Editor’s note: Due to recent shoddy Internet access, future posts will be infrequent unless I happen upon reliably fast Internet service. Since Doha, I have spent a few nights in Nairobi and three nights in Masai Mara National Preserve. I will be spending the next six weeks on the road down the African continent to Cape Town. In order, I will traverse Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.
From Amman, I took a Qatar Airways with a final destination of Nairobi but with a 22-hour layover in Doha. Qatar Airways is on point. Since Qatar Airways is based in Doha, I knew that it might offer a program to promote tourism in its home city, especially since this airline is effectively government-owned. Similar stopover programs exist with Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi), Emirates (Dubai), Asiana Airlines (Seoul), etc. although my “stopover” is technically a layover since it is less than 24 hours.
As it turns out, the complimentary package I received granted me the following:
- One night in a hotel, the Swiss Bel-hotel Doha. The room is of only a $119 retail value, but it is huge and in a great location, within walking distance of the best attraction, the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art. I regret not going to the Museum, on account of sleeping.
- Meal credit at the hotel, up to a total of $69. The hotel food was Indian and mediocre both in terms of selection and quality.
- A tourist visa, which would ordinarily cost $29 for U.S. citizens.
- Transfers between DOH and the hotel, which are 8.8 kilometers apart. The private car transfers were prompt.
Of course, I happily accepted the offer instead of spending nearly a full day at the airport, which is one of the few airports that could handle such a challenge. A thorough review of the airport could consume an entire post, but I have already seen the world’s largest teddy bear and indoor palm trees. In addition, the airport has many luxury boutiques, squash courts, and spa facilities. I would guess most people idle away at the airport or spend their own money to explore the city on long layovers without ever realizing airlines have programs to accommodate them.
Having taken my first Middle Eastern carrier a few days ago, I was expecting another great flight from Qatar Airways, which did not disappoint. The triumvirate of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are waging something of an industry war in the business of both airports and airlines. Their respective national airlines of Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates have stellar reputations in terms of service and the best aircraft. They are effectively associated with luxury in the same fashion that their home cities are.
If you want to ride a male-only flight, take the route from Amman to Doha. My flight was 95% male. I would guess a third of the passengers had an iPhone 6. Qataris are insanely rich, putting the citizens of any other country to shame. I quickly hid my iPhone 5 for fear of embarrassment. I noticed all the usual brand names on luggage. Bear in mind that I am sitting in coach. The man next to me was wearing a $40,000 Audemars Piguet watch on his left wrist.
In recent years, Doha and Dubai have spent more than $10 billion each on their airports. The airports are over-the-top. Airlines from other countries often complain about these three airlines since they may be effectively subsidized by their home governments. Since they are private companies, their financial details are not publicly available, but they are not obsessed with cost-cutting since their goals also include increasing national prestige. All this is good for any passenger who elects to fly with them!
These cities’ obsession with status and prestige does not stop at air travel. The finest restaurants, hotel brands, and cars can be seen here. More blatantly, world-renown brands have engaged in intricate deals to open local versions. Abu Dhabi now has local versions of New York University (NYU) and the Cleveland Clinic. It has paid more than $500 million to use the “Louvre” name to develop its flagship museum.
When I saw the lengthy layover in Doha, I wanted to see what I could do in my timeframe. I was to arrive at night, and I knew this part of the world was short on typical Western entertainment, but I happened to discover that there was a Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha at the St. Regis Doha! The official name is unwieldy, the jazz equivalent of the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.”
While sharing a taxicab with a young American lady in Amman, I found out that she had been working in Doha for two weeks, having been part of a group contracted by the Qatar Foundation, a kind of Gates Foundation, except only for Qataris. She happened to be staying at the St. Regis, implying a virtual limitless budget by the Qatar Foundation, which has heavily financed by the royalty. Amusingly, she said since the general culture and religion forbids alcohol, they had a massive budget but alcohol line items would not be approved. There is an itemized deduction threshold, and she said they simply ran bar tabs under that amount!
She said she had been to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha club in the hotel. She gave me a few tips. One, bring my passport for security purposes. In addition, Qatari women cannot be admitted. While this experience will be the only time I will have to show my passport for admittance to a jazz club, I suppose one cannot be too cautious in this era. Two, the admittance charge is 100 Qatari riyals, equivalent to $28. She said the fee included one drink, and the staff did not seem to care which drink you ordered, so choose something expensive!
Not wanting to withdraw cold hard cash, I dispatched Uber. From my dealings in Qatar, it seems that anyone who makes less than six figures is always from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka. Both my Uber drivers were from South Asia, one having been here ten years, the other for only two months. The ride was along the Corniche, a sweet scenic ride along the harbor and providing great views of the skyline.
Not nearly as tall as Dubai, Doha is still impressive. Manhattan and Hong Kong have arguably the best skylines, but the architecture can be difficult to appreciate because many of the buildings sit right on top of each other. There are some buildings in Manhattan that are among the 100 tallest in the world and yet, are not technically part of the skyline because something taller is blocking them!
Doha reminds me of Singapore in many ways. They both site on the water. Traffic patterns are of the highest order. The skyscrapers are spaced apart nicely. They are both clean, perhaps too much so to the point of sterility.
The grand entrances to the luxury hotels were noticeable. They have to be among the biggest hotel entrances in the world, rivaling Dubai and Las Vegas. I felt incredibly meek in the St. Regis, with only fashionable and rich people in there. There were many personnel. A young lady quickly guided me to the elevator, which was handled by a dedicated gentleman. The entry process was high-end, it felt like a Las Vegas nightclub.
There were two bouncers who checked my passport. Then, I headed to the entry desk where I was guided to a solo table up front. I asked where I pay the admission, and I was told that the cover charge applies only on Thursday and Friday! I felt like I made 100 riyals.
While on this tour, I have seen jazz performances in Praha and Budapest, but this show crushed those two. While those Eastern European performances were solid, it is hard to beat imported American talent. I have not been to Jazz at Lincoln Center (New York City), but I want to more than ever.
The band was a quartet plus a vocalist for a few numbers. The quartet consisted of a piano, double bass/bass guitar, drums, and a xylophone. The xylophone player, Christian Tamburr, is also a percussionist, and he was something special, playing with such verve that his left leg often went airborne. The entire band was dressed in tightly tailored two-button suits. I attended the second set, which started at 10:30 pm and lasted for 70 minutes.
Jazz is known for improvisation, and someone from the audience made an unsolicited request for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” the psychedelic soul single from The Temptations. The request was in the honor of his friend who was leaving Doha for Portugal after a three-year residency. The band obliged. The singer, Akua Allrich, had to look up the lyrics on her iPhone, sometimes during the song. Although the song is a soul classic, the band played an awesome rendition with no preparation. I was particularly impressed how the drummer can just improvise an authentic jazz beat for the soul song.