Qatar, just a 45 minute flight from Dubai International Airport, is rapidly emerging as a serious competitor for tourist visits and as a place which working expats increasingly choose as an alternative to the irresistible magnet of Dubai.
What are the differences?
For a start, Qatar is an independent country; Dubai is a semi-autonomous state within a 7 state confederation, the United Arab Emirates. It’s a bit like talking about Canada and Texas in the same breath.
Geographically, Qatar is a small peninsular of about 3 times the land area of the Emirate of Dubai, but this is where straight out number-based comparisons can be misleading.
Qatar, at this point in its development, is really just the capital city of Doha, located about half-way along Qatar’s east coast. Doha has grown in recent years to an area of about 130 km2, while Dubai’s developed and populated area, stretching as it does, from the Sharjah border in a long, thin strip close to the Gulf coastline almost to the Abu Dhabi border, occupies almost 1100 km2.
Or to put it another way, the part of Dubai where people live and work is 10 times bigger than the part of Qatar where people live and work.
If you have lived in one, you’re not going to experience major culture shock by relocating to the other. If you’re addicted to mall-life in Dubai, you’ll find malls in Doha, with many of the same retail outlets as Dubai.
Carrefour Doha will be as reassuringly familiar as Carrefour Deira City Centre, or Carrefour Mall of the Emirates. The main shopping malls in Doha, City-Centre Doha, Landmark and Villagio, while not in the same league as Dubai Mall, are quite capable of being credible alternatives to most of the other Dubai Malls. (No indoor skiing yet, but watch this space!)
Qatar also has a flagship airline – Qatar Airways – which is an entirely credible competitor for Emirates, and often considerably cheaper, too.
Doha’s newly opened Hamad International Airport is by all accounts pretty sensational and downtown Doha boasts a similar extravagance of architecture and greenery that only heightens the sense of the “anything you can do, we can do too” competition with Dubai.
While not having the World’s Tallest Building, a Metro system or a light rail tramway (yet), Qatar might just have a claim to be ahead by half a nostril in “cultural heritage buildings of world-class significance”, to wit, the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by world-renowned architect I.M.Pei and sited on its own 260000 m2 island. As a piece of architecture, it rivals the Burj Al Arab and as a facility to highlight the cultural achievements of the Arabic language and Islamic art, Dubai doesn’t actually have anything to compare (yet).
So lots of similarities, then. It all just underpins my earlier point that if you’re happy and comfortable with one, then you’re likely to be equally happy and comfortable with the other.
So, are they really just two sides of the same coin?
Well, no. I think you have more options in Dubai and this applies whether you are a resident or a 4 day tourist. Back in Qatar, outside of Doha, there isn’t really a lot. There’s another 11000+ km2 of Qatar, but its mostly flat and fairly featureless. The highest point on the peninsular is Jebel Dukhan and that is only a little more than a hundred meters above sea level.
There are a smattering of small communities where people live, but I suspect tourists won’t really feel comfortable there. The Qataris are certainly not unfriendly, but they share the same reserve as all the Gulf country citizens as far as their families and homes are concerned.
Dubai on the other hand has the wonderful Hajar Mountains on its eastern border and a much more diverse desert landscape to see further inland from the coast that you travel.
There are wadis (dry river beds; dry most of the year, that is, but not places to be caught in when it rains!), oases, large red dunes, the lovely Hatta pools and of course, the other 6 Emirates, which you can visit seamlessly on the UAE’s pretty amazing and ever-expanding road network.
Qatar, as we know, has only a short land border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and while passing through this poses no great problems for Qataris, who are GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) members, there are difficulties for the rest of us. It’s not impossible, but it’s time-consuming and you are very restricted in terms of where you can go and how long you can be in Saudi Arabia.
So in terms of visiting other parts of the Gulf, you really only have the option of air-travel. Isn’t this the same for Dubai and the UAE? As far as going into Saudi Arabia is concerned, yes, of course, but the UAE also shares land borders with the Sultanate of Oman, and while you do need your passport to cross into Oman, exiting the UAE and entering Oman should take no more than 30 minutes, maybe even less.
If you have the time during a holiday in Dubai, a short excursion into Oman is highly recommended. Any more than the standard average 3.9 day stay in Dubai and you really should think about a couple of days in Oman as well.
So – Qatar or Dubai?
Qatar is quieter, that’s for sure, but that’s no bad thing. For expat families, there are excellent schools and colleges. There are quality hotels and restaurants for eating out and some pretty amazing sports facilities, as Qatar hosted the 2005 Asian Games.
In fact, expect all this to multiply each year as Qatar gears up to show the rest of the world what it can do as the 2022 FIFA World Cup draws nearer. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Islamic Art, but Qatar’s not just a one-trick-pony. The Qataris are apparently big-time buyers of art works, so the Arab Museum of Modern Art is seriously worth not just one, but regular visits, as the exhibits on display are rotated and changed. Downtown Doha is every bit as clean and manicured as downtown Dubai.
Young expats may prefer the sheer quantity of twenty first century everything that is Dubai. If you’re still not sure which is for you, a couple of days spent in each will help make your mind up.