Dweebs in Doha

Doha reminds me of Dubai a decade or so ago: a city expanding and changing at a frenetic rate as migrant workers and expatriates flock here to construct its lofty ambitions in the dust and sand. It’s also a hard city to love, with horrendous traffic and red lights that last up to 3 minutes and a plethora of dust pollution swirling at your feet each time you walk. I found myself mostly ignored by men and tried not to feel insulted that many of those who walked around in thobe dishdashas—whether working in the souq or the museum—chose to speak over me and directly to TC instead, when gender separation is clearly important here.

As a city under construction, Doha thoroughly modern, with artificial sights and a ton of shopping malls to keep its expatriates happy as they work their way through their contracts, yet with a dire record of human rights and labour laws—termed by the media as modern slavery especially when it comes to the treatment of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent or even sub-saharan Africa—in this sharia-legislated country. It’s hard work, after all, prepping a city for the 2022 World cup, as construction on the stadium and the metro barrels full steam ahead. But the extremes here are jarring, to be honest. The exploitation of the ‘lower classes’ in contrast to the excess and opulence of the wealthy, all within the strict rules of Islamic laws—they took a while to get used to frankly, after having come straight from Tbilisi, a city that’s still building itself from the ruins of communism.

Thankfully, February in Doha is still considered a ‘winter month’, so temperatures were actually beautifully balmy at about 16-22 degrees celsius and the infamous desert heat hadn’t yet returned. We arrived on short-term visitor visas in Doha for 2 days and learned that taxis are pretty much the norm here, as we went to and fro from our hotel at the Sports Roundabout. Taxis are plentiful, though not necessarily always cheap, given the bad traffic jams here. Karwa taxis would be Doha’s default mode of transportation apart from buses, although there’s a subtle tipping culture here that we aren’t quite used to given the appalling wages that these workers actually earn. We added about 5-10 rials to each cab fare, then about 20% more to restaurant bills, then felt thoroughly frustrated because it was something else yet to remember, which be solved by simply adding service charge and government tax to the total bill. It was also surprising to learn that most places to eat were either found in hotel lobbies or shopping malls that do play a large role in pastime activities for expatriates.

In Doha itself, there’re just a few fixed things to see: the Museum of Islamic Art which does have an impressive collection of artefacts, a stroll through part of the 5 km-long Corniche and the Dhows floating on the banks, the atmospheric Souq Waqif if you can ignore the treatment of the poor animals on sale in a certain part of it and the adjoining Falcon Souq, and perhaps the West Bay financial district if a glittering skyline is what you look for.

As we took our last taxi ride through the lit columns framing the expressway that led to Hamad International airport, I asked myself this question: is it a place that I’m willing to return to? Unfortunately, I can’t quite say yes.