Inside Qatar before the World Cup – and why it’s like the Disneyland of the desert
IMAGINE a scene from One Thousand and One Nights: A Bedouin tent, in the desert, a few meters from the warm waters of the Gulf.
You’re sitting by a crackling fire planted in the sand, eating perfectly cooked grilled meat.
And with the fans gathered by their side, watching the final game of the World Cup on a giant screen.
But this month of November, you don’t need to imagine it. You can live it.
Sit on a camel, steer the “desert ship” along the dunes, or race at 100 km/h.
Take a kayak or paddleboard on the turquoise blue waters.
And breathe in the sights, sounds and smells of Souq Waqif, Doha’s famous market, which has been the center of the city for over a century.
All while being part of the soccer version of Disneyland in the desert.
But for fans who want to know what they can do when they’re not at a game, prepare for something you’ve never felt or seen before.
With all eight World Cup stadiums within a 43-mile space, and five of them directly accessible by the Doha Metro system, 2022 will be the most compact tournament of the modern era.
Qatar isn’t just a destination this winter, of course, the desert emirate wants to become a must-visit destination for travelers heading east from the UK.
While there are rules that mean this is far from an “everything is fine” adventure, there are some aspects that will truly take your breath away.
Whether your big love is food, water, high-speed thrills, or just that feeling of something very different, Qatar has you covered.
My base for four days was the modern, upscale Banyan Tree, with spectacular views of Al Bidda Park – the venue for the main World Cup fan-fest – the Arabian Gulf and the high-rise hotels of West Bay .
Qataris believe that hospitality is a duty, dating back to the days when desert travelers had the right to ask for free food and accommodation if they came across a village.
Souq Waqif, the authentically reconstructed market in the center of Doha, echoes the calls to prayer from the minarets five times a day.
As you stroll through the narrow corridors and the vast covered market – Souq means shop in Arabic – incense, perfumes and spices assault your nostrils.
Unlike some bazaars, you are not bothered by street vendors or beggars. There’s no haggling either – the price is the price.
Outside the main market are cafes and restaurants, to suit all budgets and across the road is the Falcon Souq.
The asking price for bird hunting starts at 2,000 Riyals (around £400) up to £130,000.
All are hooded inside the store and Falcon Souq owner Firaz Al Obisi explained: “Falcons have very strong vision and are afraid of bright colors. That’s why they wear balaclavas.
Next door, and open to visitors, is the Falcon Hospital, four floors dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of these princes among the birds. Other desert traditions remain – with a few puffy extras.
Nothing, however, compares to the feeling of sitting atop a camel as it plods through the dunes.
My camel was much safer than its slightly apprehensive passenger and £10 for a 15 minute experience is well worth it.
Just like dune racing – 4×4 beasts with their tires deflated, speeding through the sand at 60 mph.
The £100 per car cost wasn’t a budget breaker either.
Then there was the prospect of a night under the stars in the air-conditioned Bedouin tents by the ocean.
It’s glamping, Qatari style, with gorgeous beaches and open fires for an authentic desert experience.
For those looking for alternative accommodation, two 4,000-berth cruise ships will dock in the city’s new port for the tournament, with hotels, apartments and Airbnb-style options at set rates.
But that’s not all. There are, even in a young country, full of history and culture, a multitude of museums.
And then there’s the eight kilometer ‘Corniche’ promenade along the water’s edge – set to be a cavalcade of color, excitement and hubbub for visitors.
The more adventurous can head to the man-made island of The Pearl, to rent a kayak or paddleboard and navigate these crystal clear waters.
All in all a feast for the eyes, the senses and those who like something different.
COVID: Fully vaccinated people with a UK Covid pass do not need to be tested before departure.
Unvaccinated individuals must provide a negative PCR test result taken within 48 hours of flight departure time and quarantine in a hotel for five nights, then take an antigen test.
GETTING THERE : Flights with Qatar Airways from Heathrow are from £785 return. For details, see qatarairways.com.
STAYING THERE: Double rooms at the Banyan Tree Doha start at £294 per night.
For more details and to book, visit banyantree.com.
MORE INFORMATION: See visitqatar.qa.