Jewels in The Desert

In the Middle East, two cities are jostling for cultural supremacy. But which has the greatest treasures?
Oliver Bennett compares the top attractions in Doha and Abu Dhabi

Illustrations: Vanessa Arnaud
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State of the Art

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


Doha has been transformed into a key arts hub with film festivals, innovative architecture and a thriving art market. The I. M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, above, has become a feature of the skyline, with numerous other museums being built, including Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar.


Although it’s some way from completion you can still visit the Saadiyat Cultural District, an astonishingly ambitious zone where you’ll find the future home of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel, 2015, above) and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry, 2017).

Sporting Life

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


Just outside the city is Doha’s camel-racing track, which makes for an entertaining morning’s tour. Even with no racing on, it’s great fun to see the camels taking their exercise, wobbling along the track. Curiously, this ancient sport has embraced the latest in technology, with robot jockeys now sitting in the saddles.


Yas Links, on man-made Yas Island, also home to the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit, is the Middle East’s only true links golf course. Set among rolling hills and mangrove plantations, it was devised by Kyle Phillips, and has been hailed by Golf Digest as the best golf course in the Middle East.

Power Lunch

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


If there’s one place that delivers the perfect lunch, it’s Opal by Gordon Ramsay at The St. Regis Doha. It has perfectly-judged informality, great views of the lagoon, and street-food-inspired dishes such as tamarind chicken wings and short-rib burgers. The perfect start to an afternoon’s sightseeing – or siesta.


Sontaya, the Southeast Asian restaurant at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi has a serene ambiance and offers classic dishes from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The outdoor terrace is the ideal place to linger a while and savor the views of the shimmering Persian Gulf.

The Cool Quarter

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


Katara cultural village is home to attractions such as the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, the Qatar Photographic Society and events such as the Doha Tribeca Film Festival – a mix leavened by the beach, the glittering Corniche and several restaurants serving the cuisines of the world.


When in Abu Dhabi you’ll inevitably head to the island of Saadiyat, 500 yards away from the coast. There’s so much going on in its seven distinct districts: art galleries, business hubs, sports and of course, a proper, five-mile-long beach. Try the Monte-Carlo Beach Club for wellbeing and dining options.

Retail Therapy

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


Souq Waqif is Doha’s spiritual heart and an old trading zone. It’s now one of the few traditional locations in Doha: a cluster of shady lanes that host hundreds of stores selling spices and handicrafts. Try Al Adhamiyah for lunch, which serves tasty Iraqi food.


Abu Dhabi’s best mall is generally considered to be the Galleria on Al Marayah Island, a luxury destination housing all the world’s top brands, from Gucci to Cartier to Louis Vuitton. Shopped out? Then head to Almaz by Momo for Moroccan food on the waterfront terrace.

Seafront Stroll

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


Doha’s most glittering walk is along the Corniche, the sea-hugging promenade. It’s perfect for an evening’s constitutional when the heat of the day has ebbed. Old fishing dhows cruise against a backdrop of spectacular skyscrapers, all the more striking for the fact that this city barely existed 50 years ago.


Abu Dhabi’s five-mile-long Corniche is a riposte to Doha’s, with a frieze of skyscrapers and waterfront fringed by a Blue Flag beach. Shade yourself with a rented umbrella, and take odd forays into the water, which is usually so
warm that it’s like jumping into a bath.

Fun with Kids

Doha vs Abu Dhabi


The Sheikh Faisal Museum is one of those great random museums, housing cars, furniture, weaponry, furniture and fossils – anything that the Sheikh likes, really. Adding value is the Al-Samariyah Equestrian Academy next door, with riding lessons for children as young as four.


Ferrari World Abu Dhabi has more than 20 Ferrari-inspired attractions, including Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, which reaches 150 mph. You’ll find it on Yas Island, and while you’re there, check out Yas Waterworld,
Abu Dhabi’s top water park.