Rising From The Desert: With its cutting-edge architecture, commitment to arts and culture, and focus on sustainability, could Doha, Qatar, offer cities across the world a blueprint for the future? Text by Whitney Robinson, photographs by Abi Green
During my time as editor in chief of Elle Decor, my colleagues and I talked a lot about the future. Conversations about everything from architecture and building materials to inclusive, universal design would make us consider how these elements might influence our collective tomorrow. And, inevitably, these conversations would focus on the trajectory of cities. What would they look like? How sustainable would they be? Would there still be cars? Would humans figure out a way to coexist more harmoniously?
Today, these questions are more pressing than ever as the effect of the pandemic on our urban centres is furiously analysed. In the COVID-19 age, it seems everything about the way our cities were created needs re-examining—and even, in some cases, reimagining.
As we ask ourselves what cities of the future should look like, we naturally look around for examples. Places like Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York City seem to fit the description on paper: each has vast neon-tinged skylines, sprawling (albeit sometimes out-of-date) public-transportation infrastructures, and a renewed focus on the pedestrian experience, thanks to forward-thinking projects like the High Line—an elevated park on an abandoned railway line that brought a little bit of nature to Manhattan’s far west side.
But to me, the designation ‘futuristic city’ isn’t a formula—it’s an ever-changing experiment that evolves to meet the needs of the people. And I’d argue that no city better encapsulates that definition than Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Exploring Doha, The Model Futuristic City
Qatar occupies an oval-shaped peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, with Iran across the sea. (The name of the news network Al Jazeera, which is headquartered in Doha, comes from the Arabic for “The Peninsula.”) For centuries, the territory was a fishing and pearl-trading centre, ruled by various Arab tribes until the Ottoman Empire expanded its reach there in 1871. The Ottomans left at the beginning of World War I; Qatar’s modern history dates from 1916, when the then sheikhdom became a British protectorate. The discovery of oil in 1938 was a turning point, too, as it was for many of Qatar’s neighbours, bringing a swell in revenue that led to an expanded government and increased public services.
The sheikhdom declared independence in 1971, when Britain pulled out of the Gulf, citing financial constraints. But the 1980s and early 90s saw a languishing economy, resulting, in 1995, in a shake-up of the country’s leadership. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (known as ‘Father Emir’) laid the plans for a modern state after overthrowing his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, who had ruled since independence. One of the younger Al Thani’s most significant reforms was known as National Vision 2030, a grand blueprint for the country.
Now, under the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar is the richest state per capita in the world, thanks to its reserves of oil and natural gas. This wealth has allowed the government—especially in the past two decades—to heavily invest in everything from art to medical research and education, with the nation achieving a 94 per cent literacy rate.
So what does it feel like to be in Doha, this prosperous city of the future? Does everyone drive a Ferrari and shop all day? Well, yes and no. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Qatar a couple times a year for the past 15 years as part of my work as an editor and design consultant, and a few things always stand out. Qataris get up early, with the first call to prayer at around 5 am. The desert sun rises fast and blazes hot. (It can be 43°C in the shade in summer, but from October to February, it’s a pleasant 23°C on average.)
Malls are plentiful, and are popular places to hang out. Outposts of high-end restaurants, like Nobu and Dani García’s BiBo, abound. Meanwhile, there’s been a movement led by young Qataris to promote fresh produce and organic food, and healthy juice bars and eateries—like Torba Café in Education City, which serves an amazing buckwheat-and-mushroom pizza—have followed.
But what makes Doha so fascinating are its incredible contradictions. One day I might be meeting expat English friends at the old Souq Waqif, where many of the wealthiest locals still do their market shopping, after wiping their hands clean from digging into fresh Yemenite cuisine at Bandar Aden restaurant (I always order the fahsa, a lamb stew). The next day I’ll find myself riding in the back of a Qatari friend’s souped-up Mercedes G-Wagon (or Rolls-Royce, or Ferrari, often painted in signature Qatari burgundy) to full-moon yoga, a night-time ritual held on the edge of the Persian Gulf, with amazing views of the water.
The best way to understand Qatar’s extraordinary growth and modernisation is through its architecture, and no building is more emblematic of modern Doha than the National Museum of Qatar, or NMoQ, which sits along the city’s Corniche. The work of Pritzker Prize–winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the building is designed to resemble a natural mineral formation known as the desert rose. More than 2,50,000 different steel elements are covered in glass-fibre-reinforced concrete and fused together over 52,026 square metres of gallery space (the primary exhibit hall is over 1.5 kilometre long). “It’s not just an art museum,” Jean Nouvel told me on the eve of its opening in 2018. “It is the work of the wind, of the sand, for millennia,” he explained of his inspiration for the building.
He’s not kidding. Over the past decade, I’ve watched the museum morph from a giant construction zone to an undulating biomorphic beauty. It’s a building with no bad angle, and one that elicits fervent hyperbole. When it debuted, The New York Times published an opinion piece with the headline “Skip the Vatican Museum. Go to the National Museum of Qatar Instead.” While the main exhibition space tells the story of Qatar’s past, present, and future, a new exhibition, Seagrass Tales, Dugong Trails, is designed especially for children (family outings are a big part of the culture here). The aim is to educate young people about these manatee-like mammals, which have lived in the Persian Gulf for more than 7,500 years and are now threatened with extinction.
The museum is the brainchild of the emir’s sister, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, the chairperson of Qatar Museums, the umbrella organisation for the city’s arts-and-culture institutions. Since she graduated from Duke University in 2005, she has become a major force in the international art market and is now in charge of much of the cultural life of the country. (She and I were classmates at Duke, and I now advise on design projects for Qatar Museums.)
In a TED Talk she gave in 2010, Al Mayassa emphasised “globalising the local, localising the global” (paraphrasing anthropologist Richard Wilk). “We are changing our culture from within,” she said, “but at the same time we are reconnecting with our traditions. We know that modernisation is happening. Qatar wants to be a modern nation. But at the same time, we are reconnecting and reasserting our Arab heritage.”
At Qatar Museums, Al Mayassa oversees a diverse portfolio that includes the I M Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art, known as the MIA, now undergoing its first gallery rehang since opening in 2006; Fire Station Artist in Residence, a former civil defense building turned studio and gallery spaces; and the Culture Pass Club, a soon-to-open members-only arts club and collaborative space that will include town houses designed by the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren, and young Qataris Wadha and Aisha Al Sowaidi.
CP Club, as it’s known, is located in Msheireb Downtown Doha, which is billed by its developers as the “world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project” and is helmed by Al Mayassa’s glamorous mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Thani. In this neighbourhood you’ll find Baharat Square, the largest covered, open-air plaza in the Middle East; Crystallation, an interactive tunnel of light; and M7, a new design, fashion, and tech incubator for Qataris interested in careers in the arts.
Recently, Al Mayassa has shifted her focus to sustainability—a change that some may find surprising in a nation that owes much of its wealth to fossil fuels. For the past several months, Al Mayassa has been documenting her outings to clean up Qatar’s beaches with her five children on her Instagram page, @almayassabinthamad. Over Zoom, she told me about the idea behind sharing these trips.
“I am trying to encourage people to find solutions to the problems that, collectively, we have created. The fact that Qatar is surrounded by water on three sides has made it a magnet for plastic pollution,” she said, adding that she was wearing an abaya made of recycled plastic, the work of Wit Noiz, a young Qatari label. Qatar Museums is now the official partner of Milanese gallerist Rosanna Orlandi’s Ro Plastic Prize, which recognises those in the design community making an effort to reuse the material. Next month, the third edition will be awarded at the Salone del Mobile in Milan.
Twenty minutes west of Msheireb Downtown Doha via a subway system that looks straight out of Blade Runner, you’ll find Education City, the physical heart of the Qatar Foundation. Another project headed by Sheikha Mozah, the foundation was established in 1995 to advance education, philanthropy, and science for both Qataris and international students. The 3,700-acre campus is home to eight universities, including branches of Northwestern, Georgetown, and Carnegie Mellon.
Japanese architect and urban planner Arata Isozaki created the architectural master plan. Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi designed the cube-shaped Qatar Foundation headquarters, and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed the spaceship-like National Library, which houses a collection of more than 8,00,000 books. There’s also Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha’s primary space for contemporary works, and Sidra Medicine, a 400-bed women’s and children’s hospital, which has a remarkable Damien Hirst installation called The Miraculous Journey—a series of 14 giant bronze sculptures depicting the development of a fetus—on its campus grounds.
When I first came to Doha in 2006, I immediately felt at home. In the 15 years since, I have been amazed to see a city being built from scratch. That pioneer spirit was, and still is, intoxicating. And yet, despite the cutting-edge nature of it all, it seems that Qatar, and the Middle East at large, is a place that is deeply misunderstood by many in the West. It’s my great hope that little by little, more people will begin to change their perceptions, because there is much to learn from Doha’s example.
Often, that understanding starts with travel. And the first thing travellers experience is normally the airport—especially in Doha, which has become an important global transit hub. It’s the first glimpse of the country that 39 million people a year get. In the middle of Hamad International is a giant sculpture of a teddy bear holding a lamp, the work of Swiss artist Urs Fischer. According to Al Mayassa, Lamp Bear celebrates the idea of travel—the kind of childhood wonder it can inspire that so many of us long to recapture. And just like in childhood, there is a sense here that anything is possible. Welcome to the future.
Air India flies non-stop from Delhi to Doha.
Banyan Tree Doha Parisian designer Jacques Garcia created the interiors of this property in Mushaireb—including Vertigo, a 28th-floor bar overlooking the city. Doubles from INR 24,681
Mandarin Oriental Located in Msheireb Downtown Doha, this David Collins Studio–designed hotel is within walking distance of both MIA and NMoQ. Doubles from INR 47,119
Culture Pass Club A members-only arts club and collaborative space that will have houses available to the public for short-term stays.
East-West/West-East In the middle of the desert, two hours west of Doha, a series of four steel monoliths created by American sculptor Richard Serra stretches over three kilometres.
Education City Designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, this city-within-a-city is home to multiple cultural and research institutions, branches of eight universities, and the Qatar National Library.
Fire Station Artist in Residence This former civil-defence building now functions as a contemporary art space committed to supporting artists through residence programmes and public shows.
M7 An artistic hub in Msheireb Downtown Doha that incubates local talent, especially in fashion, and hosts regular exhibitions.
Museum of Islamic Art On the city’s Corniche along Doha Bay, the I M Pei–designed MIA holds a collection that spans 14 centuries.
National Museum of Qatar Designed by Jean Nouvel in the form of the desert rose, this 52,026 sq m gallery examines Qatar’s past, present, and future.
Place Vendôme Inspired by the 18th-century square in Paris, this mixed-use project in neighbouring Lusail will open in February and feature over 500 retail outlets, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues.
Qatar National Convention Centre Arata Isozaki designed this LEED-certified building in Education City that houses Maman, a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois.
Damasca One Syrian comfort food in Souq Waqif. Entrées INR 598–INR 2,617
Em Sherif Authentic regional dishes are served on the roof of the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort in West Bay. Prix fixe INR 6,133
Nourlaya Contemporary Try Sri Lankan cuisine at this lively corner restaurant in Msheireb Downtown Doha. Entrées INR 972–INR 4,861
Torba Farmers Market A sustainability-minded vendor and cafe in Education City selling organic meals and produce.
Related: 20 Eco-Friendly Spots To Make Your Trip To The Middle East Meaningful