As the world accelerates its transition away from dependence on fossil fuels, the wealthy energy superpowers of the Middle East have debated how best to reduce their own economies’ reliance on the petroleum industry. The United Arab Emirates is leaning on Dubai’s international renown as a tourist destination. Meanwhile, Oman and Saudi Arabia are pouring resources into the development of archeological sites, hoping that ancient history can attract big spenders from abroad. Qatar, for its part, may decide to bet on the untapped allure of its more recent past.
In mid-July, an article in CNN’s “Travel” section spotlighted the intriguing “forsaken villages” and “ghost towns” of Qatar, remnants of what the news agency dubbed “Qatar’s humble past.”
The gleaming skyline of Doha, underwritten by the handsome profits from Qatar’s abundant petroleum reservoirs, contrasts with these isolated fishing villages. The picturesque ghost towns lining Qatar’s northwestern coastline formed an integral component of the peninsular monarchy’s pre-oil economy, serving as bases for fishing and pearl hunting. Pearling in particular represented one of the more lucrative enterprises for fishermen working from sunrise to sunset.
The picturesque ghost towns lining Qatar’s northwestern coastline formed an integral component of the peninsular monarchy’s pre-oil economy.
Al-Jumail, a former fishing village sandwiched between Qatar’s coast and its forbidding desert, testifies to this cultural heritage. Houses built with beach stone and coral along the shoreline provided al-Jumail’s now-departed inhabitants with ready access to the fish and pearls behind their livelihoods.
From at least the 19th century to the 20th, Qatari fishermen called the town home. They often spent the summer in fishing villages such as al-Arish, al-Ghariyah, al-Jumail, al-Khuwayr, and al-Mafjar for pearling season, wintering in inland oases.
The fishing villages declined in relevance as the energy industry came to dominate Qatar’s economy. However, the deserted cities are taking on renewed significance amid the country’s recent pursuit of economic diversification, considering their potential as tourist attractions. An April 2021 review on Tripadvisor, for example, shares CNN’s enthusiasm for al-Jumail, rating the ghost town four out of five stars and recommending it as a “great place” for the “keen photographer.”
Qatari officials seem eager to exploit the appeal of al-Jumail and its neighboring towns. As early as 2015, the website Doha News reported that Qatar Museums and the Qatar Tourism Authority intended to rehabilitate al-Jumail—which has fallen into a state of disrepair—as an open-air museum; according to the website, al-Jumail also hosted a set for a film in 2009, alluding to another possible draw for tourists. The populous northern Qatari city of al-Khor already boasts a museum detailing its past as a site for fishing, pearling, and shipbuilding—a worthy model for al-Jumail and Qatar’s other abandoned cities.
Much of Qatar can claim some type of historical connection to the fishing industry.
Much of Qatar can claim some type of historical connection to the fishing industry. Even Doha, a megacity that Qatar aims to transform into a tourist destination in its own right, once functioned as a hub for fishing and pearling.
Only in the 1930s did Qatar edge away from pearl hunting, the longtime backbone of its economy. In a twist of fate, the country’s defunct fishing and pearling outposts are now paving the way for Qatar’s much-vaunted economic diversification.
In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as “UNESCO,” added the Qatari historic site and former pearling center Zubarah to its “World Heritage List.” Zubarah, a crossroads for traders traversing the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean until its destruction in 1811, remains Qatar’s only UNESCO “World Heritage Site.” Qatar Museums, describing Zubarah as “Qatar’s largest heritage site,” is now undertaking substantial renovations in the abandoned city “so future generations can also marvel at the site.”
Drawing tourists to Zubarah and other historic sites will play a crucial role in the Qatar National Vision 2030, Qatari officials’ development plan to achieve economic diversity. The strategy coincides with efforts to promote coastal, desert, and cultural tourism—categories that could include the offerings of al-Jumail and other ghost towns. In fact, the National Museum of Qatar, opened in 2019, is currently presenting an oral history of the fishing villages’ former residents.
Unlike countries such as Oman, which is fast depleting its petroleum reservoirs, Qatar has the luxury of time in implementing its plans for the ghost towns and tourism as a whole. A 2021 report from BP indicates that, at the current rate, Qatar can continue to pump oil for 38 years and natural gas for 144 years.
Qatar has the luxury of time in implementing its plans for the ghost towns and tourism as a whole.
Nonetheless, the world is already moving toward renewable energy in a bid to slow climate change. An August 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a part of the U.N., outlined fossil fuels’ responsibility for global warming and indicated the urgent need for alternatives.
According to the World Bank, 2.1 million foreigners visited Qatar in 2019. That number marks an increase of 300,000 from the previous year but falls well below the 2016 peak of 2.9 million; the proportion of tourists to other arrivals, such as migrant workers, remains unclear. Qatari officials hope to attract as many as 5.6 million tourists a year by 2030, a 129 percent jump from the total number of foreign visitors in 2019.
Despite COVID’s effect on tourism, Qatar has several reasons for optimism. As of August 18, the country had administered a full regimen of vaccines to 68 percent of its population and given at least one dose to 79 percent of its residents, offering strong protection against outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an American government agency, has also labeled Qatar with a lower COVID warning than the UAE, giving Qatar a key advantage over its biggest competitor. If Qatari officials keep the pandemic in check and the 2022 FIFA World Cup proceeds as planned, millions of tourists will flock to Doha next year.
As Qatar endeavors to expand tourism in the coming decade, investments in al-Jumail and other little-known ghost towns may go a long way. Even Qatar’s contemporary inhabitants seem eager to engage with its fishing past: residents of the capital have made a habit of fishing along the Doha Corniche, and a YouTube video from last year depicts the picturesque appeal of “fishing with a view of the National Museum of Qatar.”
Foreign tourists will likely appreciate this history and charm as well.