The airport in Doha, Qatar is packed at midnight. The arrivals hall has a huge yellow teddy bear in the center. Duty free stores are full and the line at the currency exchange office is endless. The human landscape is breathtakingly diverse. Tattooed, scantly-clad Euro-trash backpackers, pious Muslim families with multiple chador covered wives, Asian tourists and dazed aging business types like yours truly. Call it the result of geographic fate, but Doha, like Dubai is one the transfer capitals of the global travel industry and the airport functions 24/7. Many travelers will only see the inside of the transit terminal and never taste the dry hot air outside. It is an accidental destination for modestly-priced ticket passengers on night flight transfers from Hong Kong to London or Kuala Lumpur to Dublin. An adventurous few will leave the terminal for a visit to Doha, a surreal Star Wars experience.
Qatar is a flat, barren thumb that sticks out into the Persian Gulf. The sole UNESCO Heritage site is Al Zubara Fort, a small, square mud and coral fort constructed in 1938 to protect a neighboring pearl diving village. However authentic, it seems like something from a French Foreign Legion film set of the 1940s. Qatar has beaches, but calling it a resort doesn’t make it one, and in a deeply Muslim country modesty rules. The men can wear speedos, but the women are completely covered. There are two reasons to come to Qatar. One is to shop and the other is access to modestly priced 21st-century health care. It is a powerful and heady pairing.
For Muslim families Doha is a comfortable place in spite of 114-degree daytime temperatures. Unlike Europe, much less North America, Muslims fit in here. Some come with their servants, many arrive in their extended family with three generations traveling together. Every shopping venue has prayer rooms and the Souq Waqif, the old market, has more than one mosque adjacent. There is a formal politeness to each verbal interchange and the range of ethnic dress styles doesn’t raise an eyebrow. As new money is created in the Muslim world driven by gas, oil and trade –- the choice of where to spend it is in transition. Harrods, Selfridge’s, Galleries Lafayette and Bon Marche now have competition with the Middle East. Dubai, Doha and Bangkok are seen as more comfortable, understanding and tolerant for Muslim shoppers. Even Singapore is losing out, perceived as too Western.
Doha is another reminder that global wealth has completely lost its peaches-and- cream complexion. Qatar may be at odds with its neighbors, Saudi Arabia to the west and Dubai to the south, but the main proposition the country offers beyond its geographic location is safety. There is no crime. The range of shopping choices is broad. At one end of the spectrum are the luxury malls: think Gucci and Maserati. There is a voracious appetite for luxe accessories like watches, jewelry, mobile and phone cases plus luxury automobiles. The more mainstream Festival City shopping center houses Marks and Spenser, Adidas and Victoria’s Secret. There is even a Border’s bookstore. And yes, there are customers paying with plastic, but the currency of choice is still cash.
The Souq Waqif is the traditional market offering gold, handicrafts, ethnic apparel and even stores specializing in veils and face masks. It is 21st century retail in a 19th-century setting. Some corridors are air-conditioned, others have a dusty closeness that lingers in your lungs. There are sword makers, taxidermists and Rolex watch stores. My favorite was the Falcon Souq where you can buy raptors and their hunting accessories. It might be the oldest operating pet complex in the world. The birds come from bird farms around the world and sell for thousands of dollars. It is retail entertainment with a patina of Disney. The restaurants are good, not inexpensive and non-alcoholic. Qatar on paper is the richest country in the world based on average household income. And yet at the Souq, you can rent a man with a wheelbarrow that trails behind you carrying all of your bags.
We talk about shopping tourism and yet the New York Nordstrom is just more of the same in a different package. Want to truly get safely lost in consumption? Come to Doha. The cutting-edge of modern shopping is in places where money is new and young. The airport puts JFK to shame. The restrooms are spotless, the service professional. The roads are smooth and new. The taxi meters are connected to electronic monitoring systems and chirp when driver goes over the speed limit. You know you are in exotica when you go home with a hooded falcon.