A canter in Qatar

In Doha: “Now you will see the most beautiful horses on the planet,” the voice of Dalya, the guide showing us around Al Shaqab, lilts away as she leads us into the Arabian horses breeding centre.

The majestic animals are every bit as impressive as they’ve been so dreamily introduced.

“Look at their faces, there is magic in them,” says Dalya, as we catch our first glimpse of the Arabians.

“Their eyes, their bodies, their tails, when they move they have an ego about them. Their bodies are gentler than any other horses, their movement is gentler. When you’re proud, you feel majestic, and that’s what these horses represent.”

Centuries before the discovery of the natural gas and petroleum which have made Qatar rich, the country was known for its Arabian horses. When the Al Thani ancestors, Qatar’s ruling royal family, migrated from the Arabian desert three centuries ago to settle in Qatar the Arabian horse was a vital part of daily life.

His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, The Father Emir, established Al Shaqab in 1992 to help preserve the horse breed.

Al Shaqab is a 100 hectare facility in the shape of a horseshoe. It stands out for its architectural design, and its opulence, scale and grandeur are like no other equestrian facility.

Other than the Arabian breeding centre, Al Shaqab features an air-conditioned main indoor and outdoor arena. Horses are housed at the historic Ottoman stables and fort and put through their paces at the Equine Exercise Centre, where there are the rather curious sights of horses on a treadmill, taking a daily dip in an Olympic-length swimming pool or popping into the jaccuzzi at the “equine spa”.

“At Al Shaqab we treat horses as humans,” says Dalya.

This – the wealthiest country in the world in terms of the per capita income of its just over 300000 locals – is like no other country in the world. The Bentleys, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis parked at the entrance of the VIP suite of Al Shaqab are clear indications that this is no ordinary day out. Al Shaqab is a member of the Qatar Foundation and the facility is underpinned by the kind of wealth unfathomable to most, bearing in mind the net worth of the Qatari royal family is estimated at more than $335 billion (R4.8trillion).

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Qatar is a smorgasbord of history and culture, a traveller’s dream if you’re looking to combine luxury with history, modernity and old-world charm.

Al Shaqab is a venue that is symbolic of the whole of Qatar, with its sense of dignified pride in the country’s history, origins and culture married to its modern global ambitions to establish Qatar as a major international sports and tourism destination. Qatar will become the first Middle Eastern country to host the global football showpiece in 2022.

Rashid Mordiffi, who works at Al Shaqab in its commercial business development unit says: “Qatar is such a beautiful place, it’s a hidden gem. There is so much to see and do here. Everyone knows Dubai, but Qatar is different and a country you can enjoy at a more leisurely pace.

The society too is different and the development that has taken place over the last few years in Qatar has been amazing.”

No expense has been spared in building facilities like Al Shaqab, and extraordinary skyscrapers.

Al Shaqab is key to Qatar’s 2030 vision of promoting the country as a premier sports destination, while paying tribute to the rich heritage.

The football world will descend en masse for the 2022 Fifa World Cup, and as one would expect, Qatar is a full-on construction site.

Stadiums are springing up, set for completion well before schedule. And the new Lusail City – for which the plans were announced only in 2005 and which will host the showpiece opening match and final – is nearly completed.

On the coastline about 23km north of Doha’s city centre, Lusail City will have marinas, residential areas, resorts, commercial districts, shopping and leisure facilities, a golf-course community, man-made islands and entertainment districts.

Freeways are being built, metro stations constructed and brand-new hotels and high-rise buildings are taking rapid shape.

In addition to new cities, Qatar also has its own Sun City on steriods in The Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island spanning nearly 4km2 which will feature luxury villas, hotels and more than 2 000 000m2 of international retail space.

But for all its phenomenal resources, Qatar’s opulence is underpinned by understated elegance and every building is an architectural marvel.

When their global bow comes and one of the world’s best-kept travel secrets is not so secret anymore, Qatar will be ready.

It has been waiting – and preparing – for a long time.

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