The 2019 Souq Waqif Equestrian Festival: A Doha Experience
The 2019 Souq Waqif Equestrian Festival: A Doha Experience
By Lisa Abraham
~with a forward by Judith Forbis
Boarding Qatar Airways in Dallas bound for Doha, Qatar last week, a sixteen-hour direct flight was once again ahead of me. I couldn’t help but reflect on how things had changed since I attended the first Qatar show in the early 1990’s. KLM was the airline of choice via Amsterdam with connections to Doha. There was no Qatar Airways then; now Qatar’s large fleet of jet aircraft services the world. In those days the airport boasted two small arrival/departure buildings, now the giant Hamad International Airport, inclusive of a huge high-end shopping mall, receives international traffic 24/7. There were only two hotels then--both Sheratons. The main one, shaped like a pyramid, overlooked the quiet west bay harbor where in the distance nothing but graceful palm trees could be seen. The Sheraton still stands as a beacon to those days, but now tall buildings dot the horizon as far as the eye can see.
At that time HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani was the Emir of Qatar and HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, his son, was the Heir Apparent. It was he who spearheaded the renaissance of the Arabian horse in the Gulf through development of his now famous Al Shaqab Stud. Al Shaqab consisted of a few attractive white stable buildings outside the Doha city limits. Sheikh Hamad bin Ali Al Thani was hired to guide and acquire the foundation stock -his efforts literally put Al Shaqab on the world map. The Al Rayyan Stud of Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Khalid Al Thani was also in its infancy just a short distance away.
Almost overnight Qatar found itself to be the leader of Arabian horses in the Gulf. Breeding farms sprang up like flowers after rain in the desert, and horse shows soon followed suit. In 1995 when HH Sheikh Hamad became the Emir, the quiet city of Doha took a giant leap forward with high rise buildings of varied and unique architecture springing up along the coastline. Road construction was everywhere. Together with his wife, HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, HH Sheikh Hamad the Emir founded Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and hand-picked top colleges from major US universities in developing Education City within it. One of the earliest among them was Texas A&M whose engineering department recently graduated more women than men!
Doha is literally unrecognizable from when I first came. Today, one finds the remarkable museums, giant malls, high-rise offices and apartment buildings everywhere. New highways and a subway system are also under construction as the country prepares to host countless visitors attending the World Games in 2022. Furthermore, the quality and number of Arabian horses has become truly amazing. One catches immediately the enthusiasm and competition among those breeders who have set a high standard in their overall breeding programs. Gone are the first stables of Al Shaqab, now a member of Qatar Foundation within Education City. The charming old white stables have been replaced by a sprawling state-of- the-art complex with stables, arenas, vet clinic, riding school, and countless other buildings that provide services to the many broad-based equine activities including international competitions. HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has replaced his father, now lovingly titled His Highness The Father Emir of Qatar, and Al Rayyan Stables is now flourishing under HH The Father Emir’s private ownership. Nowhere in my countless travels worldwide have I seen change so rapid. There is an old saying that “change is inevitable” --indeed Qatar is proof positive of that!
~Judith Forbis, Ansata Arabian Stud
I have been fortunate to visit Doha several times now, but only in recent years, so I never had the experience of seeing Doha evolve. But I have had the luxury of traveling with those who have visited numerous times through the years and listening to their delightful stories. However, now, Doha is competing to be one of the most important destinations in the Middle East with a great deal of cultural activities and value—and far more modern and state of the art than ever before, yet still true to its conservative Arabian heritage.
The State of Qatar is in Southwest Asia and located on the Arabian Peninsula. According to Wikipedia, “Qatar is not only a high-income economy, but it is also a developed country. It is backed by the world’s third largest natural gas and oil reserves and the highest per capita income in the world. Qatar is classified by the United States as a country of very high human development and is the most advanced Arab state for human development. It is also a significant power in the Arab world.” Doha, the capital of Qatar, is located on the eastern edge of the country, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. As made evident by the construction everywhere, it is Qatar’s most rapidly growing city with over 40% of the nation’s population living either in Doha or its suburbs. Many of the stories that have been shared with me are specifically about the architectural aggrandizement that has taken place in the city. In a very short period, Doha has expanded from a very small area surrounded by desert to what the Globalization and World Cities Research Network consider a “World City.” As a testament to this growth, Doha has hosted multiple world class events such as: 2006 Asian Games, the 2011 Pan Arab Games and the 2012 UNGCCC Climate Negotiations. Additionally, Doha has been chosen to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Although it was never hard to travel to Doha, visas were required which could easily be obtained at the airport upon arrival for a minimal fee. However, in increased efforts to encourage tourism to Qatar, now visitors from 80 countries can visit Qatar without a visa. Even for visitors from countries that still require a visa for entry—it is without cost. Qatar Airlines also offers unique tourism opportunities. If one has a layover of at least five hours, tours of the city can be arranged through the airline. If a longer layover is possible, tours and top-level accommodations can easily be made at an extremely reasonable rate—also through the airline. Bottom line—Qatar is ready for the world and welcomes visitors.
The Souq Waqif Equestrian Festival
The Souq Waqif Equestrian Festival took place on January 18th through the 22nd of 2019. It consisted of two shows: The Souq Waqif Arabian Horse Show and the Souq Waqif Arabian Peninsula Show. The Arabian Horse Show, which went from the 18th through the 19th, was an open show and horses of all bloodlines were welcomed to compete; while the Peninsula show, which followed directly after, was for horses which would be considered “Straight Egyptian”. Originally there was a scheduled break of one day between the two shows, but entries were so high that all five days were required for competition.
The Souq Waqif was a delightfully unique venue for an Arabian horse show. From the arena one could see masses of people strolling around the shops as vendors weaved in and out of the historical corridors selling their wares. At night, colorful lights took over the evening skyline as Doha came alive. From an equine photographer’s perspective, it was a cornucopia of inspiring elements not usually combined in a horse show and provided a fun challenge for creating a unique visual perspective of the event.
Last year was the first Souq Waqif Arabian Horse Peninsula Horse Show which was successfully organized by the management of the Souq Waqif. Although I was not able to attend, when I first heard about it, I wondered how could a show be hosted in the Souq—and where? It so happened while I was in Paris for the 2018 Arabian Horse World Championship, Sheikh Hamad bin Ali Al Thani, manager of Al Shaqab Stud, invited me to cover the second edition of this show. I was thrilled for the opportunity, but was also very excited to see how such positive results had been achieved.
The Souq Waqif is an important part of Doha history. Not only is it one of the main attractions for tourists, but Qatari’s enjoy it every bit as much. Although some shops are open earlier, most of the businesses begin each selling day at four in the afternoon till at least eleven. However, a few remain open till the early hours of morning for those to enjoy coffee and shisha. The Souq, which translates from Arabic to mean "standing market", dates to when Doha was no more than a village. It had been an important commercial spot where Bedouin would gather here, arriving by way of camel to sell items such as wood, sheep and camel milk. Because of its significant local history, The Emir of Qatar, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (now the Father Emir) commissioned the preservation of the Souq without compromising its culturally significant style. Today it is a thriving market place where one can purchase any number of items and souvenirs such a spices, oils, antiques, and textiles, as well as regional art. There are also numerous restaurants, cafes and shisha lounges for dining and snacking or even just relaxing and enjoying the Arabian environment.
The Festival took place just beside the area of the Souq where the shops and cafes operated—but close enough to be seen and heard by all who were there to enjoy the evening. The bright spotlights from the show could be seen from far away, andbased on the large crowds who attended, created a strong intrigue for visiting the event. The arena where both shows took place had a regal ambiance. Red dominated with gold accents was the color theme and there were added comforts and special tables for those in the VIP section. Furthermore, the quality of the horses competing was incredibly high and featured some of the most influential and important breeding programs in the world.
Fahad Ali Al Sulati: Three years ago, the management of the Souq Waqif asked us to do an Arabian horse auction within the Souq. The auction was a success and guests enjoyed the atmosphere, so they asked us to something more. In 2018 we had two auctions: one for the Peninsula Arabians and one for the purebreds; and one Peninsula Show. This year they once again asked us to add to the Festival, so in addition to what we did in 2018, we added an open show for purebred Arabians. For their part, to increase participation, they increased the prize money for winners to be divided from a total of 1.7 million USD/ 6 million Qatari Riyals.
The Souq Waqif is a special venue for this Festival because it is an historic part of Doha and over 200 years old. Every night the Souq attracts hundreds of people to shop, eat in the restaurants and just to enjoy the atmosphere. Because of the popularity of this location, this show has helped us introduce the Arabian horse to many people for the very first time. In addition, it provided a unique backdrop to the show.
Thanks to the teamwork, everything went very smoothly. As in any show, we did have some minor issues here and there, but all we all worked together to find solutions. I felt everyone left happy and the show was extremely well attended by an engaged local public. Also, the show was broadcasted internationally by Al Rayyan TV--I think this is the only show that was broadcasted in its entirety from beginning to end. Also, due to the unique ambiance and excellent coverage of Al Rayyan TV, we had increased participation of competing horses. In the Peninsula Show, we had the an incredibly strong group of mares—one of the judges said there were at least seven mares who could have been the Gold Champion.
Fahad Ali Al Sulati was the Souq Waqif Equestrian Festival Show Manager
Al Shaqab Stud
Another important thread in the modern culture of Qatar and specifically Doha, is Al Shaqab Stud. In 1992, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani established Al Shaqab. The farm was built on a landmark site not far from where the Al Shaqab battle took place over one hundred years ago. It was this battle that lead to Qatar’s independence from Ottoman rule. Within a very short period, under the management of Sheikh Hamad bin Ali Al Thani, Al Shaqab produced three stallions whose impact has been worldwide and whose influence will remain for generations to come: Gazal Al Shaqab, Marwan Al Shaqab and Al Adeed Al Shaqab.
Then, according to the Al Shaqab web site, in 2004, “Al Shaqab became a member of the Qatar Foundation, which was founded in 1995 also by HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and is chaired by HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The Qatar Foundation is a private, non-profit organization whose mission is to lead Qatar to a knowledge-based economy by unlocking human potential, through home-grown solutions for the benefit of both Qatar and the world. Qatar Foundation carries out its mission through three strategic pillars: education, science & research and community development. As a Foundation member, Al Shaqab’s mission is to promote the highest standards in the breeding and showing of Arabian horses while providing innovative, educational and competitive opportunities in all equestrian arts. In 2006, Al Shaqab began an expansion in facilities with the development of its world-class equestrian center.”
As a global community, we are all aware of Al Shaqab’s importance. The bloodlines from Al Shaqab have deeply influenced many important breeding programs in the world as well as dominated our most prestigious show rings. At this point, the prepotency of these lines to produce both reproductive animals and champions at the highest level is indisputable. But then there is also Al Shaqab’s generosity. Although there are many who can be thanked for sponsoring our shows, Al Shaqab has certainly had a major financial role in ensuring that there continues to be shows for all of us to participate and enjoy.
However, experiencing the Al Shaqab influence while in Qatar provided me with an entirely different vantage to the influence and importance of this farm. After the Festival ended, I spent an evening photographing the Souq for my coverage. While there I met a gentleman who had moved to Doha from Germany. Once he realized that I was visiting due to the Arabian horse show that had taken place in the Souq, he started to talk to me about his love for horses—although he had no formal experience with them. Because to his interest, I asked him if he had visited Al Shaqab. His immediate response was to look at me like I had three eyes, and then he replied, with noted astonishment, “I have lived here for four years, of course I have been to Al Shaqab--many times.” Up until that very moment, I had never considered how important Al Shaqab was to those living in Doha and the pride they maintained of having access to such a precious resource.
But for those Qataris who are breeders and active enthusiasts of the Arabian horse, Al Shaqab Stud has been particularly influential. Furthermore, Sh. Hamad passionately supports the Qatari shows, not only with the demonstrative comradery he shares with his fellow countrymen, but also with his participation and the horses under his control. The Souq Waqif Arabian Horse Show had 142 competing horses and 28 were from Al Shaqab; while the Souq Waqif Arabian Peninsula Horse Show had 190 competing horses with 41 from either Al Shaqab or Al Rayyan, which is also under his management.
Krista Stelter: Sh. Hamad and Al Shaqab Stud are important pillars in the Qatar Arabian horse community. For most of these breeders, the Al Shaqab bloodlines are the foundation of their reproductive programs. Because we have been allowed access to semen that may not be available to those outside of the country, Al Shaqab and Al Rayyan have made a huge difference in our ability to produce at the highest level. Another area in which Al Shaqab’s contribution has made a difference for the entire country is in the show ring. Whenever it is possible, Sh. Hamad allows us to use the Al Shaqab and Al Rayyan handlers so that we can present our horses at the same level of quality that he himself is able to do. As a result, we are all able to be competitive. Finally, Sh. Hamad’s supports individual owners. He is always cheering for us and is happy for our successes, especially when we are competing with the Al Shaqab/Al Rayyan bloodlines.
Krista Stelter has lived in Doha as a trainer for individual owners in Qatar for seven years and operates under the business name of Exclusive Equine.
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Lisa Abraham is an International Journalist and Photographer from the United States. Although she does free-lance for various media, her primary dedication is to Arabhorse.com as a Premier Contributor and Representative.