2018 didn’t kick off easily for us. We were standing in a long queue for immigration at Doha airport when the clock struck twelve. We wished each other and the Malaysian mother and daughter in front of us Happy New Year, but other than that, the thousands of other people remained rather quiet and subdued.
After a pleasant flight with Qatar Airways, Doha airport was a disappointment. All the glitter, glamour, marble and luxury couldn’t make up for the bad organizing. With only two immigration counters open, the arrivals hall quickly filled up. Serious looking men with walkie talkies were running up and down and putting passengers in line, but they would have been more useful stamping passports. Occasionally an extra counter would open, but that only benefitted the people at the back of the line. We were stuck in the middle. After one and a half hours at last we got through.
By then I was so dazed and confused that I forgot to take my luggage after using the atm behind the carousel. I only noticed once we were through customs. It wasn’t easy talking my way back against the one way system through security and customs. But I managed and fortunately the bag was still standing - the bomb squad hadn’t been called yet.
Apart from being a bit tired after that night, we enjoyed looking around Doha for the next three days. We walked a lot, mainly in the old city center, that had been enriched with a new souk and the impressive Museum for Islamic Art.
Nights and mornings were cool and hazy, but afternoons were sunny and pleasant.
Most Qatari wore traditional dress. Men in white dresses with shawls on their head. Women with thin black robes over their other clothes – maybe high heels or tight jeans. Head scarves and big sunglasses couldn’t hide the care they took for make up and looks. Not all Qatari women wore headscarves. We saw some young mothers in a café smoking a waterpipe, while their Philippinian nannies took care of the kids.
Eating vegetarian in the Middle East takes you to an Indian restaurant or Lebanese fast food place. It takes some searching, but then you can enjoy delicious hummus, falafel, foul and pita bread.
A fascinating and varied city with old and new, rich and poor, east and west, north and south. People seem to come from all continents and shops and restaurants are as varied as that.
Doha is trying to catch up with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, investing oil dollars in trade and service industries. They still have a long way to go. The old city center is a patchwork of 25 year old high-rises, a couple of modern buildings, lots of building sites blocking streets and sidewalks, wasteland turned into parking lots, a couple of forgotten 50 year old two-story shops – and in-between all of that sit all these cute tiny old mosques. There isn’t a lot of street life, except at night in the side streets with old shops and restaurants for the migrant workers.
At first sight the Saudi boycott doesn’t seem to do much harm (though the paper said house prices are falling). Our little neighborhood shop running out of yoghurt rather seemed a logistical issue. And that seems to be the sore spot all over. Building an airport, buying a new fleet of city buses, painting a pedestrian crossing on a six lane road, designing a metro route – all that is doable. But to organize it well, to get enough immigration officers in place, to publish a consistent bus route map, to teach drivers to stop for pedestrians – that is a lot harder. Metro works are going on all over town but nobody dares to commit to a year it will run.
If I were FIFA, I’d be worried about the 2022 World Cup, given that only one stadium is finished.
In Qatar the India connection is obvious. Almost half of the 2 million inhabitants is from former British India. When we walked down the aircraft steps a group of Indian cleaners was waiting to board. They tend to do the hard labor and building. Cleaners, cooks and shopkeepers mostly are from South Asia as well. Female laborers tend to come from the Philippines and work as a receptionist, maid or nanny.
New Year’s night we had dinner at Saravana Bhavan, the international chain of Indian restaurants. It was full with indian families, we were the only Non-Indians. The food was authentic South Indian served on a banana leaf, and delicious.