All photos by Chantelle D’mello
With reporting from Peter Kovessy
Nine months after abruptly closing for renovations, one of Qatar’s oldest standing landmarks will open its doors to the public today, a few weeks ahead of schedule.
Speaking to Doha News during an exclusive tour of the hotel yesterday, Sheraton Doha’s General Manager J. Thomas C. van Opstal said the renovations were made ahead of the upcoming Gulf summit, which is scheduled to be held in Qatar next month.
Visitors curious to check out the changes may be surprised to see that not much has been altered, but instead simply restored.
Van Opstal explained:
“We didn’t want to change anything. We wanted to bring back the glory and glamor that the Sheraton had when it first opened in 1982. Everything is new, from the marble to the carpets, to the furniture, but it’s all as it was originally designed.”
A few noticeable alterations have been made, however.
The hotel’s lobby, which has long been home to one of the world’s largest standing lamps, containing around 20,000 spheres, now has several large windows that open it up to light from the outside.
Speaking to Doha News, Sandra Leibrock, the hotel’s executive assistant manager of sales and marketing, said:
“We wanted to bring the sea inside. It the daytime, it’s beautiful; the whole lobby is lit up by surrounding light. I think that it’s the only drastic change that we’ve made.”
The Sheraton is not taking any guest bookings yet, but has been showing off recent changes made. Over the years, the hotel has reduced the number of rooms from 400 to 371, including 64 suites.
The space was used to create numerous club lounges, and five Heads of State suites – each dedicated to a particular nation’s leader, and customized as per the his or her requirements. The suite on the third floor, for example, is reserved for the King of Saudi Arabia.
The hotel has long been a favorite of rulers of neighboring countries, after Qatar’s Emir at the time, the grandfather of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, opened the Sheraton in 1982.
Red is the theme of the new Sheraton, with carpets, drapery, walls and conference and ballrooms now a deep maroon hue. According to Leibrock:
“It’s all done in traditional Arabic taste. The red carpets and overall look was part of the original plans, but were changed over the years. The carpet at one of the halls, which doubles as a concert space, was changed to blue and gold a while back, but during the renovations, we brought back the original red that was there in 1982.”
Many local residents were caught off guard when the Sheraton suddenly announced it would be closing temporarily in April. That included the hotel’s employees, who were given less than a week’s notice that they would be out of a job.
Some of the workers who Doha News spoke to in April said they were left with the impression, following a meeting with managers, that their employment was being terminated.
However, van Opstal said yesterday that many employees had been transferred to other positions during the renovations.
Officials had previously said that some staff would be transferred to other local hotels owned by Katara Hospitality or operating under a Starwood brand.
Nevertheless, Van Opstal added that the Sheraton was in the process of hiring many new employees ahead of the re-opening.
Over the summer, renovation work was marred by a fight between workers and security guards that escalated and led to laborers throwing rocks and stones, as well as smashing the windows of a portacabin and breaking scaffolding.
Four busloads of riot police responded to the incident, which had calmed down by the time authorities had arrived en masse.
Contractors involved with the project were working on a strict deadline, as the Sheraton is scheduled to completely reopen in December in time for a high-profile meeting between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Diplomatic officials are scrambling to soothe tensions between the neighboring nations to ensure the summit takes place as scheduled.
Earlier this month, a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in Doha was postponed due to ongoing differences between Qatar and fellow GCC states Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
While the entire hotel won’t reopen until after the GCC summit, two of the Sheraton’s seven restaurants are currently open to the public – Al Hubara and the Atrium Lounge. Others, including Al Shaheen, which is still under renovation, will reopen after the GCC conference.
The relaunch has been an emotional experience for some of Qatar’s residents.
“We had people see that the Sheraton was lit up and come by to see what was happening. They came with their families, and were so glad that we hadn’t completely changed the hotel into one of those marble temples. They were happy that we had kept the place’s roots,” added Merima Mikic, the hotel’s marketing manager.
Care was also taken to keep some of the original amenities, including the original radios installed into the hotel’s rooms, in working condition. The hotel’s multi-colored glass elevators have also been left unchanged.
Other renovations include a complete rehaul of audio-visual equipment at the Sheraton’s numerous conference facilities, including the Al Dafna Hall, which, at 11m tall, stands as the largest indoor conference facility in the country, and the popular wedding venue, the Salwa Ballroom.
Changes have also been made to return other conference rooms to their original design and layout, stripping away other older redesigns that have taken place over the years.
The hotel’s fitness center also underwent a complete revamp, featuring two floors of newly replaced weight, cardio and spinning machines.
Residents visiting the Sheraton over the next couple of days will be treated to guided tours of the hotel, in addition to free sample tastings of the restaurants’ many cuisines.