It’s Friday afternoon in West Bay, Doha’s answer to Manhattan. A cityscape on steroids that seems intent on upstaging the century-long evolution of the New York skyline with a decade of intense construction frenzy. I’ve just emerged from West Bay Tower, a 44-storey refuge for the expat community, where bathrooms outnumber residents five to one, and the most prized of household possessions is a fully laden drinks cabinet courtesy of the Qatar Distribution Company.
Being Friday the roads are practically deserted right now, which is just as well because pavements in West Bay—and indeed across Doha—are few and far between. No one walks anywhere in this city, which is understandable given that for much of the year, when daytime temperatures top forty degrees, simply being outside is an unpleasant experience. Beyond the clustered nature of its skyscrapers then, West Bay bears little resemblance to Manhattan. The latter is the perfect city for the flâneur, with its regular grid of streets and generous sidewalks. By contrast, Doha is a pedestrian death trap.
Actually, it’s a death trap for many car users as well. That’s not a criticism of the city’s taxi drivers, most of whom appear to have arrived in Doha from the Indian subcontinent yesterday. They’re not discouraged by the heavy fast-running traffic, but they are disadvantaged in having next to no idea as to where anything is. Nor is it an attack on most Qataris, who guide their 4×4 tanks at speed around roundabouts while operating their Blackberries with deft skill. I’m thinking more of the younger generation of seemingly suicidal Qataris, whose neon-coloured super cars you could miss in the blink of an eye, as they hurtle and weave at speed through the heavy traffic. I also have in mind the less affluent city inhabitants who, having found some solace or enjoyment in drink, wrap their ageing cars around lampposts in deserted streets late at night. Earlier in the day my host at West Tower points out the aftermath of one such incident that happened right below his apartment window a few nights previously; an abandoned car, whose close liaison with street furniture at 3am one morning disturbed an already troubled sleep.
When I first laid eyes upon West Bay eighteen months ago, through the grimy windows of an airport shuttle bus on the other side of the bay, I saw a polished and gleaming twenty-first century high-rise city, rising from the desert sands. On closer inspection it quickly became apparent that West Bay is a work in progress. If you’re not walking tentatively along the edge of a dual carriageway, desperately hoping that you’re not going be struck by an out-of-control Maserati, then you’re picking your way across a dusty building site, studiously trying not to fall down any unguarded holes.
Sometimes when I navigate my way through the trip hazards of West Bay, whether during the day or in the evening, I encounter fellow visitors that are here on business from overseas, who are also threading their way through the construction-site wasteland. We’re easily recognisable in our regulation uniform: western work shirts with the top button undone, black or grey trousers, and smart black shoes caked in dust. We’re all stumbling through West Bay for the similar reasons: either looking in vain for a lost taxi driver, or zigzagging a precarious path to an exclusive hotel—Four Seasons, Hyatt, Kempinski, W—take your pick. These are glossy edifices that rise out of building site debris with consummate ease; oases of clean where, in your business attire you’re always welcome, no matter how dusty your shoes and sweaty your shirt. Where the porter will always take the time to give you a friendly smile, knowing that the expensive drinks you’ll buy at the bar will be on the company account.
Doha, November 2012.