Glass celebrates the ideal stop-over in the Middle East

Making a stop-over is always appealing on a long-haul flight that otherwise keeps you immobile inside a plane – essentially an aluminium cylinder – for long periods of time. But not if the net effect  turns half a day’s travel into 36 hours of journeying and not much to show for it other than being in an airport hotel under flight paths, disrupted sleep time and hazy recollections of being somewhere else.

Not so with a 10pm departure from Heathrow on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha that in under eight hours will have you unpacking and freshening up at one of the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli, fifteen minutes from Qatar’s Hamad International  airport. Local time will be around 9am and the whole day is ahead of you after stepping out into a unique part of Doha that celebrates authentic features of Qatari lifestyle and architecture.

Al Mirqab

Al Mirqab, a Souk Waqif Boutique Hotel, offers shade as well as scorching sun


The Souq Waqif quarter of Doha is emphatically not Dubai. If you crave a thrumming nightlife and show-off time for Louboutins, plus malls to masochistically punish your plastic, Doha’s West Bay quarter is ready and waiting. A mini Manhattan and a playground for quirky architects, West Bay’s steel-and-glass skyline shimmers in the heat when gazed at across Souq Waqif’s palm-fringed waterfront called the Corniche. Architecturally, though, nothing in West Bay can compete with the serenity of the Museum of Islamic Art.

Exterior of the Museum of Islamic Art

Geometry rules the exterior of the Museum of Islamic Art


The museum stands on its own island piazza, reached by a bridge off the Corniche. Its architecture blends homage to the purity of Islamic design with a Euclid-minded concern for clean lines that are luminously accented when desert sun shines down on the building’s angular blocks of sandstone. The soaring interior continues a devotion to geometric forms, dividing the space into octagonal, square and triangular shapes, topped by a glass circular oculus that patterns light from the sky outside. The museum’s exhibits, from ceramics and glass to ivory and textiles, have been curated to present a choice compendium of masterpieces from three continents between the 7th and the 19th century.

There are nine Souq Waqif boutique hotels within walking distance of the Museum of Islamic Art, with an average of 20 rooms each –though the Bismillah Boutique Hotel by Tivoli, built in 1950 as Doha’s first hotel and sensitively restored with its history in mind, boasts just two luxury suites. Each hotel has its own character and the Al Najada Boutique Hotel by Tivoli, for example, though sharing the common commitment to Arabic design and customs that characterises the nine of them (they are all alcohol-free), has flourishes of bold colours and eye-catching artefacts that create a very contemporary spirit.

Al Najada Boutique Hotel

Al Najada Boutique Hotel, one of nine Souq Waqif boutique hotels


There is also the very new and immaculately presented Al Najada Doha Hotel by Tivoli (not to be confused with the Al Najada Boutique hotel). It has 151 rooms and suites but never feels that large and the open-air pool is a bonus on  scorching hot Arabian days. Most of the rooms have a balcony, there is a grand public quadrangle right outside and Souq Waqif is a couple of minutes away on foot.


Al Najada Doha Hotel by Tivoli opened in August 2018


Wandering through the narrow alleyways of Souq Waqif, absorbing the calm rhythms of its everyday life, is a culturally enriching experience. The souq is totally safe, accommodating to foreign visitors and relaxingly tout-free. Carpets and cushions, perfume shops, spices you won’t be familiar with, cafés serving qahwa – an Arabic coffee that doesn’t taste of coffee – and, most memorable of all for me,  a pearl shop  run by an retired pearl diver who remembers his first successful free dive to scoop up a shell, aged eighteen. There’s a section devoted to falcons and, also open to curious visitors, a falcon hospital.

Souq Waqif’s respect for Arabic tradition draws in visitors from most neighbouring countries and differences in couture are on show in the streets. The long white shirt (thawb) is common for men but Qatari headdress often has two black cords hanging down at the back from the rope that holds it in place. Many women wear a robe-like dress (abayah), burqas are far less common than face veils and there is much variety in hijabs – the more fashionable ones tend to be worn by Iranians; brand-name jeans are not a rarity.

Souk Waqif quarter of Doha

Doha’s heritage is celebrated in the Souk Waqif quarter of Doha


Qatari cuisine, something of an enigma, is seemingly a potpourri of North African, Levant and Indian tastes. The hotels in Souq Waqif have lovely restaurants serving all of these: the range of Lebanese mezze at Al Terrace in Al Mirqab Boutique Hotel by Tivoli and the Indian food at the rooftop Al Matbakh in Arumalia Boutique Hotel by Tivoli are both first-class.

Al Mirqab lobby

Arabian design features in the lobby of Al Mirqab


The sea is never far away – if the proposed canal on its southern border is completed, Doha will become an island (the size of Yorkshire) – and the new Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli is only steps away from the Arabian Gulf. The dwellings of what was once a community of fishermen have been carefully transformed into bedrooms and suites, retaining the original structures and thatching style. There is no pool but  this is a most relaxing spot with a choice of restaurants and a spa. The airport is close by and the nearest bar serving alcohol seven minutes away – but who’s counting?

Doha, notwithstanding its Dubai doppelgänger in the West Bay area, is socially and culturally more conservative than its UAE neighbour to the west and this has helped preserve its Arabic heritage. Decorum and hospitality are at the heart of a nomadic desert lifestyle and these traditional qualities have found modern expression in a way that visitors on a stop-over can experience and enjoy.

by Sean Sheehan

Qatar Airways, whose business class pods helped win it the award of the world’s best business class in 2018, flies to Doha from London 6 times a day.