Once a small fishing and pearl diving village by a shallow bay in the Persian Gulf, Doha, Qatar is now a dazzling city, filled with gleaming towers and financed by oil and natural gas reserves. Not to be outdone by its Emirati neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Doha is investing heavily in education, culture and sport to reach its ambitions to be a world-class city. Qataris enjoy the highest per capita income in the world, and that, along with a solid economy, makes Qatar’s capital city an appealing destination for international workers.
What is it known for? Expats outnumber Qataris by six to one, drawn by jobs in construction, hospitality, education and the gas and oil industries. Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has funded massive amounts of infrastructure and development, including Education City, where the university campuses of Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Texas A&M are located, and Aspire Zone, where some of the arenas integral to Qatar’s hosting the World Cup in 2022 are located. The next decade will see the construction of a city-wide rail system and air-conditioned stadiums, so matches can be played during the scorching hot summer, as well as an entirely modular stadium in Doha Port that will be disassembled after the World Cup and sent on to the next host country. “It is booming, there are a lot of things happening,” said Adel Lawson, a British engineer who lives and grew up in Doha and owns the real estate website Mannzili. “It’s opening up culturally, even though it is a Muslim culture, there’s a lot more to do and places to go out, including theatre and many events organized by expats.”
The city is centred on the Corniche, a wide, curving avenue that runs along the bay. In the cool evening hours, families come here to promenade, with women floating past in their black abayas (traditional women’s overgarment) and small children darting back and forth. The Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the famous architect IM Pei, anchors the southern end. Just a few blocks in from the Corniche is the Souq Waqif, a cobblestoned facsimile of the souq that was on this site for a century. It may have been built to look old, but the souq is still a top spot for an evening out, wandering in and out of warmly-lit stalls and galleries selling everything from jewellery to spices, past groups of men smoking shisha and sipping mint tea.
Where do you want to live? The new district of West Bay in the north of the city is very popular, with its waterfront villas and apartment towers, so much so that demand exceeds supply. “We have a lack of two-bedroom apartments in West Bay and not enough villas in West Bay Lagoon or along the waterside on The Pearl Qatar,” explained Mirco A Maurer, head of real estate at Engel and Völkers, Doha. The Pearl Qatar is a manmade island development near West Bay with a capacity for 41,000 residents in apartments, villas and hotels, plus retail and marinas. Nearby, the desirable Diplomatic Area at the north end of the Corniche is both a commercial area, home to oil and gas companies, and residential, with many high-rise accommodations.
Al-Sadd, close to the city centre, is a draw for some with its preponderance of retail and designer shops, and to the west, the districts of Al Rayyan and Duheil are also popular, as they are near Education City on the outskirts of town. “These areas provide good access to the new highway to Ras Laffan Industrial City, where many people from the gas industry work,” Maurer added.
Side trips When the weather cools off after the scorching summer months, many people head to Sealine Beach Resort about an hour south of the city on the Persian Gulf to relax in the sand and sea. Dune bashing – driving up and down sand dunes – and picnicking on the beach are popular activities. “People also go up north to Al-Shamal [a small city] to camp and spend time on the beach,” Lawson said.
The drive to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, 300km and 380km respectively, passes through Saudi Arabia, so it is important to know the visa requirements. Doha International Airport is located at the southern edge of the city, but the New Doha International Airport is under construction just 4km away and will be fully operational in 2015, replacing the old one. Flights to London are less than seven hours and flights to New York are around 12 or 13 hours.
Practical information While foreigners are now able to buy property, many still rent. “We have a huge number of expats with good financial backgrounds and high monthly incomes, but they prefer to be tenants, even if they live here more than five or 10 years,” Maurer said. “The banks ask for a much higher mortgage rate than in Europe or the US, and it can be difficult for expats who don’t directly work for the government or a semi-government company.” Some investors are also turned off by political instability around the region and being restricted to purchasing leaseholds (which means you possess the property for a limited amount of time, not in perpetuity as with a freehold) in designated areas such as The Pearl and West Bay.
However the rental market is up due to factors like the 2022 World Cup, which is attracting international and local companies to open offices here or expand their current staff. Villas start at 13,000 Qatari riyal and go up to 25,000 riyal in an affluent area like West Bay Lagoon. Apartments start around 12,000 riyal in West Bay for a furnished two bedroom, and around 7,000 riyal for a furnished two- to three-bed in Al-Sadd. “Any compounds and apartment buildings which have facilities like a well-sized outdoor pool, a restaurant or at least a small coffee shop and some space for kids are rented very fast and may have a waiting list,” Maurer explained.