In the pre-oil Qatar

In the pre-oil Qatar

On a recent visit to Qatar, the glitz, glamour and sheer razzmatazz of the capital city, Doha left me amazed. An epitome of modernity, it is a city of rapid development on its way to achieve new heights of urbanisation. But a look at the history of the country reveals that it was traditionally known for industries like horse and camel breeding, pearling and fishing. It was the discovery of oil in Dukhan during the early 20th century that ushered in an era of industrialisation forcing several socio-economic changes.

A quick trip outside the capital city introduced me to several interesting towns and cities that were erstwhile flourishing fishing and pearling centres. Replete with old world charm, these coastal settlements with their traditional houses, mosques, forts and watch towers are symbols of the yesteryear or ‘pre-oil’ Qatar.

Located about 50 km from Doha towards the northern border of Qatar is the coastal town of Al Khor. Known for pearling and fishing in the past, Al Khor boasts of an active harbour even today. A drive through the town reveals some interesting sights including the ever-popular renovated Al Khor park and Al Khor corniche. The highlight of the town is its harbour where there is a flurry of activity with scores of fishing boats, a network of ships and an array of fishing nets. The different kinds of fishing nets is in fact quite mindboggling!

When in Al Khor, do not miss the Dhow building yard. For the uninitiated, “Dhow” refers to a traditional sailing vessel with one or more masts and the characteristic triangular or lateen sail. The ship building yard in Al Khor is a great way to soak in some history and culture while watching workers furiously tie chords, join planks and stitch the hull as the build the “Dhow”.

A total contrast to the dry and dusty terrain of the rest of the country, Al Thakira is a refreshing green spot that is replete with unique flora and fauna. Located close to Al Khor, the area is known for its mangroves which are best explored via a boat or a kayak that can navigate through the many labyrinths and channels formed naturally by the vegetation. A place that also attracts unique avifauna, Al Thakira island is a great spot for birdwatching where you can see species like herons, storks and even flamingos!

Just about 15 km from Doha is Al Wakrah that was yet another pearling and fishing town during the early 19th and 20th century. While it has undergone a major transformation currently, the traditional market place aka ‘souq’ of Al Wakrah is a wonderful place to step back in time and relive the days of the yore through symbols like the conventional mosque, the architecture of the souq which is built in typical Qatari style, as well as authentic markets including the falcon, utensil and vessels market. 

If you are one of those who think that your visit to the desert and the Middle east is incomplete without watching camels, head to Al-Shahaniya, a town synonymous with camel racing. A traditional sport that is still a local favourite and integral to Qatari lifestyle, the city has a sophisticated track to host the camel races. Ever since Qatar banned the use of child jockeys in 2004, the races are held using robot jockeys that are strapped onto the backs of the colourfully decorated camels.

Even if you do not witness an actual race, a visit to the city will treat you to scenes of camels walking freely on the roads, baby camels being trained and jockeys being fixed onto the camels. There is also a central area in the city where camels are sheltered and fed. The place also houses a veterinary hospital, pharmacy and integrated veterinary services. Interacting with the locals here is quite a fascinating experience!

A UNESCO world heritage site, Al Zubra was also one of the many prosperous trading towns that was a top pearling and diving centre. Today, the deserted town akin to a ‘ghost town’ houses an imposing fort within, which is a visitor centre. The latter has detailed information about the town during its zenith and also depicts the life of pearl divers. The lofty limestone hued walls of the fort provide interesting insights into the history, culture and socio-economic fabric of the erstwhile town.

The Umm Salal Mohammed Fort Towers (Bazran towers) built during the late 18th century is yet another symbol of historic Qatar. Used to monitor the movements of invaders and also for celestial study, the complex also houses a mosque apart from the twin towers.

RASHMI GOPAL RAO is a travel writer and blogger with her own website <>)

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