Traveler or tourist. Travelers go to a destination that’s familiar. Tourists slide through museum treasures and Instagram-worthy sights. So it is with Doha in Qatar, to which you travel, and Muscat in Oman, where you tour.
The Arabian Peninsula countries are separated by the flashy United Arab Emirates—and a world of historical and cultural differences. Doha has little of either: a gleamy, new pop-up city awash in cash. Muscat is an ancient maritime port docked in the Third World.
Doha is an Oz-like Dubai wannabe whose national bird is a construction crane. Multi-zillion-dollar glass towers rise out of near-manic blueprints from twenty-first-century architects.
Qatar’s nouveau-riche wealth is otherworldly. Take The Pearl, a $15 billion development on an artificial island dotted with Maserati, Bentley, Rolls Royce, and Lamborghini dealerships. Small wonder the nation—using labor under unmentioned human-rights conditions—is building an entirely new metro system and eight stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
Even Muscat’s air tastes old. Sixteenth-century Portuguese fortresses loom over the long stretch of city smushed between the crenelated volcanic Al-Hajar Mountains and the Gulf of Oman. Buildings that line the Corniche, the city’s seaside promenade, appear to be at least a century old, almost all of them white and no taller than four stories. Their shop signs in the gorgeous calligraphy of Arabic offer few English translations.
Then you come to the marketplace in each city, the traditional souk—and the entire script is flipped.
Doha’s Souk Waqif brims with antiquity, founded in the 1800s, though it was renovated in 2006. Inhale the perfumes of cardamom, frankincense, and nutmeg. Stop by the Falcon Souk to add to your hunting menagerie, though one of these majestic bad boys, some with eye coverings and others chewing tasty entrails, will set you back a sweet $275,000. Visit the Camel Souk. Buy earrings of actual pearl, the country’s original revenue source, and the shopkeeper will prove their authenticity with a Bic lighter.
With its cobblestone warrens, romantic yellow lighting and old-stone buildings, the souk is packed in the cooler evenings, where summertime temps can soar to 122 degrees. The crowd appears mostly homegrown, lots of families. You see women in black abayas, hejabs, or niqabs, or wearing jeans and T-shirts, same as men, who may choose a kaffiyeh headdress and ankle-length thawb—the bleach-white robe that’s impossible to imagine for someone whose own traditional wardrobe features streaks of today’s lunch.
Turn next to Muscat’s souk.
Souk Muttrah sits across the Corniche, the curving seaside promenade, from the Omani Sultan’s ships, one as big as a cruise liner, the other the size of a Navy frigate. In the faster-paced market, inconspicuous behind seafront buildings, alleys are chock-full of tourists and tchotchkes.
You want postcards, refrigerator magnets, and highball coasters that look like Oriental carpets with “Oman” lettering? They’ve got all that. Want a break from the language barrier that’s more intense here than in Doha? You’ll chat up a group of Texans on a guided tour.
Doha is where you dine on Brazilian churrascaria, platefuls of multiple types of meat carved tableside, or sup a fine Italian meal, or tuck into a Japanese-ish dinner. Alcohol, banned under Islam, nevertheless pours in the swank hotels for fat-wallet visitors and foreign business folk.
Muscat is where you hop the No. 1 bus in an ancient neighborhood where your hosts, a lovely Iranian family, offer a spartan Airbnb room. Your windows open to a thin alley across from a mosque whose megaphone blasts you awake with the pre-sunrise call to prayer, broadcast live.
Doha is where you learn the local culture, such as it is, from cab drivers who come here from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, and beyond to work eight, maybe ten, months and send their meager earnings back home. Only 300,000 of Qatar’s 3 million residents are natives.
Muscat is where you experience more Islamic culture and hear more of the floral, lyrical language. Where you offer your place on the bus to a woman in traditional garb and the robed man in the adjacent seat jumps away from her like somebody set him on fire.
Doha and Muscat, one brand-spanking new and one ancient, familiar and exotic, a polyglot of natives and expats, remarkably safe and clean—a mishmash of glaring distinctions.
Inshallah (“God willing”), as they say here, you’ll visit here, one of the world’s most misunderstood regions. Come to Doha for the money and the pearls, to Muscat for its dates—the chronological kind and the sweet-fruit ones. Then you get to be traveler and tourist in a single journey.