and desert landscapes, the medium is a large part of the message.
So, to an even greater degree than other Gulf states, Qatar is inventing its cultural identity through monumental futuristic architecture. It is remarkable that, paradoxically, one often senses a certain embarrassment when it comes to the appreciation of some aspects of the real cultural heritage, such as indigenous music. Qatar went ‘fast-forward’, as a leading Qatari patron stated; perhaps a bit too fast-forward, he added, referring to the fact that his grandfather was a desert dweller and that his generation feels catapulted into modernity with only one generation in between.
Contemporary Art Scene
Most of the cultural institutions are State-run, while some are joint ventures between the State and private organizations. There are only two privately run galleries in Doha, the Al Markhiya Gallery and the Anima Gallery, of which the latter only opened March 2012, on Pearl Island. All the museums and governmental galleries are run by a single body, the Qatar Museums Authority.
The prestigious Katara Cultural Village or ‘Valley of Cultures’ was newly built on reclaimed land at the north-east end of West Bay. It opened in early 2010, when Doha was Cultural Capital of the Arab World. Throughout the village-like compound there are various art exhibition spaces, like the QMA Gallery, the Qatar Photographic Society and the Katara Art Centre. The village would be ideal for more private art galleries, but it may be indicative that just over a year after the opening for Doha Culture Capital of the Arab World 2010, many gallery spaces are closed, purportedly being refurbished.
Katara Cultural Village also hosts the Qatar Opera House. Operas are rarely performed, but the venue is home to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. On the seaside is a huge amphitheater, used for popular concerts and open-air film viewings, including those of the Doha Film Festival, whose head offices are in the complex too. The headquarters of Al Jazeera are on a site nearby.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
Because the cultural world of Qatar is so new and so strongly top-down, there is as yet hardly a fertile soil in which foreign artists and other cultural workers could flourish.
All the QMA’s institutions have a well-developed educational department, that are often eager to provide working facilities for foreign artists.
The Mathaf goes further, inviting artists to submit proposals for collaboration programs, although there is no institutionalized residency program yet.
The Qatar Photographic Society and the Katara Art Centre also welcome proposals. In the further development of the Katara Cultural Village, several galleries that are being refurbished might provide opportunities as well. Sidonio Costa of the QMA and Tariq Al Jaidah of the Katara Art Centre might be the best persons to consult. The Anima Gallery could be another partner to approach; its director is Ghada Sholy. The concept of residencies still seems to be something of the future. Perhaps it is useful to keep an eye on the universities, as some are developing arts faculties, such as the Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha.
Most visitors will arrive in Qatar by air, as the land connection with Saudi-Arabia is not a transit route. Visas for Qatar are on entry and cost 100 Qatari Rial, about 20 Euro, to be paid by credit card or bankcard on arrival.
Note that the airport has separate terminal systems for economy, business and first class passengers.
Taxis from the airport to the city’s nearest areas are about QAR 25, as the airport is very close to the city.
Taxis are metered, with a minimum fare of 10 Rials, but drivers often offer to drive off-meter. In contrast to other Gulf cities, there is only one taxi company, and it is notoriously difficult to find a taxi when trying to hail one in the street. There are many unofficial taxis around and, when taking one, which is sometimes the only option, make sure that you have a sense of what a ride should cost in an official taxi.
Taxi drivers know the major cultural landmarks, but for most locations you are advised to use the directions given under the maps on the page of each venue.
There is an efficient bus system, but the route indications are all in Arabic, and for non-Arabic readers it takes time to find out how the buses run.
Doha is certainly not a budget travel destination, but low- to mid-range budget travelers can find several nice and affordable hotels adjacent to the Souq Waqif area.
Katara Cultural Village area is a pedestrian area. Small electric carts provide fast rides and the drivers know the way, but don’t forget to tip them as their wages are not very high.
Bringing alcoholic beverages into the country is not permitted, although the control is not strict. Some four- and five-star hotels and a few bars serve alcoholic beverages, and there are a few pubs. Surprisingly, when leaving the country one will find a fully provided alcoholic beverages shop at the airport.
Doha is safe for travelers.
Written by: Neil