Jan 31, 2022
SAY THE NAME QATAR and the first thing that springs to mind for many is Qatar Airways. And with good reason, as it took Skytrax’s Best Airline in the World title for the sixth time in 2021. The airport, Hamad International, also was ranked No. 1, cementing the country’s reputation as a popular transit hub. But we’ve got a better idea for you: 2022 is the year to stay and visit Qatar for a few days rather than pass through, thanks to all that’s coming in sports, culture, an amazing array of arts, innovative eco-architecture and high-flying luxury.
First, the biggest billing – there’s a flurry of activity underway in anticipation of all who will visit for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, which kicks off in November. New infrastructure, new hotels and new stadiums are all popping up across the country, including the Zaha Hadid-designed Al Janoub stadium, inspired by the shape of traditional dhow boats, and the Al Bayt stadium, 50 kilometers to the north of the capital Doha and designed like an enormous bayt al sha-ar nomadic tent. A miniature replica next door houses Qatar’s 50th branch of McDonald’s.
Ambitious architecture on the rise
A new metro system, launched in 2019 and still expanding, swooshes its way through Doha. Stations have vaulted ceilings inspired by traditional Islamic architecture and nacreous details referencing the country’s pearl-diving heritage.
The walkable streets and sand-coloured buildings of Msheireb Downtown are part of the world’s first fully-built SMART and sustainable city district. Every building is either Gold or Platinum LEED-certified, and a free tram connects different areas. Home to the three-year-old Mandarin Oriental hotel, a sanctuary of stylish design filled with nods to Qatari heritage, it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s already become a favorite of a sophisticated young Qatari crowd.
For example, without a reservation it’s tough to get a table at Nourlaya, a contemporary Sri Lankan restaurant where bone marrow masala competes with blue swimmer crab curry for the affections of local diners. Artisanal bakery Rusk’s zaatar rolls fly off the shelves, and every outdoor table at The Ministry of Coffee is full at all times of day. A small street market, Torba, pops up every Saturday, featuring local artists and artisans, as well as produce from Qatari farms. The portobello mushrooms, zucchini flowers and leafy kale are so lusciously fresh, it’s hard to believe they can be grown in such a hot desert country.
A star-powered arts calendar for 2022
While the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, currently closed for renovation, first put the nation on the global design map, the National Museum of Qatar by French starchitect Jean Nouvel has had visitors swooning over its smooth lines and angular discs since opening three years ago, all inspired by desert rose gypsum crystals. It’s also home to Jiwan, a restaurant reinterpreting traditional Qatari cuisine where diners are greeted with an infusion of fresh tamarind and orange blossom before diving into dishes like chicken and apricot kibbeh, and hammour fish with chana dahl and tomato.
While it may not have a Louvre or a Guggenheim, Qatar has quietly become one of the world’s leading art destinations in recent years, attracting the global designerati with world-class exhibitions and often challenging public art. Damien Hirst’s The Miraculous Journey, 14 monumental bronze sculptures chronicling the development of a fetus inside a uterus from conception until birth, is one of the boldest.
Spearheaded by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bint Khalifa Al Thani, chairperson of Qatar Museums, current museum programing across Doha is exciting and diverse, with exhibitions running until the end of March. Jeff Koons’s exuberant Lost in America features more than 60 artworks over 16 galleries, including a huge Balloon Dog.
Christian Dior Designer of Dreams at M7, a new center of fashion and tech innovation in the design-centric Msheireb Downtown, includes couture dresses from the collection of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, mother of Sheikha Al-Mayassa and former First Lady. Over at the Fire Station contemporary art space, Virgil Abloh’s Figures of Speech was inaugurated just days before the artist’s untimely death late last year.
The crescent-shaped Katara Towers will house two hotels – Fairmont Doha and Raffles Doha – whose top-tier-luxe status and eye-popping aesthetic (proving Qatar is gunning to rival Dubai in bling architecture) will make them worth a visit when they open in the coming months of 2022. The Doha EDITION, Rosewood and St. Regis Marsa Arabia are all on the way, and on a remote stretch of the Qatar peninsula’s northern coast, Zulal Wellness Resort by Chiva-Som has just debuted, the first wellness retreat dedicated to traditional Arabic and Islamic medicine, with separate programs for adults and families.
Elsewhere in Doha, new beach clubs are opening up to take advantage of the city’s seaside location and year-round sunshine. The originally Beirut concept February 30 and Dubai’s Azure Beach will launch in early this year. Michelin two-starred chef Dani García will be opening a Doha outpost of his Spanish seafood restaurant Lobito de Mar, and London’s SUSHISAMBA is on the way later in the year.
At times it can feel as if the whole capital is under construction. Hoardings marked with the slogan “Qatar Deserves The Best” – projects of the Supervisory Committee of Beautification of Roads and Public Places – line many of the city’s roads. The construction has become such a symbol of the current urban environment that it’s even inspired a collection of kilims by designers Maryam Al Homaid and Levi Hammet.
Traditions that bridge past and future
But alongside this modernity and change sit tradition and history. In the early morning, camels set out from Souq Waqif, Doha’s atmospheric central market, their riders in spotless thobes with red-and-white ghutra scarves folded elegantly on their heads. Just around the corner lies the Falcon Souq, where peregrines and sakers line up on pedestals and Qatari men take their birds to the state-of-the-art Falcon Hospital. Next door, at the royal stables, sleek Arabian horses wait their turns to take the heritage police out for their regular tours of the area.
The walk from Souq Waqif to Msheireb Downtown traverses a narrow street filled with the sweet scent of shisha smoke and the buzz of multilingual conversation and laughter, reflective of Qatar’s multicultural population. On this one stretch alone, Turkish döner sits next to Iraqi masgouf, Egyptian camel kofta, Moroccan tagine, Lebanese manakish, and more.
During the recent FIFA Arab Cup, a precursor of the World Cup that many thought of as a bit of a practice run, Msheireb’s central Al Baraha square was taken over by football-themed family activities, with matches broadcast live onto the façade of M7. If the energy and excitement that were felt throughout the city for this regional tournament are anything to go by, those who visit Qatar in 2022 have a lot to look forward to. And with so many new and exciting openings in the coming months, Qatar may soon be giving its more famous neighbors a run for their money.