My recent Qatar Airways flight from Washington, D.C. direct to Doha, the capital of Qatar, took almost 14 hours, but it was the most civilized in-flight experience I’ve had in a long time. My only anxiety was how to operate my seat.
As we began our descent, I looked out my window to see thumbnail crescents of dunes and the orange flares that marked oil refineries. Qatar has vast reserves of liquefied natural gas and oil, making it one of the world’s richest countries per capita.
We exited the airport into a mild Doha evening, and as if on cue, the Muslim call to prayer began its broadcast over a loudspeaker. Most Qataris follow the conservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, though, unlike Saudi Arabians who also adhere to Wahhabism, Qatari women can drive, work outside the home, and vote.
Along the main coastal road that took us from the airport to our hotel, we passed a crazy assemblage of buildings, many still surrounded by cranes and construction siding. They were all “wow!” or “huh?” type buildings: A pickle-shaped tower was encased in a lacy Islamic latticework, glass-sheathed buildings bent in zigzag lines, that high-rise over there looked like someone had left a drawer open.
In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner writes in his chapter on Qatar, “I read somewhere that Qatar is 98.09 percent desert. I wonder what the other 1.91 percent is. Mercedes, perhaps.” But I found that the most popular car clogging the roads seemed to be the Toyota Land Cruiser. Our Moroccan tour guide, Jamal Elatmani, explained, “Qataris love to go off-roading. And the Land Cruiser is the best car on sand.”
We got to test out that theory when we went on our own desert safari with Gulf Adventures to the “inland sea,” Khor al-Adaid. Our driver was a Palestinian named Rami whom I suspect wants to be an action hero. That’s him on the left.
He said he had 22 years experience driving in the desert and that his nickname was Desert Scorpion. “I play with the desert like a scorpion, in and out,” he said.
He unspooled a fact-filled script for us as we drove out of the city: When a Qatari man marries, he gets a plot of land and about $400,000 from the government to build his house. Qataris also have free health care and education and a guaranteed job if they want it. And no, those perks don’t apply to immigrants, like Rami or Jamal, or even non-Qataris who were born and raised in Qatar.
At Sealine Beach Resort, about 30 minutes from Doha, the road ended. We stopped to reduce air in the tires and took photos of the laid-back camels waiting to give tourists rides.
Then the dune bashing began in earnest. We roared off on the sands, going up and down tall dunes like a roller coaster, sometimes straight down, sometimes at a 45° angle along the side of a dune. Rami had become dramatically silent.
We occasionally passed other Land Cruisers going in the opposite direction, back to the city, and saw a distressing number of plastic bottles and soda cans littering the dunes. It shattered any fantasy I had that I was on some risky expedition to the Empty Quarter. The desert around Doha is pretty well-traveled.
At the inland sea, we waved across the water at Saudi Arabia. “Thanks for the $4-a-gallon gas!” (Our tour guide Jemal said locals pay about $.96/gallon for gas.)
We stopped for an alfresco lunch of grilled meats, hummus, naan, and salad at a tented camp near the beach. I made sure to dip my toes in the Persian Gulf and wiggle them in Arabian sands.
On the drive back to the city, it began to rain. Not just a drizzle either. I even saw lightning. Rain in the desert! Qatar, I would learn, had surprises up its sleeve.
Next in Part 2: What I Learned About the Emir of Qatar
Photos courtesy Amy Alipio and Roberto Lebron.