With more than half of the population of Qatar residing in the capital, one would expect Doha to have an ancient and powerful history. On the contrary, the city was a small and inconsequential fishing and pearling village up until the mid-19th century, when the first Al-Thani emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, established his capital at Al-Bida, now the port area of town. From a notorious safe haven for Gulf pirates, it became the British administrative centre in 1916.
After the discovery of oil, and the export of related products from Umm Sa’id (modern-day Mesaieed) in 1949, the city grew rapidly but haphazardly. New administrative centres sprang up to manage the vast revenues, and an artificial, deepwater port was excavated in 1969 to handle transhipments of cargo from other Gulf States. Shrimp processing became one of the city’s major industries, remaining so to this day.
In 1971 Doha became the capital of the independent state of Qatar and, thereafter, literally thousands of foreign nationals, employed in the construction and engineering industries, poured into the city. Cheap blocks of flats and Indian-managed shops spread into the surrounding shrub desert. The University of Qatar (1973) and Qatar National Museum (1975) brought education and culture to the city, and the shape of Doha changed, not just on account of its spread westwards, but also through the ambitious relandscaping of Doha Bay, carved from reclaimed land. Since then, Doha has seen the most extraordinary expansion in international banking, sporting and tourism activities, as evidenced by the many modern towers, malls, hotels and seats of power scattered throughout the city, and through huge developments like Pearl Qatar, a whole commercial, residential, tourist and leisure complex beyond the West Bay area.
One way to chart Doha’s remarkable recent growth, physically, economically and internationally, is through its airport. Built to receive small commercial Twin Otter flights at the end of the 1950s, Doha’s aerodrome was a secondary affair compared with the landing strips at the oilfields of Dukhan and Mesaieed. Today, with 65 aircraft landing daily, serving 25 major airlines (including the country’s high-profile flagship, Qatar Airways) and able to cope with 7.5 million passengers a year, recently modernised Doha International Airport reflects the vibrant commercial and tourist activity that the city now attracts. Furthermore, a brand-new airport is in the pipeline for 2008. At an estimated cost of QR5 billion, Doha clearly has ambitions that extend well beyond the corniche.