I was only in Qatar for about 60 hours but I surprisingly learned a lot—especially about camel racing. Or, to be precise, dromedary racing. (Dromedaries have one hump and are native to Arabia, while Bactrian camels have two humps and hail from Asia.)
We arrived at the camel track just as a large procession of animals and riders crossed a road from the stables to the track for exercise, halting traffic. I’ve never seen so many camels in my life. Some camels had human riders while others had robot ones, which is how the camels are now raced. Our guide Jamal told us they used to employ child jockeys for races but then they switched to automated riders. These are backpack sized robots strapped to a camel’s back and equipped with riding crops. Camel owners direct the robots electronically. The robo-jockeys looked kind of cute and some had jockey hats.
We drove around the track so we could see the camels getting their exercise. Supposedly this is the best way to see camels racing since on race day itself, driving around the track is off-limits to everyone except the owners and trainers. Spectators must wait at a grandstand at the finish line. Jamal pointed out that many of the riders were Sudanese, as they are known for being excellent camel trainers.
Turning from camels to horses, we visited the Qatar Equestrian Field. This place was like Canyon Ranch for horses: facilities include a circular 11-foot deep swimming pool. In the clean, well-lit stables smelling of fresh straw, we watched as one sleek horse finished his bath and was moved to a stall equipped with a heat lamp to dry off.
Arabian horses, renowned worldwide for their beauty and strength, are a point of national pride, but all horses stabled here clearly receive the pampering touch.
Outside, we watched Qatari women trotting around the track with their hair covered by scarves under their riding helmets. Jamal nodded toward three slim young men in riding breeches, chatting together. “Members of the royal family,” he said.
The Qatari royal family is so large that chances of a glimpse are pretty high. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, supposedly often visits the souq on Friday mornings. “I’ve seen him driving himself around town in his white BMW,” said Jamal. “He is a very modest person.” Modest might mean something different for Qataris, where fabulously wealthy is a norm: The sheikh is building a separate terminal at the new Doha International Airport scheduled to open late this year for his and his family’s (and visiting VIPs’) sole use.
We got to visit the private museum of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim al-Thani, a cousin of the emir. Open to the public by appointment, the sprawling museum houses an eclectic, rather endearing collection that reveals the well-traveled sheikh’s personal interests: vintage autos, “very rare” fossils including a baby dinosaur head, curved daggers, Lawrence of Arabia’s motorbike, random paintings by friends, and even an airplane.
Most of the items were not sourced from Qatar but from elsewhere. Rather fitting, actually, in a country where only 20 percent of the population are natives.
Next (and final) in Part 3: I participate in a great Qatari pastime—shopping!
Photos by Amy Alipio and Roberto Lebron