A new generation of sportswomen is scoring pioneering victories in the fast-changing culture of the Arab Peninsula. One of them is Sheikha Reem bint Muhammad bin Faisal Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family who works tirelessly to encourage more women to take up equestrian sports.
Text maria graae Photography daniel stjerne
Taken from the Summer 2014 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal
Reem is another name for the small Arabian Sand Gazelle, found only in the Arabian Peninsula and distinguished by its elegant frame and big eyes. Like her namesake, Sheikha Reem lives in Doha and thrives in Qatar’s deserts, one of the harshest climates on Earth. For centuries, these deserts have tested humankind; now they serve as a scenic backdrop and a permanent challenge for the young Qatari endurance rider when she is training and racing her horses. “It gives me happiness and joy,” she says, softly and almost to herself, “being out here in the desert with my horses.”
A couple of years ago, still in her early twenties, Sheikha Reem shattered whatever stereotypes the West might harbour regarding the lives of women living in the Arabian Peninsula when she became the first Qatari woman ever to participate in an international endurance race.
Sheikha is the female equivalent of the term sheik and is used for members of the Qatari royal family, who have been hugely supportive of her groundbreaking achievements in her chosen sport. “My parents have been a source of great support. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love horses – the Barbie horse was my favourite toy as a little girl. I think I got my commitment and passion for horses from my father: He doesn’t ride but he understands my passion since he’s very dedicated to breeding and racing falcons. I feel lucky because in the Arab world it’s not easy for women to do endurance and equestrian sport; it’s against our tradition. But things are changing. When I’m in a race, you should see the support I receive. There can be as many as 50 cars following me to cheer me on.”
We’re in Sheikha Reem’s powerful SUV, driving through the middle of the desert at the Qatar Endurance Village at Sealine in Mesaieed, more than a couple of hours’ drive from Doha, the capital of the State of Qatar. This is where Sheikha Reem trains every Friday along with many other Qatari endurance riders. Today, she’s here to watch the two-star, 120km Al Shaqab International Endurance ride, and we’ve been invited along for the ride. Balancing modernity and modesty, the luxurious, hand-embroidered traditional dress and diamond jewellery that Sheikha Reem was wearing the previous day have been replaced with sports wear. A turquoise hoodie and a sparkly baseball cap – teamed with a colourful pair of Ray-Bans – ensure that her hair and face remain covered, as is deemed appropriate here. Despite the dramatically different look, her gentle smile, Cartier bracelet, and unbridled passion for horses shine just as brightly as before.
“I do a bit of showjumping on the side as well,’ she says. ‘But it’s hard to fit it in with my fulltime job in marketing at Al Shaqab and my endurance career. I prefer endurance to jumping. I find it closer to our traditions, riding on Arabian horses, and I enjoy how it gives me more time being with my horse, alone in the desert. My first race in Qatar was at this track, and it was amazing. I had owned endurance horses for a couple of years, even though at that time it wasn’t yet appropriate for ladies to compete, and I was still going to the races all the time, just like today. I was already a part of the Qatari endurance community, so when I finally made the leap to compete, everyone was very supportive and happy to finally see me in the saddle.”
Sheikha Reem is the third child in a family of four sisters and two brothers. “Reem is very athletic and competitive,” says her sister Sheikha Al-Anood, who’s in the passenger seat as we get ready to drive off for the next loop. “She has put all her energy and focus into endurance.”
“My sister is also an important support,” Sheikha Reem explains. “She’s the one getting up at three in the morning to go with me to a race. She is also a braver rider than me, so I hope in time she will join me and compete with me, but at the moment it’s not possible because of her studies.” By now our SUV has joined the other vehicles that are closely following the horses as they gallop across the pale yellow desert sand. Arab pop is playing on the radio and there is a happy and excited atmosphere in the car.
For her international debut, Sheikha Reem’s entire family was present to support her. “I did my first international ride in Germany. I wasn’t really fit because at the time I was studying in the UK and not riding regularly. But when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance. The minute I finished, my father asked me how I felt and I answered that I felt like a champion. The accomplishment was such a rush that I didn’t feel tired or exhausted. But endurance in Europe is very different to the Middle East. In Europe it’s just you and your horse. Here there are a lot of people following the races, and we go fast because of the flat terrain, whereas in Europe there’s a lot of climbing so the pace is much slower.” The ride is proving to be bumpy as the SUV conquers the rough sand road, doing about 30km an hour to keep pace with the horses. Gas and oil refineries can be spotted in the far distance, the heat of the dust-filled air distorting the view.
“When I moved back to Qatar a few years ago after my studies, I started arranging races for ladies. Now there are a total of about 20 or 25 Qatari women riders competing in the races, when before there were none, and two of us are at international level. Personally, I love a challenge and I prefer to compete with men on equal terms, but for many women riders just starting to do endurance they don’t feel as confident. Therefore the women’s races are a brilliant way for them to develop, get more experienced and build their confidence.”
There’s great satisfaction in getting other women involved in equestrian sport for Sheikha Reem, but that doesn’t mean she lacks any ambition for her own success as an individual rider. “My dream is to compete at the World Equestrian Games. It won’t happen this year in Normandy, but maybe the year 2 018. I will still need a bit more experience. The start of an endurance race is almost like going to war: Everyone is fighting for the better position, and it’s not without risk for either the horse or rider, so it takes a lot of experience to keep cool.”
The accomplished German endurance rider Belinda Hitzler has served as mentor for Sheikha Reem since they met in 2008, when Belinda spotted her passion for horses combined with a great physique as well as mental strength. “Belinda takes such good care of her horses like they’re her babies – I really like that about her. We instantly clicked. We share a lot of values regarding horsemanship and have the same passion about getting more women into the sport.”
This season, Sheikha Reem came tenth in a 100km race on her beloved grey Anglo-Arab named Neemo. Sometimes the Qatari races take place at night to avoid the heat, but the pace is still relentless. Nevertheless, Sheikha Reem is always ready to do whatever it takes. “I definitely need to be more careful than most since I’m a role model, or I could end up being the talk of Doha. Juggling a fulltime job along with riding is a lot of work at times, and I do occasionally get scared at the races. But racing is something I love. The main sacrifice is probably my social life, which is mostly spent with my fellow riders, but it’s what makes me happy. Sometimes however I wish there were more hours in the day.”
There are a lot of bumps in road, and the cars are crossing back and forth trying to find the smoothest way through the sand, while the riders are given directions by their trainers and thrown bottles of water, which they drink and pour over the horses, still galloping at nearly 25km an hour in the hot desert air as we near the end of the loop and an upcoming vet check.
So what does the future hold for Sheikha Reem? Could a future marriage and children put a stop to her ambitions? “No. It’s simple, really,” she says, laughing. “I will of course go on riding competitively. I just need to marry a rider or someone who shares my passion for horses, that’s all there is to it! And there’s no doubt in my mind that my children will take part in equestrian sports too.” •