Dazzling architecture in Doha
I have a theory about some of the more outlandish buildings that have shot up in the Middle East in the past decade: architects have been spending too much time in the kitchen. How else can you explain the rash of shiny structures in the shape of giant cheese graters, pepper mills, coffee pots and cucumbers? Doha, the capital of the small, gas-rich gulf state of Qatar, has more than its fair share of buildings from the culinary school of architecture. The majority are grouped together in its West Bay area and form the downtown skyline of New Doha.
As I am driven west from the airport along the six-kilometre sweep of palm-fringed Corniche that defines Old Doha, it becomes easier to distinguish styles and strengths within the silhouette. Some buildings, such as the award-winning Tornado Tower - a variation on London's iconic Gherkin building - are genuinely impressive but others are monumental mismatches of styles, with traditional Arabic details tacked on to modern tower blocks.
A few are endearingly barmy and some are just downright rude, such as the colossal upright tube structure encased in filigree metalwork. Apparently, it doesn't have an official title as yet but it has a nickname - and let's just say it would make a fitting headquarters for a family-planning clinic.
I'm thankful, however, that 21st-century Doha has much more to offer visitors than a quirky skyline. This year, due to its commitment to a series of educational and cultural projects, the city has been designated the Arab Capital of Culture. So, if nearby Dubai is the Las Vegas of the region, Doha sees itself more as a smart Geneva - wealthy, progressive and vaguely neutral. It is home to the Middle East's independent news network, al-Jazeera, and every autumn (October 26-30 this year) holds its own version of the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.
But there is healthy competition for the cultural crown of the Arabian Peninsula. Abu Dhabi has its A-list architectural plans, with buildings by Foster, Hadid and Gehry in the pipeline, while Oman has the heritage appeal of its ancient capital. But Doha has trumped them all with the early opening of its architectural treasure box, the Museum of Islamic Art. Like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the museum has managed to create an instant focus for the city.
Its 93-year-old master architect, I. M. Pei, insisted on building his ziggurat on a specially built island site 60 metres from the Corniche. This cleverly ensures that the unique structure will avoid any encroachment from future skyscrapers. It also means the museum appears to float in the Arabian Gulf like a cubist ocean liner and, like any grand ship, looks smaller from land than it actually is. As I walk up its palm-lined gangplank, I am surprised by the monumental scale of the museum.
Inside the building, with its cool limestone interior, external right-angles give way to curves. The main galleries surround an atrium housing a sweeping symmetrical staircase, lofty gantries and a stunning 45-metre floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the water.
Suspended above the central space is a huge circular light with intricate geometrical patterning and above that is a faceted dome that resembles a giant sapphire illuminated by a single source of natural light. Watching the museum's visitors marvel at the spatial play of sun, shade and stonework, you can only conclude that Mr Pei has created not just a beautiful museum but a work of living art.
The exhibits are pretty whizzy, too. Aided by a simple touch-screen audio guide, you can study superb examples of the Islamic style that stretched from Spain to China. Fourteen galleries displaying more than 800 Islamic artefacts may sound daunting but with a clear commentary and jewellery-shop lighting, it is a delight to trace the connection between Mughal miniatures, calligraphic tapestries, gold astrolabes and Saracen armour. My favourites are a deer-shaped fountain head from 10th-century Granada and a surprisingly contemporary-looking earthenware bowl from ninth-century Basra. And there's the joy. When was the last time Iraq and Basra were linked with a thing of beauty? One of the triumphs of the museum is that its elegant artefacts help remind us of our common humanity while providing a fresh and positive view of Islamic civilisation. What is notably absent, however, are pieces from Qatar - or any of the oil-rich Gulf states.
Doha's National Museum is closed for a redesign. In the meantime, the best way to view the living history of the city is to dodge your way across the Land Cruiser-clogged Corniche and head to the nearby Souk Waqif. At the entrance, in Coffee Asherg, I sit and listen. The background rumble of televised football is overlaid by the comforting bubble of the shisha pipes, the ching of emails arriving on BlackBerrys and the playful Arabic chatter of a group of smart young men dressed in traditional long white thawbs.
It is very easy to time-travel within the Souq Waqif and not just because parts of the restored market look like an Indiana Jones film set. One minute you can be watching the timeless scene of a Bedouin elder dictating a letter to a turbaned scribe, the next catching a gaggle of women in toe-to-top abayas tucking into ice-cream outside the futuristic Haagen-Dazs cafe. A policeman glides by on a customised Segway and a falcon screeches from the nearby bird market: a charmingly eccentric mix.
The narrow alleyways of the souk are calmer than any I've experienced in the Middle East. Perhaps because Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, no one ever has to hassle anyone for a sale. It's all very civilised but if you don't fancy a traditional Arabian lute, some maritime hardware or a live pastel-pink bunny wearing a waistcoat (yes, really), there isn't a lot to haggle for.
The real energy in the market lies with the great selection of Lebanese, Iraqi and Moroccan restaurants on the main street, with the best - al-Bandar, al-Tawash and Tajine - within a falafel throw of each other. For a visual feast, there is the eclectic collection of historic photographs scattered around the bird market - one of them featuring bagpipe-playing Bedouins - and the series of tiny galleries and old workshops loosely grouped in the exhibition space formerly known as the Waqif Art Centre. On my visit, I am absorbed by an edgy Arabic photographic show and video installation. The calendar of events is unclear but this is the best place to find contemporary visual art.
Once I realise hailing cabs in Doha doesn't work, I find the dedicated taxi rank at the end of the souk and head back along the Corniche to my hotel among the giant kitchen utensils. As palm trees and the lights of construction sites whiz by, I think about a piece of epigraphic pottery I enjoyed at the museum.
"Foolish is the person who misses his chance and blames fate," the Arab calligraphy declares. Wise words indeed. Next time you have to break a long-haul flight through Doha, don't blame schedules. Take a day out to explore this cultured, 21st-century city.
Four Seasons Doha, on the West Bay of Doha, is reliably comfortable and conservative, with its own beach and the best spa in town. From NZ$450/double. Closer to the museum is the Italianate Hotel Souq Waqif, a boutique hotel.
When to go: October to April. Summer temperatures average more than 38 degrees.
The new development at The Pearl has a great circus of top shops from around the world in oriental arcades.
The Museum of Islamic Art is open daily, except on Tuesdays and Fridays. General admission is free.
Besides the souk, the Corniche has good waterfront restaurants; Lebanese al-Mourjan is the best. If you fancy a late-night drink in this non-alcoholic city, head to the sumptuous Sky View Bar at the La Cigale Hotel.