Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. 

We touched down for a brief visit in Doha recently. And although the blockade doesn’t appear to be having a huge impact on day-to-day life in the country thanks to trade with Turkey and Iran, one thing is clear: It has made inter-Gulf-country travel an absolute nightmare for those who have to do it on a regular basis.

The diplomatic and travel cold shoulder, which began in June, saw Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates sever ties wth Qatar.

In the past, there used to be a convenient 45-minute flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi, replete with multi-course meal service on Qatar Airways. Now, travelers wanting to get to Doha from the Emirates have to fly via Kuwait City, with a particularly time-sucking layover, or via Oman, a scruffy airport that leaves much to be desired.

A trip that was a frequent, easy commuter flight has turned into something that bleeds a day out of consultants, business people, and those just looking to simply move around the region. A quick chat with resident road warriors conveyed the fact that this has become a major headache.

While much of the news media focuses on bigger-picture geopolitical issues, it is actually the small constrictions that can be the most painful.

But, despite increased travel friction, Doha remains one of the most intriguing places in the world at the moment.

Like Vienna During the Cold War?

In the words of Declan Walsh, a New York Times reporter, “against a backdrop of purring limousines and dhows moored in the bay, Doha has become home to an exotic array of fighters, financiers and ideologues, a neutral city with echoes of Vienna in the Cold War, or a Persian Gulf version of the fictional pirate bar in the Star Wars movies.”

And if the so-called Mos Eisley Cantina has a physical place in the country, it might be in the beautifully appointed bar at the Four Seasons Doha, where an air of intrigue permeates the room, and where American business people, Qataris, and wide ranges of nationalities discuss business, politics and other things. To be a fly on the wall, nursing a martini is immensely interesting.

Elsewhere in Doha, one could be forgiven for not seeing signs of a slowdown. The city has embarked on one of the largest public transportation projects in history, with 31 stations under construction and an estimated 41,000 workers on the project. The first phase of the Doha Metro is slated to be complete in 2020, when the project’s first 37 of an estimated 100 metro stations are expected to be live.

The emphasis on public transportation is laudable, and certainly necessary for the impending World Cup in 2022, but one questions how it will fare in a world that is currently car centric; after all Qataris seem to love white Land Cruisers. When these stations will be completed, we will begin to see the first phases of autonomous vehicles or even other future-facing forms of transportation like the Hyperloop.

Hamad Airport: Premier Hub With a Quirky Rhythm

In terms of air travel, Hamad International Airport stands as one of the world’s finest hubs, though by a quirk of its design, one can’t really tell if it is day or night outside, and it seems to run on its own, liquid-internal rhythm not unlike a casino. It is set to be expanded to an estimated 65 million passengers with the new addition of an F concourse, according to Arabian Business magazine. With the delay of Abu Dhabi’s airport, this allows for a favorable strategic position in the region, which is important to national carrier Qatar Airways.

In terms of hospitality, capacity is coming online at a steady clip. A second Four Seasons is being built; a new Mondrian just opened; a JW Marriott is on the way, along with a Le Meridien, and a Langham Place is among many other brands vying for tourism dollars as the economy braces for the World Cup.

Marveling and Wincing During Doha Jaunt

Elsewhere, cultural centers and significant building projects continue. A day spent touring around town left me equally marveling at the ambition and effort, and also wincing at the overly “global village” architecture and designs at the Pearl development. It’s as if the country is awkwardly pillaging a buffet of different styles and cultures, and placing them on a man-made archipelago (Spanish village, anyone?).

Esteemed urban studies writer Jane Jacobs wouldn’t exactly be smiling at some of the city planning. There’s a huge opportunity for more thoughtful, tasteful global brands, restaurants and chains to come to Doha rather than the predictable global chain fare. This nuance and taste would change the dynamic of the city immensely, and make it feel less like an overblown mall and more of a global, cosmopolitan hub.

The pace of construction has come with significant human rights concerns raised by groups like Human Rights Watch. Qatar has responded by introducing a minimum wage for migrant workers, announced last week, and has also brought other reforms such as stopping employers from preventing workers to leave freely.

The state had previously operated under a “kafala” system, where employers have had a tremendous amount of power over how their employees live and move.

All in all, Qatar is a fascinating lens to look at the world. A million factors are colliding at once, and the tectonic plates are rubbing together in a very interesting way.

The state is both full of the future — positive and dystopian — tinged with a Bedouin past that still imbues parts of its thinking,

Qatar serves as an interesting crossroads where global capitalism brushes shoulders with expat Egyptian clerics, Syrian exiles, Libyan islamists and countless other nationalities traveling from impoverished hometowns to make some sort of dream come true.

There’s good and bad, there’s progress and pain, but it is undoubtedly interesting to closely observe under a scorching Gulf sun.

Photo Credit: Although the blockade doesn’t appear to be having a huge impact on day-to-day life in the country thanks to trade with Turkey and Iran, one thing is clear: It has made inter-Gulf-country travel an absolute nightmare for those who have to do it on a regular basis. Lυвαιв / Visual Hunt CC BY-NC-SA