Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has slapped down a reported $180 billion in the past few years to reinvent the capital of his nation.

Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has slapped down a reported $180 billion in the past few years to reinvent the capital of his nation. Photo: Mark Daffey/Lonely Planet

Rather than compete with Dubai's glitz, Doha is building its reputation as a five-star culturalcapital, writes Leisa Tyler.

Twenty years ago you could almost hear the sands shifting in Doha, the languid capital of Qatar. These days the noise is coming from the city's shifting skyline. The oil-rich emirate is alive with construction, as shiny skyscrapers rise from the scorching sands and geometric man-made islands appear in the sea.

The centrepiece is the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art, a stunning angular cube inspired by an ancient mosque in Egypt that Canton-born architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to build. Boldly jutting out of Doha's newly developed corniche (Pei insisted that the museum be constructed in the water so it could never get built out) the museum houses the most comprehensive collection of Islamic art in the world. The works, from Mongolia to Spain, India to Uzbekistan, span more than 1000 years.

I'm wandering behind my dashing young Qatari guide, Mohammed, who in an ankle-length white thobe and matching turban-like ghutra, is every bit as exotic as the sixth-century glass document holder he is showing me. The collection isn't large and interpretation is limited (brush up on your Islamic history beforehand) but what is here is mystifying. The Mongolian soldier's outfit looks as if it has just thundered down from the steppes. There is the favourite carpet of Tamerlane the Terrible, on which he used to play chess; the world's smallest Koran; and the personal jewels of Shah Jahan, India's first Mughal emperor, who built another iconic world building, the Taj Mahal, to mourn his dead wife. "This is all part of the Emir's plan to make Qatar the cultural heart of the Middle East," Mohammed says.

Since Dubai embarked on its "biggest, tallest, fastest" quest, its wealthy neighbours have been competing for the title of cultural capital. Abu Dhabi is building a Louvre as well as a Guggenheim. But a nose ahead is Qatar, whose emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has slapped down a reported $US130 billion ($180 billion) in the past five years or so to reinvent the capital of his nation of 1.5 million people as the art and culture hub of the Arab world. And while some Gulf economies are tail-spinning in the recession, Qatar is powering ahead.

The list of cultural projects in the works employing a raft of high-profile names is dizzying. Under construction is Arata Isozaki's spacey National Library, which will also house the Contemporary Art Museum and Museum of Science and Natural History in its two podiums. Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava has designed the dramatic new Photography Museum and French modernist Jean Nouvel is building a new national museum. Souk Waqif, Doha's charismatic old bazaar, has been rebuilt and Qatar has founded its own symphony orchestra. More recently the Tribeca Film Festival announced that it is jumping onboard with an annual event in Doha.

Uninterested in mimicking Dubai's razzamatazz, Qatar is hoping culture and tourism will sustain it when the oil dollars run out. But not just any old tourists Qatar wants only the discerning type, "classy tourists that don't compromise Islamic values", the former acting chief executive of the Qatar Tourism Authority, Jan Paul de Boer, once told me.

Qatar has a typical rags-to-riches story. Thirty years ago this tiny thumb of a nation jutting out from Saudi Arabia was considered one of the poorest in the world. In the home of the world's second biggest gas field, the population of mainly Bedouin nomads largely subsisted off fishing and pearling as it remained a British Protectorate until 1971. Emir Hamad overthrew his father in 1995, tapped into the country's immense natural resources and went about transforming Qatar into one of the most liberal and forward-thinking nations in the Arab world. At $US110,000, it now has the highest per capita income in the world.

The scale of developments, especially considering Qatar's shoebox size, is astonishing. There is the construction of Education City, a 1011-hectare satellite campus housing six of the world's leading universities and a $US7.9 billion state-of-the-art medical research centre; a big feat for a little country that built its first school in 1952. The Qatar Science and Technology Park promises to be an "incubator for start-up enterprises". Doha is also building a new airport, increasing the city's transit capacity from 12 million to 50 million travellers.

Hoping to position the nation as a medium between Israel and the Arab world, the emir established the Doha Debates in 2004, a public forum hosted by the BBC that discusses ongoing controversies in the region. He also founded (and largely still funds) the Al-Jazeera television network, which has its headquarters in Doha.

City Centre is the new central business district in Doha, with more than 50 skyscrapers under construction. On the far side of City Centre, Lusail is currently a sand box but in a few years the 35-square-kilometre development will house 200,000 residents. North Beach Resort will include 10 hotels, two golf courses and 3000 villas. The almost finished West Bay Lagoon is home to the most glamorous addresses in the city, each with beach access and a private jetty.

Next door to West Bay Lagoon is The Pearl, a 400-hectare man-made island with 32 kilometres of sandy beaches, dozens of glitzy shopping malls, a 700-yacht marina, lavish accommodation for 45,000 residents, several hotels, a mini Venice (complete with gondolas) and nine private islands, which sold out before the first bucket of sand was even poured. But the best bit? Buy an apartment, from $725,000, and the government will throw in a free residency visa.

Only one question remains: who would want to live here? Despite the emir's do-gooding, the media are censored, alcohol is banned (expatriates are permitted to spend only 10 per cent of their wage on booze and that's only if they have a well-paying job) and strict dress codes are enforced (despite what The Pearl's bikinis-laden advertising suggests. An Australian friend living in Doha was recently escorted by police from a shopping mall for showing too much knee.) It's relatively expensive to live here and temperatures skyrocket to 50degrees and higher in summer. And it's often labelled as the most boring place on Earth.

For me, however, as a stopover or short-break destination, Qatar looks far more appealing. A big sand pit flanking the Arabian Gulf where 90per cent of the population lives in the capital and the rest in villages scattered along the coast, Qatar doesn't have a lot to sell hence the government's enthusiasm for museums. For city goers, there is more than enough to amuse for a few days. Alongside the new museums is a host of luxury hotels, including two Ritz-Carltons and a W, Starwood's premium label. There are another 40 hotels in the pipeline, including a new high-tech establishment based in the 318-metre Aspire Tower that was built as the centrepiece of the 15th Asian Games.

The pick of the bunch is the sumptuous Sharq Village, managed by Ritz-Carlton and modelled on a traditional Qatari village that once stood on the same site. It has 170 guest rooms in 14 merchant-style houses, all with four-poster beds and bathtubs, and quite possibly some of the best hotel service in the world. Don't miss the rustic, desert-hued Six Senses Spa, with treatments such as a sugar scrub with date, rosewater and Hasawi red rice, several hammams and gender-segregated wings. Just steer clear of the mini bar, where bottles of home-grown Rosemont Estate shiraz sell for a staggering $135.

Jet-setters might prefer the snazzy new W risque for Doha with its sexy 1960s ski-lodge look in shades of white and purple. The suites are enormous; the WOW Suite has a lamp perched on top of a full-size model horse, an aquarium, pool table and $US10,000-a-night price tag.

As far as the government is concerned, Qatar's future in tourism will be five-star all the way. It even bills the national carrier as "the world's five-star airline". It's perhaps a slight stretch of the imagination it has some spanking new planes (and some old ones) and a savvy young crew hailing from all corners of the globe but the current airport is a shambles. It has no docking bays so just getting to and from your plane can take 30 minutes in a bus.

If you're lucky enough to fly in the nose, in either first or business class, you'll be treated to a few hours in the premium lounge, with its own entry and butler check-in service (just drive up, jump out and head to one of the seated check-in counters while somebody else deals with your bags). Upstairs, a left-hand turn takes you to the business-class lounge, which isn't to rave about, but if you're lucky enough to score a right-hand turn, in the First Class Lounge you'll find a spa with massages, facials and a huge jacuzzi and steam room to relax in, with napping rooms dressed with Frette linen and pyjamas. Both classes can get their hearts racing in the PlayStation hall, or if you're travelling with tots, leave them at the creche while you indulge in a pre-flight glass of champagne.

Service in general, from drivers to waiting staff, is excellent. With a population of about 250,000 Qataris, there are about four foreigners to every one Qatari in Doha. Service staff hail mainly from the Philippines, clerks from Lebanon and Europe and construction workers from south Asia. In fact, except during a tour of the museum, you'll be lucky to meet a Qatari at all.

Such a small population teamed with a huge petro-dollar income explains Qatar's enviable GDP and might also explain a pervasive lax work ethic. My relentless attempts to speak with government officials, for example, go almost unnoticed and the promise of a meeting with the Ministry of Culture is preceded by an ultimately fruitless two-hour goose-chase around the city.

"Its imbedded into [Qatari] people's psyches that they are rich and that has created an attitude of not caring," says Omar Chaikhouni, a Syrian national and the media officer at the Qatar Foundation, the umbrella for much of Doha's cultural development. "This is something the emir and Qatar Foundation are desperately trying to change. We want to develop empathy."

A quick glance at websites such as qatarsucks

.com (which is banned in Qatar), reveals many others have witnessed the attitude that Chaikhouni is wrestling with: that migrant workers building Doha's future are disposable.

As the old saying goes: Rome wasn't built in a day. Only 30 years ago most Qataris were still living as Bedouins in the desert. By pouring money into education, culture and the arts, they are forging a more tolerant face for the Islamic world.

"The difference between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East is that Qatar has a master plan," says Lauren Fryer, an Australian working for Ritz-Carlton in Doha. "It's not a 'build it and they will come' attitude like Dubai or Bahrain but part of a long-term vision to raise the profile of the Middle East. They have had it all worked out for years."

I get a glimpse of this vision on my last afternoon in Doha while wandering through Souk Waqif, a warren of whitewashed rammed earth walls fragrant with spices and one of the few places you can still get a feel for early 20th-century Qatar. There is an entire section devoted to falcons magnificent birds the Qataris use to hunt game and which fetch a whopping 5000 Qatari riyals ($1936) each. Restaurants and hookah bars draped in thick camel-hair rugs and filled with men gossiping over fruit-flavoured shisha pipes line the main alley.

A Qatari man approaches and offers me a book on Islam. He explains it's a new government initiative to introduce the culture of Islam to foreigners. "We don't want to convert you," he says laughing, perhaps in case I had the wrong idea. "We just want you to understand."

Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of Qatar Airways and Ritz-Carlton.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qatar Airways flies to Doha for $1160, with a partner airline to Asia and Qatar to Doha. The airline has plans for non-stop flights from Doha to Sydney and Melbourne late this year. Emirates has a fare for $1290, flying non-stop to Dubai and non-stop to Doha; this fare allows you to fly into Doha and out of another city in the Middle East. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Australians can obtain a visa upon arrival for stays up to 30 days.

Staying there

The Ritz-Carlton Doha is an elegant business hotel in the West Bay with top-notch service, Bulgari toiletries and Doha's best executive lounge. Rooms from $460. Phone +974 484 8000 or see ritzcarlton.com.

Sharq Village, Qatar's first international tourist hotel, is like a museum: mud walls on the outside are matched by marble floors and antiques spanning Syria to South Africa on the inside. Request a sea-view room and watch Doha's skyline change. Rooms from $500. Phone +974425 6666 or see sharqvillage.com.