At once saturated and frustrated, I stepped out. As I made my way, as recommended by the museum personnel, to Souq Waqif, it dawned on me that, like the smaller country of Qatar, the Museum of Islamic Art is but a cosier variation on the theme of another ambitious cultural project planned for the region this side of the Gulf: the Saadiyat Island Cultural District (of which Art of Islam was said to be a preview).
Qatar is quieter, less globalised, with more Qataris than Abu Dhabi has Emiratis and more open views of the water, unbuilt space and wave-borne transportation. In this sense it felt right that tourist projects there should focus on the direct line descent of oasis life (the word “doha” means oasis), with the location’s immediate legacy playing a vital role. Thus Souq Waqif: Qatar’s fitting and astute answer to GCC tourism.
As I wandered around that uniquely intimate and evocative space – in effect an open-air food court flanked by traditional bastakiya-style housing with wind towers and wood-panelled windows – it was good to see nationals, tourists and expats all enjoying the native-orientated attractions: traditional buffets served by Qatari women in their abayas, tea houses featuring live Qatari bands, miniature tents standing sentinel at the doors of shops and authentic souvenirs galore.
I followed my Moroccan dinner and Lebanese dessert with a strong cup of espresso – three distinct cuisines all housed in the same indigenous architecture. These sights and sounds are sometimes harder to come by in Abu Dhabi.
Here projects like the Raha Beach Resort, the Bani Yas and Reem Islands, and the sprawling central market to replace the former Abu Dhabi city souqrepresent an ultra-modern architecture that draws, abstractly, on the legacy of the Bedouin.
By contrast, Doha’s lower-key tune was a soothing antidote – perfectly satisfying for a day, but perhaps claustrophobic in the long run? I relished every last minute of Souq Waqif even as I knew how much, should I end up living in Doha, I would miss my adopted hometown of Abu Dhabi.