DOHA – It's a country with a rich, storied history dating back to Mesopotamia and the Ottoman Empire but Qatar remains a largely unknown quantity to the international community.
This is a situation the Qataris are trying to change. As part of Qatar's national 2030 goals, it's positioning itself as a major global sporting destination, as one of the ways it's looking to woo the world.
Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 Fifa World Cup will be its major litmus test and global coming-out parade, but Qatar has long played host to some of the world’s biggest sport stars and events.
This week alone, the country hosts the Qatar Masters golf tournament on the European Tour, as well as the world’s best bikers such as Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi for the VisitQatar Grand Prix, which kicks off the hugely popular global MotoGP season. Also this week, Qatar hosts some of the leading horses and riders in the sixth edition of the world-class CHI Al Shaqab 2019 equestrian event.
Al Shaqab is a member of the Qatar Foundation, and the sprawling equestrian facility, designed in the shape of a horseshoe and spread over about 100hectares just outside Doha, is jaw-dropping.
It is a venue established by the Father Emir of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, that pays homage to Qatar’s centuries-old love and affinity for majestic Arabian horses and equestrian heritage. Al Shaqab’s sheer opulence, scale and grandeur is like no other equestrian facility in the world.
It hosts an Arabian horses breeding centre, which gives visitors a unique opportunity to see and touch these mythical desert animals.
It also boasts an education centre, which acts as an academy for aspirant young riders and sets the highest standards in horse welfare, breeding and showjumping, while providing innovative equine education and research.
The sight of a horse taking a trot on a treadmill is quite something, and indeed Al Shaqab is a facility where, in the words of one staffer, “horses are treated as humans”.
Most humans would wish to be treated half as well and have accommodation even remotely as lavish as Al Shaqab’s prized horses.
However, when it comes to the largesse and resources of the Qatari royal family, even the most well-to-do South African equestrian enthusiasts would have to take a back seat.
Al Shaqab also has an impressive outdoor arena that will, over the next three days, host the sport’s leading showjumpers and an indoor arena that will host both dressage and Para dressage competitors.
Concours Hippique International (CHI) Al Shaqab chairperson Sheikh Joaan Bin Hamad Al Thani said:
“With sport playing a key role in the achievement of the Qatar National Vision 2030 goals, events such as CHI Al Shaqab 2019 are helping to highlight the country’s status as a principal sporting destination.
“Besides Al Shaqab organising the event and hosting the world’s leading athletes and horses during what will no doubt be three days of exhilarating competition, the event also offers Qatar the opportunity to share with the international community our enduring passion and love for horses and equestrian excellence.”
South African Paralympic gold medallist Philippa Johnson-Dwyer, who claimed first place in the mixed dressage championship at the 2008 Games in Beijing, was among those who participated in the Para dressage event at CHI Al Shaqab yesterday.
“Al Shaqab is just an unbelievable facility. Even at the best equestrian events in Europe you will find nothing like this. Qatar is a country whose entire history revolves around horses and their love for horses.
“Every year they’re getting better, bringing in and learning from the world’s best equestrian experts, and getting stronger. It’s extremely impressive,” said Johnson-Dwyer.
Whether you’re a lover of horses, history or culture, Qatar is the best-kept secret that will soon be much better known the world over as the globe descends on it for the beautiful game in 2022.