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Msheireb Downtown Doha is an ambitious project to turn a 31-hectare site in the city's original core into a bustling commercial and residential space. The US$5-billion project is to include more than 100 buildings and is to be completed by 2020.

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While the politics of the Persian Gulf remain as complicated as ever, here in one of the oldest parts of town, they are building a new city within a city.

Msheireb, which means “a place to drink water” in Arabic, has been under construction since 2010 — something that’s not unusual in Doha, which often seems like one gigantic building site.

Doha appears to be in the midst of a perpetual project, as the city of roughly 1.5 million people (out of a total national population of approximately 2.7 million) prepares to play host to the World Cup of soccer in 2022. Qatar is building eight stadiums.

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At the same time, Qatar is in the midst of a National Vision 2030 project, which aims “to transform Qatar into an advanced society capable of achieving sustainable development.”

This is not so straightforward as Qatar faces a continuing boycott from some of its Persian Gulf neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There’s also suspicion about the country’s political alliances from among others, the United States, even though the U.S. has a 10,000-person military base here.

Nevertheless, the vision moves forward. Diplomats here say Qatar has managed to skirt the embargo imposed by its neighbours since June of 2017 by trading with other countries such as China, Iran and Malaysia.

Qatar is also one of the world’s leading exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG), and its sovereign fund owns valuable property and companies all over the world, so it’s not exactly starving. In fact, Qatari officials estimated that nearly US$26-billion would be spent on major projects in 2017, with US$8-billion in new project deals to be signed this year.

The construction dust can be daunting, with commercial buildings, sports facilities, roads, mass transit and other infrastructure everywhere. Msheireb Downtown Doha is in the middle of it all.

Started in 2010, it’s a 31-hectare project that includes more than 100 buildings. The US$5.5-billion project is expected to be complete by 2020.

“The whole project is being done in phases,” says Lee Talbott, director of sales and leasing at Msheireb Properties, which is supervising the development.

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There appears to be little doubt that Msheireb will be done on time, in a country that relies heavily on foreign labour. Qatar’s labour practices have faced international criticism and increasing scrutiny; significantly, Msheireb includes a Museum of Slavery, a practice that was officially abolished in the country only in 1952.

The Al Thumama stadium, shown in this model, is one the eight soccer stadiums being built to accommodate the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and is part of the building boom in Doha and area.

Naseem Zeitoon/Reuters

While Msheireb Properties is overseeing construction, it has awarded the contract for the completed project’s management to Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin.

“It’s a big win for Canada,” a Western diplomat here says.

“We were awarded a three-year total integrated facilities management contract,” SNC-Lavalin says in a statement. The contract also includes two one-year options to extend the management deal.

“We are responsible for procurement and testing and commissioning support, as well as specialized systems operations, planned and reactive maintenance and repairs. Under this arrangement, we provide 24/7 service request coverage and emergency response.”

Some parts of the district are already open, including a mosque, school and prayer ground. There’s also a museum of the neighbourhood, an area that was the original downtown Doha but which declined as it was supplanted by gleaming office towers and shopping malls in the city’s newer commercial area, West Bay.

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Visitors can get a glimpse of the size and scope of Msheireb simply by walking through the completed parts of the project and peering at the work still under construction in the neighbourhood.

To get a better idea of the architects’ and designers’ vision, Msheireb Properties has also set up a full visitors’ centre in a building erected atop a barge in West Bay, which includes a scale model of the entire project and a multimedia display.

Msheireb Properties called for design principles that would “observe traditional architectural values within a modern framework.” This can be confusing: Many of the giant towers in West Bay are clad in ornate filigreed screening that mimics the traditional shade screens and room dividers found in Islamic architecture, but they are still giant office towers.

Indeed, in 2014, a CBS News correspondent visited West Bay and described it as looking as if the architects “didn’t talk to each other, didn’t like each other and engaged in experiments they could never get away with at home.”

Even now, before completion, Msheireb looks different. While it will include structures as high as 30 storeys, most of the buildings are oriented horizontally instead of towering over the neighbourhood.

There seems to be an effort to integrate the new project seamlessly into its adjacent precincts, the colourful traditional market called Souq Waqif and the next-door Falcon Souq, where prized birds are bought and sold by royalty and the rich.

Msheireb chose five architects for the first phase of the project, from a long list of 100 and a short list of 11. The 11 shortlisted architects were invited to compete to design the central, mixed-use part of the project and the five winners among them were then each given a portion of the area to build.

Msheireb also aspires to be “the world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project.”

In the development company’s words, “the strategic objective of the Msheireb project is to reverse the pattern of development in Doha, which has tended toward isolated land use, reliance on car transportation and energy-hungry structures.”

The entire development is targeted to receive LEED Gold certification, when it is complete, with several buildings achieving the higher LEED Platinum standard.

Msheireb Downtown Doha

Project name: Msheireb means “a place to drink water” in Arabic.

Project goal: To regenerate a neglected city centre with new architecture and infrastructure.

Building types: Mixed use — commercial, retail, housing, institutional, museums (including Museum of Slavery).

Cost: US$5.5-billion (approximately 20 billion Qatari riyal).

Project area: 31 hectares (310,000 square metres).

Timetable: Construction commenced in 2010, some buildings open now, construction to be completed by 2020 in phases.

Parking spaces: 10,000+

Total buildings: 100+

Building height range: Three to 30 storeys.

Architects (short list for first phase): Adjaye Associates, Allies and Morrison, Dar El Omran, John McAslan and Partners, Mossessian and Partners.

Sources: Msheireb Properties and project displays in Doha.

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