Say one thing for the people of Qatar: Although they have become the wealthiest people in the world, they have not grown standoffish. On the contrary, they are laying out the welcome mat. In fact, they are making it increasingly difficult to stay away from their tiny Persian Gulf emirate. Wherever you look in Doha, the capital city, you see swanky hotels, state-of-the-art sports stadia, tournament-quality golf courses, world-class museums, and opulent beach resorts, all either just completed or in the works.
The centerpiece of Qatar’s building boom is the Pearl, a 988-acre oasis that is emerging from the waters off the coast of Doha. Its first residential units—villas, townhouses, and high-rises—are set to open next year; by 2010 this man-made, multibillion-dollar island will hold 8,000 luxury homes, three hotels, four marinas, beach clubs, and more than 2 million square feet of retail space. (Click image to enlarge)
But the Pearl is just the beginning. Over the next five years, Qatar, which occupies a peninsula that reaches 160 miles into the Persian Gulf, plans to invest an estimated $150 billion in tourism amenities and infrastructure. After all, oil and natural gas, the primary sources of the Arab nation’s wealth, will not last forever. But if all goes according to Qatar’s plans, tourism will.
Some Westerners may be leery of Qatar’s newfound hospitality. For Americans who recall the emirate as the dust-blown backdrop for daily briefings during Operation Desert Storm 15 years ago, Qatar might not be the first place that comes to mind when they consider vacation destinations. The country’s landscape is mostly barren and sandswept; even its Arab neighbors used to call Qatar “the land that God forgot.”
On the other hand, before Dubai, the emirate across the gulf, went on its building binge, it also was an obscure sheikhdom with a history of insularity. Yet today Dubai has become the irresistible land of nonstop excitement, where the world’s richest horse race is run, and where a hotel has given itself a seven-star rating. Soon Dubai will be home to the world’s tallest building and to the world’s most expansive theme park, Dubailand, which when completed will be twice as large as Walt Disney World. Here, a mammoth shopping mall shelters one of the world’s longest indoor ski runs. If your game is golf, tennis, or Formula One, the place to catch the top competitors in action is Dubai.
“I recall in 1986 we were happy to get 10,000 tourists to Dubai,” says John Wallis, senior vice president of global asset management for Hyatt International, who, while he was the general manager at one of the Hyatt hotels in Dubai, served on the Dubai tourist board. “Today the board projects 15 million tourists by 2010.”
Another measure of Dubai’s success—noted well by Qatar—has been the response to its own man-made island projects. The first of these was the Palm Jumeirah, which has a 1.2-mile-long trunk that runs from the mainland coast to the four-mile-wide fronds. On these will sit, by the end of 2008, palatial homes, lavish hotels, marinas, clubhouses, and an aquatic-themed resort. Nearby, a second Palm, the Jebel Ali, will offer restaurants, theaters, and shopping malls. Even more spectacular is the five-mile-long, four-mile-wide World, which, when completed in 2008, will include some 300 islands that form a map of the globe.Should you wonder who would want a vacation villa in the Persian Gulf, the Palms’ developer is pleased to report that all of the properties on the Palm Jumeirah sold within 72 hours of going on the market. This response prompted Sheikh Maktoum, Dubai’s monarch, to announce plans for a third Palm island, Palm Deira, which will be larger than its predecessors.
Given Dubai’s success in creating something—a luxury destination—from nothing but sand and sea, it is not surprising to see its neighboring emirates following suit. Bahrain, an island chain to begin with, is expanding on the aquatic theme with Amwaj Islands, 30 million square feet of reclaimed land that will accommodate villas, hotels, gardens, amusement parks, and retail shops, all connected by a network of canals. And because a trip to the Persian Gulf would not be complete without skiing, Bahrain is building a $175 million indoor winter sports complex called Iceberg Tower.
Perhaps envious of all the attention being paid to Dubai, its otherwise more conservative sister emirate, Abu Dhabi, now tempts the upscale traveler with one of the world’s most expensive hotels, the Emirates Palace. Described as the Taj Mahal of the Middle East, the hotel welcomes guests in its Grand Atrium lobby, which is higher than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and which sets the mood for a $14,000-per-night stay in one of the hotel’s 16 Palace suites.
Even Oman, once known as the hermit of the Middle East, is climbing onto the tourism bandwagon. In the more refined social orbits, of course, mention of Oman long has evoked the scent of frankincense; its rich smoke permeates homes, government buildings, and shrines and temples throughout the country. But no matter how genteel the frankincense trade, it never has generated the kind of tourist traffic projected for Oman’s Blue City. When completed in 2021, the gigantic $15 billion waterfront project will house 250,000 residents, and it is expected to attract 2 million tourists a year to its harbor, hotels, golf courses, and markets.
For the sensation of the hour, though, you have to turn to Qatar, where, by 2010, tourism is expected to climb 250 percent, to 1.4 million visitors a year. However, those guests may not belong to the same crowd that pushes into the Dubai theme parks and shopping malls. “Dubai will draw the mass-market traveler,” says Wallis, “while the adventure traveler will come to Qatar.”
Photograph by Paul Cowan/Dreamstime.com (Click image to enlarge)
Some visitors might even consider staying awhile and maybe putting down roots in a condo or villa on the Pearl. After all, in view of the $150 billion worth of improvements to the country’s infrastructure over the next five years, the Pearl might be the best real estate bargain in the Gulf. “You are buying prime property in the heart of the capital city of a country whose GDP per capita will overtake Switzerland’s within a year or two,” notes one promotion for the island development, which evidently was written before last year, when Qatar’s GDP per capita surpassed Switzerland’s. “Would you not buy in Zurich at these prices?”
It probably would be bad manners to point out that this is not Zurich.