On my first morning at Zulal Wellness Resort, I wake up in the perfect stillness of the desert. As I had arrived late the night before, I am eager to see where I am. I head straight out for a walk, following sandy walkways that curve among glittering pools and tall, sandstone-coloured buildings. I run my hands through the silky heads of grass that line the path.
I make my way through sun-dappled courtyards planted with medicinal herbs, where birds flutter through water fountains. Then the view opens up before me, and the flat desert meets the still, cyan waters of the Persian Gulf. Here, I feel a world away on the remote northern tip of Qatar.
And that’s exactly the point: Zulal Wellness Resort, which opened in March 2022, has transformed the empty desert of Khasooma, a 90-minute drive from Doha’s international airport, into a haven of otherworldly tranquillity.
The resort was built by Qatar’s premier developers, Msheireb Properties, and is managed by Chiva-Som, the Thai brand that has had a cult-like following among spa aficionados for almost three decades at its flagship resort in Hua Hin.
A fully equipped wellness resort
Zulal, the first full-immersion wellness resort in Qatar and the largest (at more than 30,000 sq ft) in the Middle East, takes its name from the Arabic word for spring water. It pays homage to how precious fresh water was to the nomadic tribes who traversed the area in the past and how restorative it remains today.
And water is everywhere; the resort is built around two sparkling lagoons, one for its adults-only Zulal Serenity wing and one for its family-focused Zulal Discovery section. Each of the 120 rooms has its own private plunge pool.
Then there are the vast hydrothermal areas, with sauna, steam, ice cave, and hammam facilities, as well as indoor and outdoor swimming pools. I make it a mission to experience each one in my four days at Zulal, but I leave with one pool as yet unconquered.
In its 96 treatment rooms, Zulal promotes a holistic approach to wellness. More of a book than a spa menu, the treatment list offers everything from neuro-stimulating physiotherapy and skin laser therapy to sound bath meditation and Thai boxing classes. The resort also offers themed retreats, such as those for stress and burnout or focused sports training. This year, they will be expanding into genomic testing and precision medicine.
But what makes Zulal really unique is that it showcases Traditional Arabic & Islamic Medicine (TAIM). While used widely in homes throughout the Middle East, TAIM has never been codified or practised formally, unlike other healing philosophies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Zulal is the first resort in the world to offer TAIM integrated throughout the wellness approach.
TAIM is based on the body of knowledge formalised in The Canon of Medicine written by
Persian physician-philosopher Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, in 1025. The Canon emphasises restoration and life balance through the pillars of physical movement and recovery, mindfulness, diet, optimal digestive function, and adequate rest.
“Our vision is to respect and harmonise with indigenous knowledge and culture, so we present Qatari culture to our guests and integrate aspects of indigenous wellness, along with other evidence-based wellness practices from around the world,” says Sandie Johannessen, Director of Health and Wellness, when I meet her over lunch at our table overlooking the aquamarine Serenity lagoon.
“TAIM has much in common with Chiva-Som’s wellness model of balancing mind, body, and spirit through the six modalities of nutrition, spa, fitness, physiotherapy, holistic therapy, and aesthetic beauty.”
My stay at Zulal begins with a consultation with a wellness advisor, who asks me about any health issues I am facing and my expectations and goals. We agree that a cleansing programme would suit me best. She prescribes further consultations with postural and other physical fitness experts, yoga and stretching classes, a rigorous schedule of relaxing massages, and healthy, high-fibre and low-calorie meals.
After the initial consultation, guests can opt for tailored attention from a range of specialists, including TCM experts, Ayurvedic doctors, and even a full medical team of internists, nurses, and dermatologists. If guests choose to see one of the TAIM specialists, they will be assessed according to their mizaj (temperament) and dominant akhlath (humour), and herbal treatments and lifestyle adjustments for lifelong wellness will be recommended.
TAIM-inspired treatments include the Massage Al Batin abdominal massage, Tadleek massage with a warm herbal compress, Hijama cupping therapy, and a camel milk slimming body mask.
TAIM also inspires the cuisine offered throughout the resort. On my cleansing programme, I eat a rapidly reducing number of calories per day, but executive chef Indrajit Saha performs wonders by creating three delicious, varied, and appealing four-course meals per day.
Between meals and treatments, I visit the Tea House for infusions made from Koranic herbs growing in the gardens outside. I sit sipping my tea in the spectacular House of Wisdom — a grand towering space, scented of sweet herbs and dry grass. Behind me, the double-storey library of thousands of books run in partnership with the Qatar National Library whispers of ancient wisdom.
Wellness for all ages
Another unique offering at Zulal is its impressive family wellness offering. While the Serenity side of the resort offers blissful quiet and is for adults only, Zulal Discovery is designed for families.
It has its own treatment rooms created in conjunction with child psychologists, including playrooms that are adorably decorated in themes inspired by Qatari wildlife: hedgehog for children up to the age of three; fox for four to eight; falcon for nine to 12; and oryx for 13 to 17. The rooms are understated and pristine, and I wonder if they are perhaps a little too tame, especially for younger kids, but I defer to the experts.
Family Wellness Specialist Joélle El Khoury says that Zulal Discovery was created to make wellness accessible to multiple generations, enabling families to reconnect and discover the true meaning of wellness together.
“For a family to reach their common goal, individuals must have their own ‘me’ time, and then reconnect in their shared activities,” she says. “Spending time with family members can promote compliance with group norms, encourage health practices, and reduce stress through emotional reassurance or a helpful appraisal of a difficult situation.”
The family as a group decides on their shared activities, anything from drumming or stargazing to a shared body treatment or an upcycling craft workshop.
“We believe that children are key to changing the future and that raising their awareness and building the right basics around wellness starts at home within the family unit,” says El Khoury.
“We know that family and community bonds play an essential role in mental health and that a sense of social responsibility also matters when it comes to wellbeing. We aim to strengthen and improve family bonds in order to improve the community at large.”
Pledge for a change
The resort takes its obligation to its community seriously. Msheireb Properties was established as a commercial venture to support the Qatar Foundation, which was set up in 1995 by then-emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his second wife, Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned.
The Foundation supports the goals of the Qatar National Vision 2030, which defines a framework for advancing Qatar along four pillars: human, social, economic, and environmental development. With conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory issues all on the rise in the country, improving the physical and social health of its population is a key concern.
During my lunch with Johannessen, I ask if the Middle East is positioning itself as an international spa resort hotspot. She agrees and says that the “serious and ongoing investment” in health and wellness in Qatar and the Gulf countries, combined with new travellers who are looking for life-changing, culture-rich, genuine, and local experiences, is changing the world’s perception of the Middle East.
Award-winning Zulal, with its impressive size and stature balanced by a highly personalised and unique approach to wellness, has most certainly put Qatar on the global wellness map.