Qatar's Al Shaqab, the five-star resort for Arabian horses

"If you didn't like horses before you got here, you'll adore them by the time we leave," says my guide, Yegor, as he strokes the nose of a particularly beautiful Arabian mare.

Long before Qatar became one of the world's fastest growing economies due to its twin blessings of oil and natural gas, the tiny country – confined to one fat thumb of desert pointing out into the Arabian Gulf like a gesture of defiance – was revered for its horses.

When Al Thani ancestors of today's Qatari royals migrated north out of the harsh wilderness of the expanding sand dunes in the 18th century, they came on horseback.

The Arabian breed is still honoured in Doha, the capital of Qatar. 

And nowhere more so than at Al Shaqab, a multimillion-dollar shrine to all things equestrian (also described as "a five-star resort for horses").

Until recently, few foreigners other than VIPs, jockeys, trainers or breeders visited Al Shaqab.

But now the incredible complex, spread over a million square metres of former desert on a horseshoe-shaped layout dotted with water features, encourages tour groups, showing off not only its world-class dressage and showjumping venues, but also its facilities for 600 champions and potential champions.

"Arabian horses are known for their indented noses, their wide nostrils, their sleek necks and their delicate ears," Yegor explains.

We're exploring the "Breeding and Show" section, with its stables, equine swimming pool and the horsey equivalent of the treadmills you'll find in any human gym.

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Though most Westerners associate the Arabian breed with Group One horse racing (multiple winners at Royal Ascot and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe), here in Qatar as much emphasis is placed on the show circuit.

Think of Crufts, for horses rather than dogs.

"Beauties," Yegor calls them.

These foals will never be ridden, never suffer the indignity of having a saddle placed upon them. Such marks on their backs would clearly interfere with their supermodel breeding.

Yegor knows an amazing amount about Arabian horses, considering he's only been in Qatar for three years and had little contact with horses back in Belarus. 

"Arabian horses are a central part of Qatari culture," he says. "Plus, they are such beautiful animals."

Our tour, understandably, had begun at the futuristic Performance Arena, the show pony of Al Shaqab. 

Designed by Hong Kong-founded Leigh & Orange, it's the equestrian equivalent of the Sydney Opera House.

One "summer" half is permanently roofed and air-conditioned, seating 2700 horse lovers in desert-defying comfort. 

The other "winter" half, with a rectangular grassed surface area that will be used as a practice pitch during the 2022 FIFA World Cup (controversially awarded to Qatar), seats a mere 2500. 

Never fear. Royal guests can switch from one side of the air-conditioned viewing lounge to the other.

Then Yegor took  me to the horse hospital, which is accessible, I'm told, to any Qatari-born passport holder and which includes motel-type accommodation for the patients' human handlers.

The former Emir and his wife, the parents of the present Emir, decided to build this centre of equine excellence as part of their Qatar Foundation, which is charged with reinventing Doha as an international health and education hub. 

The site was chosen, Yegor says, because in 1893 Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed defeated the Ottoman army on this battleground, leading to Qatar's independence.

Fittingly, the 19th-century Ottoman Empire stables are now also part of the tour, occasionally holding young foals or storing foodstuffs.

"Did I tell you our horses eat genuine Australian hay?" Yegor adds. "We have Australian horses here, too, because of our Endurance breeding program where horses race up to 160 metres across the sand. 

The "Beauty horses", by contrast, just have to look adorably cute. 

Al Shaqab's breeding philosophy is "to preserve the Arabian breed and to produce horses that are beautiful, athletic and have great character and kindness".

I'm no expert, but each foal seems to tick every box.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/qatar

visitqatar.qa

FLY

Qatar Airways flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth to Doha, with connections to many destinations in Europe. See qatarairways.com

VISIT

Al Shaqab equestrian centre, see alshaqab.com

STAY

The five-star Shangri-La Doha offers a range of stopover packages, see shangri-la.com/doha/shangrila

Steve Meacham was a guest of Qatar Airways.

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