Doha, the Gleaming City in the Desert
By Dr Khurshid Alam Khan
As the airplane starts to descend to land at the Doha international airport one can see from the widow the vast expanse of the light yellow sandy desert, next to the clear deep blue waters of the Persian Gulf. Soon the high-rise buildings of downtown Doha, shining in the bright sunshine, come into view. This is the capital of a very small country, Qatar, known internationally as the home of Al-Jazeera TV news network.
Most of the landmass of this peninsula is protruding into the Persian Gulf, except its southern end that is connected to Saudi Arabia. Historically, the Islamization process of Qatar and neighboring Arab states took place early in the 7 th century when Prophet Muhammad sent his emissaries to invite pagan Arabs to the new religion and most of them accepted Islam and became Muslims.
Doha now the economic center and the seat of government has been transformed in a span of a few decades from a small, sleepy fishing village to a modern, fast growing and beautiful city. Once one of the world’s poorest countries, Qatar is now one of the richest, and its per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world. The real boost to the economy came from the discovery in the 1980s of huge offshore natural gas reserves.
I have visited Qatar several times since my retirement a decade ago, as my son and his family live there. On every visit, I notice brisk developmental activity with new highways, overhead bridges, underpasses, multistoried towers and shopping malls under construction, utilizing the latest technology. The local Qatari population is small, comprising only 25-30 percent of the total, while the majority are expatriates drawn from Arab countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ceylon, Malaysia, Philippines etc.
Qatar is not as popular a destination as Dubai for Pakistani visitors most of whom arrive here seeking employment. There is a large professional and technically skilled expatriate community consisting of teachers, architects, communication and computer engineers. They are drawn primarily from Western countries - UK, USA, France, Germany, and Australia. To cater to the housing needs of a rapidly growing population, old buildings are being demolished and replaced with new ones providing modern facilities like swimming pools, tennis courts and children’s parks. Similarly, expanding job opportunities have necessitated the construction of a new city a few kilometers away from the capital. Doha surprisingly is a very clean and peaceful city. The laws here are strict and uniformly enforced on all citizens without any distinction. Consequently, violence and other crimes are unheard of and it is safe to drive or walk in the city at any hour of the day or night.
Doha offers a number of attractions. One of the most beautiful places to visit is Doha Corniche, a waterfront promenade several kilometers long along the sea side. The seacoast is horse-shoe shaped and about seven kilometers long, lined with rows of date trees, bedecked with lush green grass and, during the winter season, beds of flowers. It starts from the pyramid shaped Sheraton Hotel and the adjoining Sheraton Park and ends beyond the Doha Club near the Museum of Islamic Art. It is a place where most of the city’s population gathers to enjoy the pleasant evenings. One can see people walking, running, jogging or simply lazing around or just watching the fish swimming in the clear blue water of the Persian Gulf.
The weather in Qatar from December to March remains very pleasant. The cool dry winds of the desert, lush green grass and beds of multicolored flowers along the roadside combine to offer a delightful and dazzling environment. Running opposite to the corniche are high-rise commercial and residential buildings, government offices, parks and hotels. In order to enjoy the multicolored lights of the downtown spectacular skyline, boats playing Arabic and Indian music are ready to take tourists into the sea to have an unforgettable experience. Another historical building worth visiting is the famous Museum of Islamic Art, housed in an impressive building on Doha’s water front surrounded by a beautiful park. The museum showcases objects of ceramics, metal works, and textiles. Coins, historic manuscripts about science, religion, literature spanning a period from the 7 th century to the 19 th century, especially of the golden period of Muslim civilization, are on display.
The credit for all this development must be given to the present rulers of Qatar who are forward-looking, and possess a progressive and enlightened vision. They are keen to bring their country to the forefront of developed nations. Much emphasis is placed on education. Comprehensive plans to educate the people include the establishment of many schools as well as institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Qatar. There are also subsidiary campuses of some universities from the USA, Australia and European countries.
A somewhat unusual and admirable feature of Qatar is its policy of religious and ethnic tolerance, a reflection of the broadmindedness and enlightened vision of its ruling family. There is no visible Shia-Sunni strife, and the people belong to a spectrum of religious faiths. There are five churches where Christians attend religious services without fear for their safety, something they can only dream about in some neighboring countries.
After completion of our three-month stay at Doha, my wife and I will shortly be returning home to Karachi. We will be coming back in the midst of a hectic election campaign in Pakistan. While we will enjoy returning to our friends and familiar surroundings, we will miss the peace and tranquility of Doha, and above all, our grandchildren.
(The writer is a former director of the publications division of Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Karachi)