Once one of the poorest states in the Gulf, Qatar has progressed exponentially to become one of the richest and most powerful countries in the region. Oil money is responsible behind the small nation’s explosive growth, and continues to pay for Qatar’s regional and global projects.
I was invited by the Doha International Family Institute (DIFI) and Qatar Foundation for their international conference “Empowering Families: A Pathway to Development”. The conference was to take place at the Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC) in the country’s capital, Doha. While attending the conference, I had the opportunity to explore Doha. Pooling together my memories and travel experience, I have put together a checklist for Qatar regarding things to see, what to do, and how to go about it.
Qatar Visa Procedures
• There are many variations to Qatar’s visa requirements, depending on which country’s passport you hold.
Note: Qatar is consistently updating its visa requirements. Please refer to the country’s official website.
• Nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries do not require a visa to enter Qatar. The GCC countries are Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
• Nationals of 80 countries are eligible for visa-free entry into Qatar. Visitors from these countries do not need to make prior visa arrangements, and can obtain a visa waiver upon arrival in Qatar.
- For nationals from 34 countries including France, Germany, Iceland, Malaysia and Malta, the waiver is valid for 180 days and allows its holder to spend up to 90 days in Qatar (single or multiple trips).
- For nationals from 46 countries including India, Indonesia, Brazil, Canada, Japan and South Africa, the waiver is valid for 30 days and allows its holder to spend up to 30 days in Qatar (single or multiple trips). The waiver can be extended for 30 days.
• Travelers who are not eligible for visa-free entry to Qatar, but who have a valid residence permit or visit visa to GCC countries, Schengen nations, Australia, UK, Canada, USA or New Zealand can obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) free of charge by filling out an online application.
• Travelers who are not eligible for visa-free entry or ETA can apply for a Tourist Visa online. This visa allows the holder to stay in Qatar for up to 30 days. Extensions are not permitted. If you are traveling through Qatar Airways, you can log into ‘My Trips’ on the airline’s website and select ‘Apply for a visa’.
Travel Advice for Qatar
• The crime in Qatar is extremely low. Nevertheless women should exercise caution when traveling alone at night.
• If you want to go sightseeing around Doha, I would recommend using Qatar’s extensive bus system, registered taxis, hotel shuttles and concierge. Getting into a random cab, especially when you are alone at night is not a good idea.
• If you intend to rent a car, you can use your driving license (regardless of issuing country) to legally drive for a week. If you plan to stay longer in Qatar, an International Driving License or Permit will have you covered for six months.
• Like other GCC nations, Qatar identifies as a Sunni Muslim country and follows Shariah Law (Islamic law). I strongly recommend doing your research on local and religious customs.
• If you are traveling during the fasting month of Ramadan, eating and drinking in public during daytime hours is forbidden. Most restaurants and eateries will only open after fasting hours. Since Muslims follow the Hijri or lunar calendar, the month and timings of Ramadan vary every year. Take a note of this when planning a trip to Qatar.
• Hookah or shisha lounges are a common sight in Qatar. Smoking (cigarettes, cigars, etc.) is socially acceptable, but is restricted to designated spaces.
• Alcohol is allowed in airport duty free, licensed hotel restaurants and bars only. It is a criminal offence in Qatar to drink alcohol in public, carry alcohol on your person, or be drunk in public.
• Pork is not served in any public establishments in Qatar.
• Public display of affection is not allowed in Qatar.
• Homosexual behavior is illegal in Qatar.
• While female visitors are not required to wear a burqa (loose-fitting, flowing garment) or a hijab (head covering) in Qatar, they are expected to dress modestly in public. That means avoiding short skirts or dresses, and exposing your shoulders. At the DIFI conference, there were delegates from all over the world. The picture below should give female travelers an idea of what is acceptable in Qatar. If you scroll further down, you will also find a picture of me posing for a photograph with a policeman in Souq Waqif. That should also serve as a guide.
• Religious structures in Qatar follow a stricter dress code both for men and women. It is best to familiarize yourself with expectations beforehand, either online or asking local guides and your hotel management.
• I always ask permission before photographing any person, monument or display, just to be on the safe side regarding cultural sensitivities.
Things to See in Qatar’s Capital, Doha
Museum of Islamic Art
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) is Qatar’s top attraction in Doha, and I couldn’t agree more. You simply cannot leave Qatar without spending some time in this magnificent place. The museum houses one of the world’s most extensive collections of Islamic artifacts, representing art across three continents over a period of 1,400 years. It represents H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s vision to transform Qatar into the cultural capital of the Middle East.
Designed by I. M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art is located on one end of the Corniche in Doha, near the traditional dhow (Qatari sailing boats made of wood) harbor. The entire structure is built on an island off an artificial peninsula. At five storeys high, the museum includes temporary and permanent galleries, classrooms, prayer rooms, ablution facilities, a library, a restaurant and a 200 capacity theater. The surrounding park space is open 24 hours, and has walking tracks, cycling paths, cafes and boat rentals.
The Museum of Islamic Art is the first of its kind in the Gulf. It features unique pieces of Islamic art such as metalwork, jewelry, woodcrafting, and glasswork. Gathered since the 1980s, the museum also includes manuscripts, textiles and ceramics originating in Spain, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, India and Central Asia. Previous exhibitions include:
- Life of Tipu Sultan, South India’s ruler and patron
- Miniature paintings and calligraphic compositions of the Mughal and Safavid era
- Real and mythical animals from classics such as Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights and Kalila wa Dimna
Since the Museum of Islamic Art is part of the Qatar Museums Authority, admission to the museum and the park is free. If you are a museum buff like me, you will need at least 4 hours in this place to do justice to your intellectual curiosity. The museum is one of a kind, and there is so much to see and learn. I want to go back to Qatar, just to re-immerse myself in the galleries.
Also known as the The Torch, Aspire Tower is a skyscraper hotel that is located in Aspire Park. At 980 feet, it is the tallest structure both in Doha and Qatar.
When Qatar hosted the 15th Asian Games in 2006, the Aspire Tower was designed by architect Hadi Simaan and engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners, to house the Symbolic Flame of the Asian Games. The design imitates a hand grasping a torch that is situated at the top of the tower. As a result, the structure is also called the Doha Olympic Tower or the Khalifa Sports Tower.
The energy-efficient glass facade helps keep the interior of the building cool from the surrounding desert heat of Qatar. Using a combination of glass fiber reinforced concrete, the structural components of the tower are firmly anchored in place. When the building was completed, it’s total cost amounted to 133,395,000 euros.
The Aspire Tower also houses a five-star hotel, a sports museum, a health club, a swimming pool cantilevered from the core, restaurants and an observation deck. A unique place to experience Qatar’s landscape while dining on fine Mediterranean cuisine, is the restaurant Three Sixty. Located on the 47th floor of the Aspire Tower, Three Sixty is the only revolving restaurant in Doha and offers diners panoramic views of the city.
For centuries, Souq Waqif by the dry river bed Wadi Musheireb was a market for trading activities in Qatar. Bedouins would bring livestock goods such as wool and animals, to barter for daily necessities. After Qatar’s financial boom of the 1990s, the souq fell into decline and was largely destroyed in a fire in 2003. In 2006, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser led a restoration program to restore Souq Waqif’s architectural ambiance.
Today, Souq Waqif is one of the most traditional marketplaces in Qatar. Visitors can walk past the mud-rendered low rise buildings, with their exposed timber beams, palm fronds and wind towers; a fine salute to Qatari architecture. The alleys are filled with the smells of oud (an exotic incense made from agarwood), different perfumes, sweetmeats, and spices like turmeric and cumin. In maintaining the Souq Waqif’s traditional aesthetics, even the patrolling policemen are dressed in uniforms back from the 1940s.
In the 1700s, migrants established pearling and trading settlements along the coast of modern day Qatar. The discovery of oil reserves in 1939 led to the decline of pearling and fishing as Qatar’s main source of revenue. As the country became more wealthy and developed, other trades such as weaving, carpentry, and basket making started to disappear. But in the souqs of Qatar, you will see a lot of these ancient skills and merchandise, preserved and very much alive.
As you stroll through the labyrinth like alleyways, you can see the Doha Fort towering over Souq Waqif. Commonly called Al Koot Tower, this military fortress was built in 1927 by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, who governed Qatar from 1913 to 1949. It was intended to protect Souq Waqif from thieves. Now a museum, it houses traditional handicrafts, gypsum ornaments, wooden crafts, fishing equipment, photos and paintings. Since I was pressed for time, I did not have a chance to visit the fort. But if you are interested, you need to schedule an appointment before you visit.
Above all, Souq Waqif is a shopper’s paradise with goods ranging from ethnic garments like the Qatari bukhnoq (female headdress) and ghutra (male headdress), spice packages, as well as intricate handicrafts and souvenirs. Most of the shops in the souq close at 1pm. But when they reopen around 4 in the evening, you will find locals and tourists thronging the many cafes, restaurants and shisha lounges.
Last, but not the least, don’t forget to have fresh henna designs painted onto your hands! A great way to complete your trip to Doha, Qatar. And it makes for great memories and stories to share with friends and family.
If you have any questions about traveling to Qatar or any feedback, feel free to comment below. I’ll be more than happy to get back to you!