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Alastair Johnson

Nestled into the endless sand dunes of the Middle east, between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, lies the little desert kingdom of Qatar. Modern-day Qataris are the descendants of a proud bedouin (nomadic) race of dune-dwellers and pearl fishermen. They maintain close ties with the desert and sea, and whilst the older generations pursue the traditional pastimes of fishing and falconry, young Qataris like nothing better than to fill their time with excursions deep into the interior in Toyota Landcruisers, to belt up and down impossibly steep dunes on quad bikes at breakneck speed, and to dive and spearfish in the waters of the Arabian Gulf.

For the past 18 months I've been living in the capital, Doha, a dusty, sprawling city which is rapidly evolving into a modern metropolis, complete with a spaceage business centre and luxury hotels. But, although it's steadily gaining the mod-cons many of us take for granted, the weekends can get a little dull, and I soon found myself in need of some stimulation and a little adventure. And so it was, one evening, that I found myself walking through the doors of Pearl Divers, Doha's main dive shop and PADI centre.

I was introduced to the head instructor of Qatar Divers (Qatar's leading diver training organisation), Abdullatif Al- Naemi, whom, I quickly discovered, is something of an institution in this part of the world and has trained inumerable Qataris and expats over many years.
Halcyon Eclipse Infinity
Anemone When I asked about timing and schedules he replied with the golden words "whenever you want, we dive everyday". What a life... After a couple of days at home with the Open Water manual and videos, and a session in the classroom, it was time to get wet. So, the following day, I headed off to the Ocean Club behind the Marriott hotel for pool training, against a panoramic backdrop of sailing yachts and traditional fishing dhows plying their trade in the Gulf.

My first experience of open water soon beckoned. I had little idea of what to expect, and so it was with some trepidation that I found myself, fins, mask and towel in hand, lathered in factor 40 and sunglasses on, waiting at a busy junction on the outskirts of the city in the slowly roasting heat of a Friday morning dawn. A battered and dusty Nissan Micra pulled up beside me blaring discordant Egyptian pop music, the young driver leaned out and grinned hello, pointed at my fins and beckoned me over. His name was Maget, and over time we've become regular dive buddies and firm friends.
Ocean Visions
Catfish, hanging about Departing the relative modernity of the suburbs, the low squat houses and settlements thinned out, and soon we were heading into the endlessness of the desert, a flat and endless horizon of bedrock before us, the monotony of which was broken only by the occasional concrete dwelling and a camel or two. I couldn't help but recall the Eagles lyric "on a long desert highway, cool wind in my hair..." but, with no functioning air conditioning to speak of, I, Maget, and the wind in our hair were very soon sizzling in the upper 40s. An hour or so later, we entered and left the industrial ghost town of Um-Said in the blink of an eye and turned onto another endless highway populated with pot holes and juggernauts snaking through massive dunes beside the boundary fence of Qatar's vast Q-Chem oil refinery. This place wouldn't look out of place in a Mad Max movie, all gleaming industrial pipes, spotlights and belching orange flames.

The road to Sealine beach is an unmarked turning, and easily missed (as Maget and I know all too well, having taken an unintended 3 hour detour to Saudi Arabia and back – twice)! In any case, "beach" is something of a misnomer, since what most of us know as beaches have a marked differentiation to the surrounding landscape, but in this case there's simply endless desert and then, abruptly, the sand stops and the water begins. Sealine is the most popular and accessible shore diving spot on the peninsula, and the place where most divers here do their training.
Car The shoreline is delineated by the 4x4s parked side by side along it, back doors open towards the sea, tailgates piled high with tanks, regs and BCDs good to go. The sun and heat are intense all year, so awnings and open sided tents are de rigeour. In this part of the world it seems only mad camels and scuba divers venture out in the midday sun...

Sealine is home to "Old Club Reef", a man-made assortment of sunken vehicles – cars, buses, coaches and lorries (including the American ambassador's old sedan), enormous cable drums and other construction detritus, and, bizarrely, piles of porcelain toilets, baths and carpets, which, over time, have been colonised by a dense collection of clams and crustaceans. Each area of the reef is attached to the next by rope trails laid by various divers, and over the years quite a geography has built up. A little further from shore lie a couple of sunken fishing dhows. The area has attracted a decent variety of marine life and is home to a large and friendly population of butterfly fish who will happily feed from the hand and have a well honed taste for bananas!
Denney Diving
How best to dehydrate oneself The dive site borders the perimeter of the oil refinery, so the visibility isn't exactly amazing, and, with the silty floor, the concentration of large planktonic life, a bit of current and a few learners in the water, it quickly turns to the consistency of minestrone. Many would consider this a major disadvantage, but, from a training perspective, it can easily be turned to the diver's benefit, as I soon discovered. Operating procedures, maintaining buddy contact and clear communication, proficiency with a compass and "diving the plan" become vital techniques and principles to master. Additionally, developing sound finning and buoyancy control are an absolute must, as any diver here quickly learns.

I began my open water training in November 2006 in a snug 5-4-3 fulllength suit and hood. I found the water to be a perfect comfortable temperature ‘though my Arab companions would constantly shiver and moan about the "winter cold", which always sent me into fits of laughter. Its all about what one's used to I guess, but a Qatari winter is certainly warmer than a hot English summer! During the winter months, some of my local diving buddies erect encampments in the surrounding dunes, and we spend the weekends there, sleeping on cushions in traditional bedouin tents, sharing "mutton grab" in the Qatari way (seated on the floor around a single communal platter and eating with one's hands), and watching Arabic soap operas on generatorpowered satellite tv late into the night.
London School Of Diving
Voodoo Ray by the young bucks roaring up the sheer face of the adjoining dunes at all hours on their highly powered and frighteningly quick quad bikes.

Around February the heat begins to rise, necessitating a switch to thin lycra body suits. Because the warmer weather brings with it an influx of jellyfish, shorties aren't such a great idea. I found the lycra suits hugely amusing in that they're only available from one outlet and in one style and colour scheme, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the original Star Trek uniform. My vulcan hand greeting, however, was lost on all but a few.
Gazebo During the summer months the temperature soars to around 50°C and by 8am the beach will burn the skin off your feet and melt your kit, so we aim to leave town by 4.30am and be underwater by 6am. The sea's like a hot bath, but fortunately there's an abrupt thermocline most days, and once you're below it things are a lot more comfortable for the uninitiated. Ascending is a curious experience, a little like being slow cooked! The shore "breeze" dries you instantaneously, than it's back into the air-conditioning of the 4x4s, a litre or two of fluids down the neck, soft sand scattered everywhere, and back out onto the endless highway.

In September, upon the siting of the new moon, the holy month of Ramadan begins and the muslim population fasts during daylight hours. It's forbidden to consume food or drink in public during the day, so morning dives are off the agenda and the schedule switches to late afternoon. We typically hit the beach an hour or so before dusk, ascending from the first dive to witness the giant orb of a cherry-red sun dipping lazily behind the dunes, an amazing sight! Once the last rays have gone, trestle tables are pulled from the boots of vehicles and speedily erected for iftar, the breaking of the fast.
LDC Training
The silence of the desert is only broken A huge feast then unfolds, with all manner of delicious local and regional Arabic delicacies. Dates come first, followed by mutton grab, samosas and savoury pastries, all washed down with lebneh (drinking yoghurt) and juice. The social hospitality in this part of the world is legend, and all are encouraged to partake. Many Qataris are well-travelled and educated in UK or the States, so the conversation flows in and out of Arabic and English and the night air fills with raucous laughter and tall tales.
Ocean Visions
Once dinner's over, it's time for Arabic coffee, (incredibly strong and taken in small shot-sized cups – I've never managed more than two), and shisha, a flavoured wet tobacco smoked through a hookah pipe. After an hour's break to allow this feast to at least partially digest and the conversation to conclude, it's on with fresh tanks, and time for night diving.

The man-made reef develops a truly surreal atmosphere after dark: schools of butterfly fish scribe sleeping circles within the rusted hulks of the buses, the plethora of sea urchins spread their spines in the current, and the ghostly forms of barracuda dart in and out of one's peripheral vision.

We fin in formation, those riding shotgun sweeping their torches in wide arcs across the gloom on the lookout for the ever-present jellyfish and the occasional seasnake. If we're lucky we might see a turtle, and, very occasionally, a sand shark.

Another popular shore diving spot is the Inland Sea, an hour's journey from Old Club Reef, off-road and deep into the desert. The golden rule here is to travel in convoy, as breaking down in the dunes, away from civilisation, can be fatal. We keep radio contact and carry tools, ropes and plenty of extra water. The Inland Sea is a remarkable spot, right up against the Saudi Arabian border. It plays host to a large horseshoe-shaped reef, positively teeming with fish including the local delicacies of grouper, snapper, hamour and catfish, which makes it a perfect spot for a speargun barbeque.

There are also a number of wrecks in Qatari waters, the largest and most popular of which is Al-Sharqi, a huge trading vessel in around 120ft, about an hour and a half's fast boat ride due east of Doha Port. Giant tankers cross the shipping lanes on the horizon as we cut the engines and drop anchor on a GPS pinhead. Soon we're descending into the cool, clear waters beneath. This is the one location here where one can be sure of spotting clownfish and is well worth the trip. The visibility is very good and the wreck offers plenty of interest and penetration opportunities for more experienced divers.

Diving in the desert may sound like a contradiction in terms, but in this part of the world the site of a Landcruiser loaded with tanks bashing through the sandunes is a very common sight. After a year and a half of fun in the Arabian sun and a Master Scuba Diver card in my back pocket, I'm leaving Qatar behind and moving on. I'm sad to bid my buddies goodbye – it's been an absolute blast, and their hospitality has been second to none. If you ever find yourself in these waters, make sure you look up Abdullatif at www.scubalatif.com, and join the Qatar Divers for an experience you won't forget. I know they'll be happy to see you!

Nearest recompession facility:
King Abdulaziz Naval Base, Jubail
Tel: 00 966 3 3621234 1471

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