Doha, Qatar

Doha, Qatar

Robert Adam

Modern Doha, capital of the small but fabulously wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, is built on the very substance that made modernity possible: oil. The city is a mirror of the economy that created it. Expansion began as the world moved from Empire to free trade and exploded into free market globalised western-style modernity. The impact of global capital is not, however, the same wherever it falls and Doha has translated its meteoric projection into modernity in its own particular way.

First impressions, nonetheless, seem to confirm the view that globalisation produces identical products wherever you go. On the way from the international airport (already bursting at the seams with its bigger and better replacement under construction next door), you pass by suburban houses on the American model and quickly reach a centre dominated by international style buildings. As you take the Corniche Road, a six-lane motorway curving round the bay, you pass by modernist cultural and government buildings and look over at West Bay, a forest of glass-walled and wonderfully shaped offices, apartment buildings and hotels. When you reach your internationally-branded hotel all is either reassuringly or disturbingly familiar, depending on your point of view.

Above all, you are aware of the sheer newness of it all. But there must be a story beyond the glitz and the signs of relentless construction. As so much of the city is so clearly modern, the condition and culture of the people in the recent past will have had a major influence on what we see now. We need to start by looking at how it all came about.


Qatar is a north-pointing finger of desert sticking out into the Gulf of Arabia or Persia, measuring some 11,500 km sq. It lies at only 13 m above sea level. Narrower at its base, it is a distinct geographic entity. Historically, it fell under the influence or control of different Empires: Persia, Portugal, Turkey and finally Britain. It was recognised internationally as a distinct political entity led by the Al Thani sheikhs in 1868. It was occupied by the Ottoman Empire in 1872 but, following a successful armed revolt, they finally left during the First World War. In 1916, Sheikh Abdulla bin Jassim Al Thani signed a protection treaty with Britain that guaranteed Qatar’s defence from the sea and support in the event of land attack.

At that time, Qatar was poor with no significant agriculture or major sources of water. A few small towns around the coast were supported by fishing and pearl fishing was its major source of foreign income. The principal town and home of the ruling family was Al Bida, founded in 1825, which became known as ad-Dawha (‘the big tree’) or Doha. The demography of Qatar was a mix of settled seaboard Arabs and traders of Persian and Arabic origin in the coastal towns and nomadic Bedouins inland. The total estimated population was about 15,000 in 1920. Even this small population was driven to poverty, starvation and emigration when the Japanese developed cultured pearls in the 1920s and the impact of the ‘Great Depression’ from the USA crippled the small cash economy. This was the first major global event of many to affect Qatar.

Later global economic developments were much more benign. Worldwide demand for oil increased and the Middle East was identified as a major source. In 1934 Britain entered into a treaty granting further protection in return for granting a concession to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Oil was discovered in 1939 but exploitation was delayed until after the Second World War. In 1949, oil exports and payments for offshore rights began, as did the transformation of Qatar. This coincided with the elderly ruler abdicating the previous year in favour of his eldest son, Sheikh Ali Bin Abdullah Al Thani, who duly became Emir of Qatar (1948–1960).

Under a 1952 agreement with Shell, Qatar took 50 per cent of all oil revenues. This dramatic increase in wealth, along with social change and unrest in the Arab world following the Suez War in 1956, led to domestic unrest and pressure on the Al Thani family. Relying on British support, an embryonic government bureaucracy (staffed by foreigners) and a police force were created. In the 1950s, modern facilities were gradually introduced into Doha, including the first hospital, school, air-strip and telephone exchange. In 1960 huge offshore oil reserves were discovered and, under pressure to distribute the country’s new-found wealth outside his immediate family, Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani abdicated in favour of his eldest son, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani (1960–1972). Limited reforms were introduced, including the provision of land for poorer Qataris.

In 1971, as Britain’s global power and wealth declined, it concluded its withdrawal from military commitments east of Suez, so ending the imperial era in the region. In the same year, Qatar withdrew from the formation of what would later become the United Arab Emirates, becoming instead a sovereign independent Arab Islamic state. At the time of its independence in September 1971 the population of Qatar had risen to over 100,000. The following year, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani was deposed by his cousin, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani (1972–1995), who consolidated his family’s position in the governance of the new state while introducing social programmes, including public health, education and pensions. During the 1973 global oil crisis Qatar created the Qatar General Petroleum Corporation and by 1977 it had nationalised all oil production. In a few years, from a dependent state and a colonial protectorate, Qatar had suddenly become enormously wealthy; by 1975 it had risen to enjoy the second highest GDP-per-capita in the world. Its last major political upheaval came in 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his father while the latter was on holiday; Sheik Hamad then abdicated for his son in 2013.


6.1 Gross Domestic Product of Qatar, Percentage year-on-year rise averaged over three years

Source: Author (figures taken from


6.2 GDP per capita, world rankings for Qatar

Source: Author (figures taken from


6.3 Qatar’s population growth (Doha is approximately 80 per cent)

Source: Author (figures taken from Qatar Statistics Authority)

This brief outline maps the beginnings of Qatar as a modern oil-dependent Arab country and of the rapid growth and development of its main city, Doha. As one Qatari told me when I visited, ‘we have fast-forwarded a whole century’. But while a fully modern city has indeed grown up in a period of 40 years, the collective memory of extreme poverty and an insecure tribal past remain as real factors in the social, political and psychological life of Qatar. Another Qatari, from one of the major families, pointed out that his grandfather always went to bed with a loaded shotgun. This rapid history, from starvation to unimagined wealth within living memory, is essential for an understanding of the political reality behind the new institutions, the identity of the people, the pervasive Anglo-Saxon influence (first British and then American), and the interface between a tribal desert culture and global modernity. All of these things have and continue to leave their permanent mark on the city of Doha, which is home to 80 per cent of Qatar’s population.

From the time of the first Qatari oil revenues in the late-1940s to independence in 1971, the town of Doha expanded accordingly. By recent standards, the earlier expansion was modest but it established a pattern of development that would be repeated in the following decades.


6.4 City growth in Doha from 1947 to present

The first major land reclamation project began in the early-1950s, moving the waterfront in the city centre out by 100 m and creating a series of new urban blocks. This was followed by the Corniche Road in the early-1960s, following the direction of the most recent urban expansion and running in front of long-established water-frontage merchant’s houses. The loss of waterfront rights could be justified by the insanitary conditions that had developed in the shallow waters along the water’s edge. The Corniche Road remains today as one of the defining features of the city.

Both the city’s new waterfront and the Corniche Road were constructed by building the roads in the sea and then backfilling the space behind them, creating new real estate. This delivered high-value, state-owned land for building that was free from claims of historic land rights. Government House was built on the city centre reclamation and some ministries and government buildings were constructed on new land behind the Corniche Road. Land reclamation became, and continues to be, a key strategy in Doha for the creation of new high-status city districts.

Roads were also generally modernised. In accordance with the prevailing British typology, a number of by-passes or ring roads were constructed. These were named, successively and prosaically, ‘A Ring Road’ and ‘B Ring Road’ and so on. The A Ring Road joined the two ancient routes branching out to Saudi Arabia and the centre of the peninsula, and encompassed much of the 1950s town. The B Ring Road contained the 1960s urban expansion. By 1970, the C Ring Road was already under construction to contain further sporadic growth.

A new civic centre was created to the west of the old town in the 1950s. The Grand Mosque and Diwan al Amiri, or Royal Palace, were built around a ceremonial square centred on a landmark clock tower. Otherwise the architecture of the growing town was of no particular type or standard, often being on an ad-hoc basis by Egyptian or Indian draftsmen. Low-rise concrete apartments and shops were mixed with traditional houses sited along and between the new roads. Much of this remains as a dense, active and lively urban area but in a poor state of repair, with no resident Qataris living there; instead, these dwellings are let out to expatriate workers. The old houses that do survive are not held in high regard and, in discussion, many Qataris described some of the older parts of the town as slums suitable only for demolition. Today, whole inner urban blocks are being bought up by the government for comprehensive redevelopment.

This area has intentionally been left blank. To view Figure 6.4 as a double-page spread, please refer to the printed version of this book

As Qataris became wealthier they sold, redeveloped or let out their traditional courtyard houses in the centre, preferring to move to new villas beyond the built-up area. Older houses represented for many the poverty they had just left behind and so there was a demand for new villas modelled on luxurious foreign designs. The use of standard American and North European suburban house types, with the dwelling placed in the centre of a plot, was also dictated by the introduction of boundary set-back regulations. Still in force today, these regulations made the construction of new houses in the Qatari tradition, with rooms built around the perimeter of walled courtyards, impossible. Villas and residential compounds for foreign workers were also built on open desert land outside the town in a haphazard fashion, setting the pattern for the later development of what has become a huge suburban hinterland.


6.5 Outer area of Doha showing traditional homes mixed with ad-hoc 1960s and 1970s developments



6.6 Masterplan for Doha by Llewelyn-Davies (1972)

Alongside the creation of the independent sovereign state of Qatar, the capital was re-planned. In 1972 the well-known British urban designers, Llewelyn-Davies, were called in to study the possibilities for future expansion. Their plan built upon the ring road system, as well as on the presence of Corniche Road, adding a further D Ring Road to the network. They also created a loose grid stretching behind the Corniche Road and south towards the airport to allow for future structured growth. Llewelyn-Davies also proposed some further land reclamation work to the east and to the north to ‘tidy up’ the coastline.

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Doha, Qatar
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