Blame fiery TV chef Gordon Ramsay. Back in the early 2000s, Ramsay started the trend of Michelin-star and celebrity chefs coming to the United Arab Emirates by opening the award-winning Verre restaurant (now renamed Table 9) in Dubai, and it was not long before others -- including British revivalist Gary Rhodes, Japanese superstar Nobu Matsuhisa and French experimentalist Pierre Gagnaire -- jumped on the bandwagon.
The world then watched as Dubai opened one unbelievable diversion after another. First came an indoor ski resort in 2005, then a floating palace hotel in the sea in 2008, and in 2011, a record-breaking stratospheric tower pierced the clouds. Nearly overnight, the city became a top 10 holiday destination, giving places like Spain, France and Florida a run for their money.
Now, like the Emirates before it, oil-rich Qatar (a short 50-minute flight west of Dubai) is intent on building a similar desert paradise for visitors. The ruling Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, wants to put his tiny country and its fast-growing capital Doha on the map, and is spending millions in a huge tourism push. Qatar has already won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and hopes are now being pinned on luring more tourists from the neighbouring Gulf States with a variety of openings that would raise an eyebrow in New York, let alone in the Middle East.
The best place to see this in practice is on the south side of the crescent-shaped, 8km-long Al Corniche, at the geometric Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), which is plonked on the water’s edge like a gigantic broken Rubik Cube. In just a few years the museum has become one of the marvels of the modern Middle East, because of both its architecture and its pan-Arab art collection, and is playing an increasingly important part in shaping the region’s cultural approach. In a pioneering initiative with Google, MIA and the nearby Arab Museum of Modern Art, also known as Mathaf, have become the only institutions in the Middle East to give visitors online access to their ever expanding art collections. It is part of the Google Art Project, and by joining fellow partners like the British Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, Doha’s premier galleries have underlined their credentials (and ambitions) on a global stage.
From the museums, Al Corniche runs all the way to the glamorous Sheraton Doha Resort and the Manhattan-like skyscrapers that surround the jaw-dropping Burj Qatar, designed by French star-architect Jean Nouvel. Completed in 2010, the 455 million Qatari riyal, 46-storey Islamic-inspired tower is the new symbol of the country, and though only home to offices and oil companies, is emblematic of the Emir’s vision to take his country forward. Like the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Burj Qatar is a stunning piece of architecture. While you cannot explore it from the inside, you will be able to visit one of Nouvel’s other projects, the National Museum of Qatar, which is currently undergoing a multi-million riyal refurbishment next to the MIA. Scheduled to open in December 2014, the building will be in the shape of a blossoming desert flower when it is finished.
To further explore Doha’s modern attractions, it is best to head indoors away from the blistering heat. Jump in one of the city’s cyan-blue taxis for the 10-minute drive to the fast-growing West Bay neighbourhood, and on the way check out Katara, Doha’s shiny new cultural village with galleries, exhibition and performance spaces all under one roof. An exhibition of Chinese painter Yan Pei Ming runs until 12 January.
In West Bay, pull up at the new St Regis Doha, the most spectacular five-star hotel in an area filling up fast with other big-name hotel brands. The St Regis, a destination in its own right, is home to two Gordon Ramsay restaurants; one a high-brow, avant-garde experience, the other a bistro-style cafe. Titled Gordon Ramsay and Opal by Gordon Ramsay respectively, both are run by chef de cuisine Gilles Bosquet who worked at the two-Michelin-starred La Pyramide in Paris, and this restaurant has already staked its claim as the finest in the city.
In the very same building, Doha is doing something that all the other Gulf capitals have so far failed to do. Despite the on-site competition from Ramsay and the soon-to-be-opened Hakkasan (an outlet of the famed Chinese restaurant group due to open in early 2013), the hotel has successfully brought jazz music to the region. In a major coup for the St Regis, Jazz at Lincoln Center opened in October 2012 to massive fanfare, expanding outside the US from its New York-base for the very first time. It is an unprecedented partnership that speaks volumes about how global brands are beginning to invest in the city, and also helps pinpoint its cultural differentiation with elsewhere in the Middle East. Credible names already swinging through the velvet, ambient lounge include the Eric Reed Quintet and the Aaron Diehl Quartet, both hailed for their virtuoso performances by the New York Times. What better way to steal the thunder from your rivals than by making a huge song and dance about it?