Doha’s bustling century-old souk and the Msheireb Downtown Doha, a new environmentally friendly development just a 10-minute walk away, are an old-meets-new contrast — and a real reprieve from the sprawling malls that have come to define the colossal boom that has transformed the Persian Gulf region since the 1950s.
“You can find everything you need in one trip to the souk, and Msheireb offers a more modern and posh approach to the same idea,” said Maha Al Shebani, who lives in Doha, Qatar’s capital city, and often visits the area. “And now we have the option to do both at the same time.”
Souk Waqif, built in the early 20th century as a Bedouin trading post when Doha was little more than a village, was renovated in 2008, but in a way that retained much of its charm, restoring some early buildings and tearing down some modern parts to create a more authentic look. Its grand two-level stone buildings — with exposed timber beams, shuttered windows and glowing Arabian lamps dangling throughout — house dozens of stalls selling color-splashed glass lanterns, spices, clothing, tapestries and souvenirs amid the ever-present fragrance of burning frankincense.
There is even the Falcon Souq, a store that sells falcons, their helmets and other accouterments, and, conveniently, a falcon hospital next door.
And there is the souk’s cafe life: The central open-air space that winds through the buildings is lined with restaurants that offer ample outdoor seating (and elaborate misting systems to combat the city’s harsh desert climate) as well as shisha smoking for locals and tourists alike.
(Qatar has continued to emerge as a tourist center. Recently the country, which attracted about 1 million visitors to the 2022 World Cup, has been readying for holiday arrivals as well as fans traveling to the Asian Football Confederation Cup soccer competition, scheduled in January and February.)
As for the $5.5 billion Msheireb (Arabic for “a place to drink water”) district, its 100 buildings include five-star hotels, restaurants, dozens of independent retailers and condominiums. Completed in 2021, it covers about 75 acres, land that previously had been an industrial area.
Msheireb, developed by a division of the state-led Qatar Foundation, markets itself as a “smart city”, touting its environmental and digital features.
Its cream-color buildings, mostly just four or five levels high, are designed to repel heat, and traditional mashrabiya screens, whose elaborate openwork designs diffuse the sunlight, are hung on the sides of buildings and over sidewalks. The narrow streets, also designed to capitalize on shade, feed into a central square with several cafes, all covered with a retractable roof.
“I got to witness the fast-paced development of Msheireb after working there for several years, and I have always valued spaces that highlight the exchange of culture,” said Ms. Al Shebani, a coordinator for Qatar Years of Culture, an annual celebration of cultures involving Qatar and other countries. “Just like the souk, Msheireb is a melting pot of locals and tourists, and there is always something new to do.”
The M7 design center is the development’s cultural facility, and its Studio 7 concept store, run by Qatar Museums, a government agency, has a similar focus. It sells home furnishings, artwork, yoga mats, clothing, tote bags and limited-edition furniture, among dozens of other items, all designed by artists from across the Arab world.
“Studio 7 wanted items made in Qatar and wanted an ecosystem to connect local designers and businesses,” said Abdulrahman Al Muftah, a local designer whose creations — a line of locally made moisturizers, vinyl records whose labels he designed and terra-cotta planters for indoor gardening — are sold there. “The souk is a perfect place to get many of my ingredients, and as a designer it takes me back to the hub of the culture with local artisans, and spices and other products from around the world.”
Among Msheireb’s retailers, traditional also meets modern at TRZI, a women’s clothing store with several variations on the abaya, the gown-like outerwear garment worn by many Muslim women throughout the Middle East (from 800 Qatari riyal, or about $220, to 4,000 Qatari riyal).
“The brand was inspired by women and tradition, with the abaya as the core inspiration, but the twist is how to make that cultural inspiration into something modern,” said Amna Ahmed Al-Misned, the owner and designer of TRZI. “These can be worn by anyone, not just women in the Middle East. We’re trying to blur the line between the cultural traditional garment and the global fashion world.”
With that in mind, Ms. Al-Misned designed several pieces to be more businesslike with what she called a trench-coat design, which closes at the front and has details such as straps that can be used to keep the sleeves tight around the wrists. And she and her workers also create handmade abayas with lots of detailed embroidery around the cuffs and collars. That combination of tradition and contemporary is key, she said.
“TRZI is a brand that has a modern approach but is rooted to our heritage,” Ms. Al-Misned said. “And the whole process of the restoration and sustainability of Msheireb is very inspiring since we also want to focus on sustainability in our materials and processes.”
At the nearby Concepto leather store, Nasser Alemadi has deep roots in the area. He and Nasser Al Eshaq, a college friend, founded the store and now own it together, selling high-end leather products that are assembled in Qatar.
“My grandfather had a fabric stall in the old Msheireb, and this area was about selling the basics of sugar, rice, wheat, textiles and small electronics,” he said. “And Souk Waqif had a lot of stores, offices and restaurants and was the center of Doha.”
Now, he said, Msheireb is “the hub of the city.”