Marhaba Qatar/Hello Qatar

By Shahmim Akram

The sound of cantering hooves echoes across the stables as a majestic chestnut-colored horse, his mane flowing gracefully behind him, is led through the morning’s exercise. This
daily training routine is a vital part of the work carried out by the team at Qatar’s Al Shaqab Equestrian Center, whose mission is to highlight the country’s equestrian heritage and admiration of the Arabian horse. No expense has been spared on this state-of-the-art complex, where hundreds of these thoroughbred beauties are bred and trained. Visitors can book a public tour to view the facility, which has air-conditioned stables, an equine Jacuzzi and a unique winding swimming pool.

To celebrate its 25th year of operations, the organization presented show jumping, international dressage and para dressage events at CHI Al Shaqab 2017. During the competition, Qatar’s first professional female show jumper, Maryam Mubarak A. Al Ali, who had already competed internationally, proudly showcased her skill to her home audience. The same year, Qatar’s first female jockey, Maryam Al Subaiey, ranked in a race at Qatar’s Racing and Equestrian Club.

Endurance rider Sheikha Reem bint Muhammad bin Faisal Al Thani is credited with pushing for more female representation within Qatar’s equestrian sports. Having competed internationally and regionally, she showed the nation’s traditionalists that the divide between culture and professional competitions need not be so wide. Her goal is to one day compete in the World Equestrian Games.

In November, Al Shaqab’s performance arenas will again welcome the best show jumpers from across the globe as they compete for a spot in the finale of the Longines Global Champions Tour. Winter also sees regular races every Wednesday and Thursday at Qatar’s Racing and Equestrian Club.

Qatar also plays host to other international sporting events, which include the Qatar Ladies Open (tennis), the Qatar Masters (golf) and the Grand Prix of Qatar (MotoGP). In a few years’ time, soccer’s biggest tournament, the World Cup, will come to Qatar.

Winning the right to hold the 2022 FIFA World Cup may have catapulted Qatar onto the world stage, but this small nation state has more than just sports to talk about. As multibillion-dollar towers of Qatar’s capital city, Doha, arose from the desert, the ruling Al Thani family set into place a program of initiatives to protect and preserve the country’s rich bedouin heritage and seafaring past.

During the annual Senyar Festival, held in the spring season, traditional pearl diving and fishing competitions take place at Halul Island, while various activities are held for the public at Katara Cultural Village. Competitors sail out in wooden dhows with traditional sails as they navigate local waters using skills passed down through generations. They fill their boats with the bounties of the sea before returning with their precious cargo several days later. During the Al Galayel Championship, competitors hunt gazelles and bustards with falcons in the deserts of southern Qatar. It is an opportunity for locals to connect with the traditions of their bedouin ancestors, but organizers also use modern conservation methods to ethically manage the event.

Katara is Doha’s cultural center with traditional shows and performances held by traditional artists and groups from around the world. It also hosts a world-class philharmonic orchestra at its heritage opera house. Among the labyrinth-like cluster of traditional buildings, you will find several small art galleries, a Greco-Roman amphitheater and restaurants offering global flavors. Enjoy a delicious, healthy breakfast at Al Jazeera Cafe, or book the best tables at Sukar Pasha or Mamig for a budget-blowing meal.

A visit to the Museum of Islamic Art should be on everyone’s to-do- list; the incredible penmanship of the works in the calligraphy exhibition are fascinating. The building itself was designed by the illustrious architect I.M. Pei, who mixed modern Western design with geometric patterns and other Arab design details. The exterior limestone-encased ‘blocks’ throw out ever-changing shadows under the Doha sunshine, while inside the main hall, there is a magical symmetry in the curving lines of the grand staircase and the chandelier above. A bus shuttle service takes visitors to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which houses more than 9,000 works of art and has previously held exhibitions by such thought-provoking artists as Shirin Neshat, Dia Azzawi, and Cai Guo-Qiang. The unique desert rose structure of the National Museum of Qatar is in its final stages of construction, while the new Msheireb Museums offer an incredible insight into Qatar’s history.

MIA Park hosts regular outdoor events and a weekend bazaar during the winter season. Walk along the waterfront to find “7” by Richard Serra, an intriguing 80-foot-high rusted steel sculpture; it is just one of the many outdoor artworks you will find dotted around Qatar. Nearby are two small man-made hills where you can enjoy a picnic from the nearby MIA cafe,and contemplate the stunning views of the city skyline while watching the dhows sail away

Located on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art is IDAM, a fine dining restaurant from Michelin star chef Alain Ducasse and designer Phillipe Starck. Executive Chef Damien Leroux’s seasonal menus highlight French Mediterranean cuisine with an Arab influence. IDAM provides a world-class dining experience with professional service and perfect plating. You will come away sated with tales of a gourmet dream meal and perfect, delectable, petit fours!

Other celebrated international chefs have also flocked to Doha, with venues from the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsay and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Mondrian Doha, the modern surrealist hotel designed by Marcel Wanders, recently opened Morimoto and Cut by Wolfgang Puck. Richard Sandoval’s Pan-Asian restaurant, Zengo, delivers skyhigh dining from its location at the top of Doha’s tallest residential building. Relaxing in a cabana at The Pier, a chic outdoor lounge at Four Seasons Hotel Doha, is the best way to indulge as you gaze across the crystal-clear waters of the Arabian Gulf.

At Souq Waqif, a meandering maze-like market with traditional buildings, you can find Arabian antiques, fragrant spices, artisanal handicrafts and souvenirs. Local policemen can be seen riding through its main passageways on beautiful horses. Head to the Falcon Souq for an upclose introduction to the majestic birds that are a vital part of Qatar’s heritage.

The Souq’s cafes and restaurants come alive in the evening as locals and tourists enjoy the desert sunsets. The no-nonsense Yemeni restaurant Bander Aden serves hearty stews and hot breads with the option to sit and eat on the floor. For an unforgettable experience, head to Parisa, a Persian restaurant vibrantly decorated with stained glass windows, intricate paintings depicting Iranian fables and a spectacular mirror-bedazzled private dining room.

If you’re looking for a warm welcome, head to the modern Indian restaurant Doha Gymkhana, known for its aromatic biryanis, rich curries and vegetarian courses. Book in advance and ask for the indoor verandah window table, a perfect spot for people-watching across the main square. In the distance, you will be able to see the lighthouse-shaped Bin Zaid building, an Islamic center that holds regular cultural events and arranges visits to Qatar’s mosques, including the Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, walk around the Souq and follow your nose to the smaller eateries that serve up some incredible dishes for a handful of riyals. Ask around for the kebab place, the chapati cafe and the Qatari outdoor restaurant where you can try local dishes such as machbous, harees and loqaimat. Local Qatari grandma Shams Al Qassabi runs Shay Al Shoomos, a cafe serving only Qatari breakfast dishes; if you prefer something sweet in the morning, try the balaleet, a saffron-enriched vermicelli egg dish.

The tranquil Sharq Village & Spa resort offers the perfect blend of traditional architecture and modern facilities. As you head to your spa treatment, you step back in time through the winding passageways of a Qatari village setting. You’ll walk out feeling refreshed and healed. The resort can provide you with a healthy meal to match your newfound state of nirvana, or you can head to Qanat Quartier, known as the Arabian Riviera, with its pastel-colored apartments, canals and pedestrian bridges. Enjoy a nutritious meal at Evergreen Organics, a local cafe serving 100-percent organic vegan dishes—order the “Be Magic” juice and take a walk outside to explore this little slice of Venice in Doha. For an uber-millennial cafe experience, head to Cue Whimsical Cafe; it has all the charcoal and matcha lattes your heart could desire.

Head out of Doha and you will find plenty to keep you busy. On a day trip to the Equestrian Centre at Al Samariyah Farm, you can book horse riding lessons among palm tree-lined paths. Take a moment to find Qatar’s national animal, the Arabian Oryx, and then arrange a visit to the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum, where a veritable treasure trove of Qatari antiques and vintage cars await you. Go hiking at the surreal Ras Abrouq limestone rock formations in Zekreet, or go kayaking at the lush Al Thakira Mangroves. Take a traditional dhow cruise to Al Safliya Island, and then get ready to enjoy modern water sports, or head to the abandoned pearling town at Al Zubarah, a UNESCO World Heritage site. For a luxury escape, make your way to Banana Island for your own private tropical island experience in the Middle East. While at the Regency Sealine Camp, you can enjoy a luxury bedouin camping experience and eat your meals under Qatar’s stars.

A dynamic range of modernization programs, coupled with smart financial investments, has helped to cement Doha’s status as a cosmopolitan capital city. Renowned international artists exhibit in its museums, global sports champions compete in its stadiums and talented world musicians play in its auditoriums. But the strong emphasis on hospitality and heritage has allowed this peninsula nation to preserve its exotic past and maintain a rich, vibrant culture for its people to share with the world. Don’t delay! Say “Marhaba Qatar” and get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.

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