Why Qatar? retorted my bemused friends as I informed them of my weekend travel plans. Despite ranking as the richest country in the world today based on GDP per capita, the state of Qatar, located on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has for many years been overlooked as a tourist and business destination, with attentions instead fixed on the bright lights of neighboring UAE. For the uninformed outsider, Qatar is at best a nice place for those seeking a quiet life, and at worst, an underdeveloped desert lagging behind its Gulf counterparts. But today, opinion is changing as fast as the country itself.
Four years on from the launch of the Qatar National Vision 2030, which set in motion a series of plans to encourage widespread development of the country, Qatar is developing fast. The small Gulf state however, is taking care to preserve its traditional values, mindful of the lessons learned from the rapid expansion in Dubai. These factors, along with the buzz of excitement as Qatar prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, were enough to deem the country well worthy of a visit.
Stepping onto the plane at Dubai International Airport for the short flight that would transport me to Doha, Qatar’s capital city, I was curious about what lay waiting for me. Touching down just one hour later, formulation of my first impressions was thwarted by the pitch darkness that accompanies a midnight arrival. Exchanging airplane for Mercedes Benz, I left the bustling airport and sped smoothly along the corniche to my destination, the Al Najada Hotel.
Located in the nucleus of Doha’s vibrant Souq Waqif where 300 years of trading history meet sympathetic renovation, Al Najada promises authenticity and an exclusive experience befitting its surroundings. But the hotel is not alone in its uniqueness; forming part of the appropriately named Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels, Al Najada is just one of six, five-star hotels, each with its own distinct character. Ranging in size from 14 to 37 rooms, the hotels are all all located within the souq’s perimeters, inviting guests to take a walk and try out the facilities of each. “We are delighted to have brought to the region the concept of luxury boutique hotels, reaffirming Doha’s stature as an international holiday destination” enthuses an official from Al Rayyan Hospitality, the Qatari company that currently manages the properties. “We have made a substantial investment towards the project that in its part also goes out to rejuvenate and preserve the souk’s authenticity,” he adds.
Despite the late hour, I arrived to a warm welcome as I entered the lobby. Surrounded by white-washed walls, cool running water trickling alongside the staircase, and soothing lighting, my immediate sensation was one of calm. In stark contrast to the opulence and gold-plated indulgence that’s typical of the five-star hotels that I had come to know in the Middle East, Al Najada seemed to offer an entirely different type of luxury—simplicity at its very best. But this simplicity hides a hive of activity, preparation and attention to detail that came to underpin my stay.
Lying in bed, the tranquility of my surroundings became entwined with a low hum of activity outside my window as souq life spilled out into the cafes and restaurants lining the narrow walkways late into the night. Posing no threat to my weariness, I soon drifted off to sleep, awaking the next morning refreshed and ready for some exploration. After a tasty breakfast in the open courtyard, served by the friendly staff that I came to grow rather fond of during the course of my stay, I was ready for the day’s adventure—first stop the Museum of Islamic Art.
After a short ride by local taxi to the impressive modern building that I had passed the night before, I entered the museum to find myself in a spacious and light atrium with spectacular views over the open water and Qatar’s developing skyline. Working my way through the network of dimly lit rooms that skirted the atrium, I moved through centuries and civilizations, with glass cases filled with treasures of all forms from tapestries and ceramics, to weapons and Quranic scripts.
Exiting the building back into the 21st century, I took a walk down the long driveway onto Doha’s tree-lined corniche, providing the perfect opportunity to observe the desert city growing around me; shining high rise towers juxtaposed with traditional buildings, reminding passersby of an older Qatar. Pondering the future direction of this city in transition, a cool drink beckoned as the heat of the day began to take its toll.
Back at Al Najada, and a drink and fabulous lunch later (quite possibly the best lamb shank and tiger prawns I’ve ever had), I treated myself to an afternoon nap before heading out once again—this time to negotiate the winding streets of Souq Waqif in all their glory.
Transforming from the sleepy ghost town that is Souq Waqif by day, the late afternoon sun casts a whole new light on the traditional market place as rows of shuttered shops and stalls spring to life, revealing an array of goods from daily basics to exotic animals and souvenirs. Losing myself in the labyrinth of intricate walkways, the scent of shisha tobacco, incense and spices infused the air, providing an assault on the senses. While the main street was home to a number of familiar Arabic restaurants and cafes, the likes of which I encounter frequently across the region, taking a turn off the beaten-track I found myself negotiating tables of locals (and local cuisine) lining narrow alleys with all manner of souq life unfolding in between.
After whiling away an indeterminable number of hours taking in all that Souq Waqif had to offer, stopping at intervals for an Arabic coffee here, a mint tea there, I headed back to my sanctuary.
Awaking on what was the final day of my short trip to Doha, I made my way down to the lobby to meet with Russell Loughland, former director of sales and marketing at Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels who had kindly agreed to take me on a tour of some of his other properties. Having handled and opened some of the largest luxury hotels across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Mr. Loughland gave his response to the very same question that my friends had asked me, why Qatar? And more importantly, why boutique? His answer was clear: a fresh challenge and the chance to create something unique. “I have opened many hotels but I have never opened numerous hotels in a short period of time, and I’ve certainly never opened boutique hotels” he explained, adding, “There isn’t a boutique hotel market. That’s the beauty. What we’re actually creating is something completely new.”
With that, our tour got underway, starting with Al Mirqab, the largest of the six hotels where Arab tradition blends seamlessly with modernity, followed by the contemporary Arumaila which appeals to the younger, fashionable crowd. Moving on to Musheireb, an intimate and unmistakably Arabic retreat comprising just ten rooms and four suites, I soon came to understand Souq Waqif’s slogan “choose your own flavor” with the idea of offering a wide range of styles to cater to all tastes and occasions.
My tour ended with Al Jasra, an impressive, contemporary Arabic hotel with no expense spared where design and quality are concerned. After exploring the hotel’s Moroccan spa, with walls tiled in captivating jewel-colored mosaic, I moved on to view some rooms. Taking a seat on a hand-stitched leather sofa in one of the hotel’s suites, I relished the moment, before snapping out of my day dream and heading outside, Loughland and I once again finding ourselves in the bustling souk.
Heading back to Al Najada it was time to part ways and time for me to return to the bright lights of Dubai. Bidding farewell to my hosts and stepping once again into the car that had delivered me to this taste of authentic Qatar less than 48 hours before, I made my way to the airport. Night had once again descended but by now my impressions of the place had been well-formed. This time, I was taking with me my memorable experiences of the hospitality of the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels, along with vibrant images of a country that is embracing its economic success while staying true to its roots.