What happens when Qatar’s rich oil and gas reserves run out? Jenny Southan reports on how Doha is creating a new future

In downtown Doha, the hot desert wind billows through the shimmering streets, coating the white Toyota Land Cruisers that populate them in a fine layer of sand. The centre is part glistening metropolis, part construction site, and the clank of nearby workers putting up another skyscraper is as familiar as the sound of birdsong in the English countryside.

A 30-minute drive out of the city will bring you into the heart of the desert, with its undulating sand dunes and barren rock, so it’s easy to forget that the state of Qatar is almost completely surrounded by sea – drive far enough and you will reach the shores of the Persian Gulf, from where you can catch a glimpse of the coast of Saudi Arabia. But while water may be all around, it’s of the salty variety, and with no natural reservoirs it has to be desalinated for drinking, meaning it is more expensive than petrol – up to £1 per litre for water compared with 15p for fuel.

While Qatar’s hydrocarbon resources – only discovered in the 1940s – have provided it with abundant wealth, the fields will one day run dry. It is estimated that the state has less than 100 years left of natural gas and oil, so the government is wisely taking steps to build an economy that can survive without it.

Government agency the General Secretariat for Development Planning has drawn up a four-pillar masterplan known as “Qatar National Vision 2030”, highlighting human, social, economic and environmental development as the key areas to focus on. (Visit gsdp.gov.qa for more information.) Two decades may seem a relatively short amount of time to redefine a country, but at the rate Doha is developing, it will be a very different place by then. As Roger Mandle, executive director for the Qatar Museums Authority, says: “Doha has been transformed over the past five years – if someone had fallen asleep then and woken up today they wouldn’t recognise it.”


Doha airport is set for a major overhaul. Despite adding an exclusive Premium Terminal for first and business class passengers four years ago, it has been functioning beyond its capacity of 12 million people a year for some time, and from early 2012 it will be replaced by the US$14 billion New Doha International airport.

Owned by the government and operated by Qatar Airways, the new facility is expected to double capacity to 24 million passengers per year, with the option of expanding to a further 50 million. At 22 sq km, it will be one of the largest airport sites in the world, with half of it made from land reclaimed from the sea. Once up and running, the old facility – and possibly even the Premium Terminal – are likely to be demolished.

There are also plans to build a high-speed rail network connecting the new airport with the city centre, and with Bahrain via a planned 40km causeway between the two states. The joint US$25 billion rail project between Qatari Diar and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn is set for completion by 2026, with the core phases to be ready by 2022, when Qatar hopes to host the FIFA World Cup (the decision will be announced in December). A four-line metro system is also being planned as part of the project, with an opening scheduled for 2016.


“In Qatar, we believe supply will also create demand,” says Ahmed Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority. And with all manner of ambitious projects under way – from artificial island the Pearl (thepearlqatar.com), with about 18,000 luxury residential units and a 350-room Four Seasons hotel, to Lusail City (lusail.com), anticipated to provide accommodation for 200,000 people – there should not be any shortage of places to live or stay. “At the end of 2009, we had about 8,500 [hotel] rooms,” Al Nuaimi says. “In the next 12 months there are 40 hotels and apartment hotels scheduled to open, bringing about 7,500 more rooms to the market. We anticipate having 30,000 rooms in 2013.”

Hotels due to open by the end of the year include three Marriott-branded properties – a 257-room Renaissance, a 204-room Courtyard by Marriott, and the 123-unit Marriott Executive Apartments, all located in the city centre. Qatar Airways and Rotana have just launched the only airport hotel in Doha, the 400-room Oryx Rotana, and Rotana will open a city centre property by the end of the year. Also due this year is a 272-room Shangri-La, with the five-star Torch hotel in the striking Aspire Tower to follow in 2011, and a 160-room Mandarin Oriental in 2014.

Considering the population of Doha is estimated to be about one million – with about 80 per cent being expats from countries such as Bangladesh, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the UK and US – some might wonder how it will fill all these new hotel rooms and apartments. But this is not a concern shared by Saeid Heidari, general manager of the Doha Marriott hotel, the first luxury property to open in the region 38 years ago. “Three years ago there were five or six five-star hotels in the city – now we have 15,” he says. “But I don’t think this is too many – demand will be increasing. I have a seven-year-old son and he will only wear shoes from one specific brand – he doesn’t want to go to a shop that doesn’t sell those shoes. The same is true for international business travellers – they have certain preferences for brands and when they are not available, they try to avoid going there.

“Having the new players in the market will improve the level of service, the competitiveness of the hotels, and the reputation Qatar needs to host all the big functions – we have the World Petroleum Conference coming, for example. Hoteliers might be seeing a slight drop in occupancy and rates now but in three to five years we will benefit.”
For now, visitors are benefiting from lower prices. Al Nuaimi says: “There was a time when hotels in Qatar could set the price, which had been high owing to low supply and high demand. But this has been corrected recently, and hotel rates are more reasonable.”

Other projects to keep an eye out for are Al Wa’ab City (alwaabcity.com), Doha’s “first family-oriented” residential community, currently under construction; the dagger-shaped, 437-metre-high Dubai Towers (dubaitowers-doha.com), located on the Corniche with a 235-room luxury hotel, apartments and offices scheduled for next year; and Dohaland’s US$5.5 billion Musheireb (previously Heart of Doha), a 35-hectare, 226-building development in the city centre comprising hotels, schools, a theatre, museum, tram system and even an underground town, aimed for completion by 2016 (visit dohaland.com).


Doha is working hard to promote itself as a destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and events, catering for everything from a 3,000-person convention to dune bashing, camel riding and shisha smoking in Bedouin desert camps. According to Rashid Al Naimi, chairman of the Qatar MICE Development Institute (QMDI) and vice-president of administration for non-profit organisation the Qatar Foundation, the country’s goal is “to develop into a leading world events destination reputed for quality and excellence”.

Construction workers are grafting day and night to fulfil the ambitions of the MICE market, building the US$1.2 billion Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC), 15-20 minutes’ drive from the West Bay area. When complete next year, the QNCC – complete with giant tree-like steel branches supporting the roof – will be able to accommodate 10,000 delegates. The 400-metre-tall Doha Convention Centre Tower is planned for 2012.

Al Nuaimi at the Qatar Tourism Authority says: “The QNCC and the Convention Centre Tower will meet demand for exhibition space that our current Doha Exhibition Centre cannot accommodate, as its calendar is already full. All of this, along with the expansion of Qatar Airways into new markets, will maintain a steady stream of visitors to Qatar.”


Most visitors from Europe do not necessarily associate the Middle East with art and culture, but Doha is striving to change this perception. Mandle at the Qatar Museums Authority says: “We want to create a platform for dialogue among cultures and among various nations of the world. It’s not just puffery, it’s really sincere – a genuine desire by Qatar to create these bridges for peace, understanding and respect. It’s an international idea, in that having done it well it will become on a scale of quality and scope relative to other national projects such as Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the British Museum or the Smithsonian in Washington.”

Hundred of millions of dollars are being invested in transforming the capital into a cultural hub. The elegant Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008 (see “Ultimate collection”), and several new ventures are under way. The National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel and located on the Corniche near the Museum of Islamic Art, will open in three to four years, while the Museum of Modern Arab Art should be unveiled near Education City by the end of this year.

The QMA Gallery, which is said to have one of the largest collections of photos in the world, will be housed in the new US$82 million, 99-hectare Cultural Village (pictured above), located opposite the Doha Exhibition Centre and scheduled to welcome visitors from this autumn. The village will feature an open-air 5,000-seat Roman-style amphitheatre located off the shore of the Gulf, galleries, an opera house, a theatre, shops and restaurants.


The state is also pitching itself as a hotspot for education, with the 1,000-hectare Education City project at its heart. “We want Qatar to be the intellectual export capital of the world,” says a spokesman for the Qatar Foundation. Education City already has 3,000 students of 85 different nationalities, and six US universities including Weill Cornell Medical College and Virginia Commonwealth have branches here.

The futuristic free-trade Qatar Science and Technology Park (qstp.org.qa), which opened last year, sits alongside the university campuses, and beyond its high-security perimeter are the offices of almost 40 companies including Cisco, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Rolls-Royce, Shell, Tata, Qatar Petroleum and Total. Its aim is to build expertise and facilitate “knowledge transfers” through cutting-edge research into areas such as robotic surgery.

That Qatar is moving forward at such a lightning rate and investing its money wisely indicates that its future is bright, with or without its rich oil wealth.