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April 1, 2013

Doha: Where Excess Equals Success

Al Shaqab's logo honors Qatar's three most famous Arabian stallions.

I wish I could be one of those super-chic travelers I always see in photos on Pinterest.

I try. I pack light. I wear black. I bring a scarf that I endeavor to wrap in an effortless-looking (but in fact highly labor intensive) way. I avoid velour sweatpants with slogans plastered across the bum at all costs. I try not to loll about in the seats at the gate, limbs akimbo and feet propped on tables that are meant for people’s food.

At a certain point in a journey, however, I inevitably fail in all these efforts, and things go very quickly in an ugly direction. 

This occurred at about midnight on my recent trip to Qatar for the Al Shaqab CHI. It was the moment I realized that yes, there is something worse than a 14.5-hour flight in a middle seat in coach (after you’ve been previously offered a business class ticket, ahem): tacking on a six-hour delay for mechanical issues in front of that experience.

Air travel seems to accelerate desperation at a prodigious rate. After being informed and re-informed of our delay bit by bit, in 30-minute intervals, my fellow passengers and I were growing cranky. Every shop and restaurant in the Houston airport had closed, the airline had run out of bottled water, and even the water fountain in our terminal was out of order. We subsisted on Sun Chips and sodas.

The clock eventually struck midnight. It was then, having left my home just 12 hours before, that I turned into a proverbial pumpkin, relinquishing any shred of self-respect I’d been clinging to and curling up in the fetal position under a fake tree along the cold, drafty wall of Terminal D, for Desperate. Chic scarves leave a lot to be desired when used as blankets, and Nikon cameras make downright lousy pillows. I wished to God that I owned and was wearing a pair of Juicy (or any other adjective, for that matter) velour sweatpants.

We finally took off around 2 a.m., and the flight was as long and uncomfortable as you’d expect. We even had to circle over practically all of Qatar waiting for a runway to open up so we could land.

At this point, I know you’re saying, “Ugh, what is this bia’s problem? She’s actually complaining about a free trip to the Middle East?”

I hear you. Duly noted.

My luck was about to change anyway.

Which Shower Shall I Use Today?

It was after midnight when we landed, but the second I stepped foot on the tarmac, I spotted a charming greeter holding a sign with my name on it. She ushered me to Al Maha Services, where my passport and visa were processed while I waited in a lounge sipping espresso and thanking God I wasn’t standing in the long queue for customs slowly snaking forward on the other side of the plate glass wall.

I was soon escorted through a VIP customs desk, after which I was met by a porter with my checked luggage. He insisted on carrying my laptop and camera bag as well, and so I strode effortlessly through the airport like a true diva, led by my personal attaché and followed by my personal bellhop. (Except, remember that by this point I’d spent more than 26 hours in airports and on planes, so what I thought I looked like versus what I actually looked like was probably something more along these lines.)

I was then ushered to my transportation, a sleek new Mercedes sedan, and ferried to my hotel, where I opened the double doors to my room to find a suite about as big as my entire two-bedroom apartment. The bathroom was actually two rooms, and it had two showers. (Because who doesn’t get tired of just one?) I also noticed that one entire wall of the main room was a window, but at 2 a.m., I really couldn’t guess what my view was. (Not for lack of trying—I of course still smushed my dirty travel face all over the glass. You’re welcome, housekeeping.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when I awoke the next morning to see the entire skyscraper-studded skyline of Doha and the sparkling blue waters of the bay. And the Al Shaqab venue, if you can imagine, is about 1,000 times more impressive.

The Future: A Spaceship In The Desert

Al Shaqab was established in 1992 by the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, intended as much as a training and competition center as a monument to the Arabian horse’s role in Qatari culture. The farm (which is really more like its own city) has been completely rebuilt in the past five years, and it includes a massive breeding program, as well as a brand-new riding academy for children 6 and up (membership is already at capacity). The facility also serves as the home of the Qatari national endurance team and is expected to soon become the base for the nation’s show jumping and dressage teams as well.

It has all air-conditioned stables, its own equine hospital and laboratory, two separate equine swimming facilities, a sand and fiber training track, miles of hacking trails, plentiful paddocks and staff accommodations. The Equestrian Club offers a human swimming pool, restaurant, gym and leisure facilities with a panoramic view of the equine complex. The Emir's personal stables are built of marble and stainless steel.

But it’s the main stadium, completed in 2011, that’s the crown jewel of Al Shaqab. It rises up out of the desert landscape like a massive spaceship, and its architects, Leigh & Orange, have won numerous awards for its modern design.

It includes a 120 x 80 meter outdoor show jumping arena and a 100 x 60 meter indoor arena and warm-up rings for each. Spectator seating is, of course, enclosed and air-conditioned, and there’s a state-of-the-art press center, office hub, competitor lounges, catering center and VIP areas.

And all of Al Shaqab is actually inside a larger facility called Education City, which includes multiple college campuses (Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and many other schools have satellites here) and the headquarters of Qatar Foundation, which funds it all.

“So, what do you think?” Dutch journalist Lotty van Hulst asked me the first day. I was pretty much speechless, and I told her as much.

“I know. Forget Aachen,” she said. “This is the new thing!”

That’s quite a claim, especially coming from a European. The Aachen CHIO in Germany, held since 1898, is pretty much the gold standard of elite competitions in every way imaginable. But it’s hard to deny that this place is sick. (That’s what the cool kids say these days, right?)

The jury’s still out on whether money can buy you happiness, but it can officially buy you happy riders. These competitors were singing choruses of praise to Al Shaqab’s organizers and their hosts, the royal house of Thani. Not surprising, since, as dressage rider Patrik Kittel told us, “everything was paid for the competitors.”

This massive display of wealth is spectacular to behold, and it’s inspiring to see a country’s passion for the horse honored to this extent. But it’s also generally surreal and at times unsettling, given the global economic climate. The Qataris, perhaps sensing this, seem wholly unwilling to put a price tag on the event or discuss the funding aspect at all.

And it’s not just them. Many Middle Eastern nations are throwing money into their equestrian programs hand over fist, buying up some incredibly nice horses and keeping mum about how they’re managing it. (Think Saudi Arabia, whose riders scored show jumping team bronze at the 2012 Olympic Games and placed fourth individually at London and took individual silver at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. And the Saudi Equestrian Fund’s commercial arm will also be the title sponsor of the FEI Furusiyya Nations Cup series through 2016.)

In contrast to Great Britain, which happily touted its national lottery funding system in the wake of their athletes’ great success on their home soil in 2012, the Middle Eastern nations are proving tough nuts to crack; they clearly prefer their funding to be shrouded in mystery. 

It remains to be seen how long it will take for this region’s riders to be consistently considered among the top medal-contending teams at international championships, alongside classic show jumping superpowers like Germany and the Netherlands, but my guess is that it won’t be long. After catching a glimpse at the cream of their crop, I’d say they’re gaining ground faster than many would think possible. Because I've quickly learned that when the Qataris do something—whether it's building an equestrian program or installing a shower—they do it to excess.

Each week, we'll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Kat Netzler serves as senior editor for the Chronicle from her kitchen table and coffee shops across Chicago. After graduating from the University of Georgia's journalism school and then working out of our main office in Middleburg for five years, she set up camp in The Windy City with her corgi, Fitz, and her now-husband, Brett, in 2011. Kat, who grew up eventing in the Midwest and is a graduate "C-3" from Manes And Reins Pony Club, is the point person on our bi-monthly digital magazine, The Chronicle Connection.