Surrounded by the blue waters of the Persian Gulf, the emirate of Qatar sits on a peninsula attached to the rest of the Middle East only by a small border with Saudi Arabia.
A former British protectorate, Qatar has been ruled over by the Al Thanis royal family since the mid-19th century and became an individual sovereign state in 1971. In 1995, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized control of the country from his father and began a campaign of modernisation, giving Qatar’s citizens many social and political freedoms. He created a new constitution, enfranchised Qatar’s female population and established the uncensored news channel Al Jazeera.
Despite only starting to issue tourist visas in 1989, tourism is a rapidly-growing industry in Qatar. This largely due to the county’s countless beaches, ancient rock-carvings and soaring sand-dunes. In contrast the ultra-modern architecture of Doha harbours a parade of luxury hotels such as the Mövenpick, Ramada Inn, Hilton, Marriot, Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, Intercontinental Regency and Four Seasons, as well as many less expensive establishments.
Arabic is Qatar’s official language, but English is commonly spoken as it is the easiest language in which Qatar’s varied international population can communicate.
The national currency is the Qatari Riyal (QAR), which is pegged to the dollar at the rate of QAR 3.65 to US $1. A figure of QAR 4.6 is equivalent to €1, while QAR 6.8 corresponds to £1.
Qatar’s arid climate gives mild, agreeable winters with average temperatures of between 17-18ºC. The hot, humid summers, begin in May and last until September, with average temperatures around 35ºC; although they can reach as high as 48ºC.
Like any country with a desert, Qatar suffers occasional sandstorms, which happen mainly in spring.
Since Qatar stretches barely over 100 miles from north to south and little more than 50 miles at its widest point, nowhere in the Emirate is far from a beach. There are many excellent beaches in Qatar, notably at Gharya in the north of the country, Fuwairat on the northeast coast, Palm Tree Beach at Umm Bab on the west coast and Dukhan and Salwar near the border with Saudi Arabia. A large range of water sports from jet-skiing to scuba diving are practised in Qatar.
There is a striking contrast between the futuristic skyscrapers and the traditional Arabic architecture of Qatar’s capital Doha. The modern town centres on the numerous domes of the Grand Mosque and the Emir’s Palace, which are both major attractions. The Abu Bakir al-Siddiq Mosque and 'National Museum,' which traces the country's history, are also worth visiting. Doha’s 5-mile corniche offers excellent views onto the Gulf and tourists can take sailing trips on traditional dhow boats from the historic harbour.
The north of the country contains many historic sites, such as the fort of Al-Zubara and the fort of Umm Salal Mohammed, where the mesmerising Barzam Watchtower is built in local style, solely from stones, mud and gypsum.
The mangrove island at Al Dakhira gives shelter each spring and autumn to thousands of migrating birds as well as flamingos that feed among the trees growing in the salt water of the lagoons.
The south of Qatar contains the country’s foremost tourist attraction, the spectacular 'inland sea' of Khor al Adaid. This salt water inlet drifts deep into the desert and is bordered on all sides by towering sand-dunes. An area of outstanding natural beauty, there is a campaign to preserve it as a world heritage site. Travel companies organise camel treks into the region, lodging their customers in Bedouin-style tents and cooking them traditional meals over open fires.
Like many modern middle-eastern countries, Qatar is renowned throughout the world for its shopping facilities and Doha is littered with vast shopping centres. City Center is currently the largest mall in the Middle East and contains a wealth of designer fashion boutiques, jewellers and home furnishers as well as many luxury Arabian speciality shops. It also features a bowling alley, Carrefour hypermarket and countless western shops. Its eateries possess fine views over the Gulf and the desert, as well as the giant ice-skating rink around which the complex is centred.
Prices in City Center and Doha’s other giant malls are generally much cheaper than the United Kingdom and offer an enormous variety of goods; yet it is the traditional souqs in downtown Doha which represent the best value for money.
There are several souqs in Doha, including the recently renovated Souq Waqif and the Old Souq. These commercial districts of tiny shops sell almost anything from electrical goods to exotic foods and spices. Their excellent tailors and furniture makers are capable of creating anything asked of them at very cheap prices. The souqs are also excellent places to buy traditional Arabic goods such as clothes, embroidered cushions and cookware; as well as gold, pearls caught off Qatar’s coast, jewellery, fabrics and furs. Bartering over prices is customary everywhere in the souq and the noise of sellers haggling with customers fills its tiny streets.
Food is available everywhere in Qatar and the souqs offer a unique dining setting at a low cost in an authentic location. Locals often congregate in the souq’s cafés and drink tea, while smoking flavoured tobacco, filtered through water in hookhah pipes; however these cafés will not serve alcoholic beverages due to Qatar being a Muslim country.
Alcohol is served in the restaurants, bars and nightclubs of the big hotels; but it is very expensive since all alcohol in Qatar has to be imported by air.Theatre is a popular evening pastime in Qatar with a variety of theatres offering traditional and western programmes.
The driving culture in Qatar is vastly different to that of central European countries and visitors should be aware that local drivers frequently use their horns and headlights simply to give warning of their intended actions. The speed limit ranges between 60km/h and 80km/h in urban areas and is 120km/h on motorways and open roads. Speed limits are enforced by random police checks and radars.
Motorists in Qatar drive on the right side of the road and drink driving is strictly prohibited. Being caught will likely lead to detention in a police cell and the police also frequently impound the vehicles of drivers caught speeding excessively.
Food and Drink
To cater to its multi-national population, overseas business visitors and tourists, Qatar has an amazing choice of restaurants. At the top end of the culinary scale, its big hotels have Michelin starred restaurants offering a range of European and International cuisine. Although their prices seem steep in comparison to the rest of Qatar they are relatively inexpensive, with meal prices starting at under £10.
Middle Eastern cuisine is widely available from takeaways selling kebabs, couscous and hummus from upwards of £1.50; or gourmet restaurants serving specialities from around the Middle-East. A large ethnicity of Indian and Thai workers in means there are also many excellent restaurants and takeaways selling Asian food. Outlets of McDonalds in Qatar sell a speciality McArabia burger.
Since Qatar is a Muslim country, visitors are advised to consider local custom:
It is not advisable to shake a Qatari’s hand, or indeed offer anything, with the left hand, since Islamic tradition considers it is used solely for toilet functions.
A visa is required to enter the country, more details can be found at the embassy site: qatar.embassyhomepage.com
There is no malaria risk in Qatar, but vaccinations are still advisable. For more information visit: www.traveldoctor.co.uk
Despite women being allowed to dress as they please, Qatariwomen generally choose to wear the traditional black abaya. It is advisable for both men and women to avoid wearing any short or revealing clothing.
As a precaution against the intense heat, travellers should maintain a high salt intake and drink lots of bottled water.
Qatar Tourism Authority PO Box 24624Qatar Tel: +974 441 1555Fax: +974 437 email@example.com
AirportDoha International Airport is situated 5km from Qatar’s capital. The airport is modern with many amenities and duty-free shopping facilities, despite construction being underway on its replacement (due to be completed in 2015).
The national airline, Qatar Airways, flies to a large number of destinations worldwide. Several carriers fly daily from Qatar to London Gatwick and Heathrow airports as well as Manchester.