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Dubai may be considered as the region’s sporting capital, but 500 miles down the coast, Qatar has stunned the sporting world by being chosen to host one of the planet’s biggest events. David Williams investigates

    In less than three years time, the biggest event of any kind that the Middle East has ever witnessed will be held in the tiny peninsular emirate of Qatar.

     In terms of numbers of sports and competitors, the Asian Games eclipses even the Olympics. Up to 20,000 sportsmen and women will participate in an expected 35 events as the best competitors from the length and breadth of the world’s most populous continent converges on its capital city of Doha.

     Last year’s Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, was hailed as a massive success but the Doha Asian Games Organising Committee (DAGOC) is investing over one billion dollars in a bid to stage the most successful Asian Games ever staged.

    H.E. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Chairman of the Qatar National Olympic Committee and President of the DAGOC Board of Directors officially received the flag of the Olympic Council of Asia signifying the hand over of the games to Doha in front of 60,000 fans at the Busan closing ceremony.

    Abdulla Buhmaid, President of the DAGOC also received the games torch from Dr. Chung Soon Taek, President of the Busan Asian Games Organising committee.

    Organising world-class sporting events is nothing new for Doha, but events like the Asian Games are a different ballgame altogether. Many were skeptical when Doha was the surprise choice for hosting the event, getting the nod ahead of Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi.

    But work has began on putting the infrastructure in place that will ensure Qatar is one of the most extensively equipped sporting cities in Asia.

    All venues, with exception to the mountain biking, will be located within 12kms of the Athletes Village, which is being constructed in the heart of the city next to Hamad General Hospital. Following the Asian Games, which start on January 12, 2006, the facility will be used as a futuristic medical village.

    To the north of the city, venues will be constructed to host shooting while existing facilities will be used for golf and chess. Venues hosting football, basketball, badminton and equestrian will be erected to the west of the city, close to the Khalifa Sports Complex which is the centerpiece for the 2006 Asian Games.

    Built at a cost expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars, the Khalifa Sports Complex will be home to the athletics, aquatics, gymnastics, hockey, martial arts and the curiously named wushu and sepak takraw events. In the heart of the city and walking distance from the Athletes Village will be venues for volleyball, tennis, squash, cue sports, cycling, triathlon, weight lifting, sailing and the popular Indian sport of kabaddi. Beach volleyball is expected to take place on an island located in the middle of Doha Bay while handball and the mountain biking will be located south of the city.

    The sporting spectacular will bring unprecedented levels of exposure to Doha and the city is expected to benefit from an influx of business and tourism dollars that will boost its fledgling economy.

    Qatar is a peninsula situated halfway along the West Coast of the Arabian Gulf, but has lived in the shadows of its more illustrious Gulf brother, the UAE when it has come to sport and tourism.  All that is set to change as the emirate prepares to open its doors to a tourism boom.

    It has also been catapulted into the global spotlight after some of the world’s top footballers have decided to head to the tiny state for the 2003-04 season. Gabrielle Batistuta, Mario Basler, Steffan Effenburg and Ali Bernarbia are among those to have signed lucrative deals to play league football in Qatar next season.

So what is the attraction of Qatar?

    The total land area of Qatar is just 11,521 square kilometers – most of which is predominantly desert. It has a number of islands, the most important of which are Halool, Shira’aw and Al-Ashat. Its population is about 600,000, half of who live in the capital city.

    After gaining independence in 1971, the economy has been driven by its wealth of natural resources, but after witnessing how important tourism has become to cities like Dubai and Manama, Qatar has identified the Asian Games as an opportunity to showcase its talents to the world.

    Burial cairns at Umm al-Ma, on the western coast, indicate that people have lived in Qatar since 4000 BC. The land has been administered in turn by Canaanite Arab tribes, Turks, the Khalifa family of Bahrain and the British (who ruled for 99 years until independence was achieved). For most of its history, Qatar was known as a centre of the pearl industry. The introduction of cultured pearls in the 1930s, however, was the beginning of the end for Qatar’s pearl workers. Fortunately, oil was discovered in Qatar around the same time, and it quickly replaced pearls as the country’s biggest source of income.

    It is fair to say that current travellers to Qatar are generally businessmen and those visiting friends and family. The country itself hasn’t prepared for tourism. But nevertheless, it does offer plenty of attractions to the visitor.

    Qatar’s most popular beaches are at Khor and Jebel Fuwairet (north of Doha) and at Dukhan (west of the capital). A four wheel-drive vehicle is required to get to the undeveloped beaches in the northeast and southeast. At Umm Said, sand dunes extend right up to the water’s edge – it is a beautiful, remote area. Divers and snorkellers will enjoy the coral reefs near some of the beaches.

    Qatar has a rather limited selection of souvenirs. Look out for colorful Sadew woven rugs (a mixture of camel and goat hair - make sure it doesn’t smell) and imported items from the Mideast and the Indian subcontinent. The Family Bookshop in Doha has a good selection of English-language literature. For the most interesting shopping, the Suq Wakif and Musairab Street in Doha are worth a visit but be prepared to haggle.

    The Asian Games will be held during the best time weather wise, when temperatures are at their mildest. Humidity, however, is very high along the coast. However, most rain falls during the winter months in sudden, short but heavy cloudbursts but it is unlikely to worry competitors.

    Like so many countries in the Gulf, Qatar offers a wealth of eating options to cater for all tastes. Regional specialties, including kebabs, chicken, fish, seafood, rice and lamb dishes are in plentiful supply. The international deluxe hotels offer a wide range of Continental and other dishes. Indian, Pakistani and fast-food restaurants are also common. Most of the food is cooked fresh, and the spices seem to kill off lurking bacteria. Melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and dates are grown locally and are delicious. For desserts, look for the flaky pastries drenched in honey and chopped nuts. Tea and coffee drinkers will want to try the local brews. Alcoholic drinks are served only to hotel guests and in licensed bars.

    Overall Qatar, and Doha in particular, will undergo a complete face lift over the next three years as this country, small on land space but huge in pride, gears up to host one of the biggest shows on earth.




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