Dubai sheikh rides a horse race to sell UAE im­age

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY DAN BOY­LAN

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES | As the world’s rich­est horse race gal­loped to a thrilling con­clu­sion last month, event host and UAE Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid Al Mak­toum rushed from the royal box to the win­ner’s cir­cle and left be­hind a swirl of con­ver­sa­tion that cov­ered Gen. David Pe­traeus, the new Chi­nese elite and the threat of the Is­lamic State.

This year, the 20th run­ning of the Dubai World Cup more than equaled the red car­pet glam­our of the Ken­tucky Derby and Royal As­cot. The Mid­dle East’s so­cial event of the sea­son, the race at­tracted 60,000 fans to the world’s pre­mier track as horse rac­ing’s fastest thor­ough­breds com­peted for a to­tal purse of $30 mil­lion.

But for this small Gulf na­tion, which boasts the world’s fourth-largest known oil re­serves but is sit­u­ated in one of the world’s most trou­bled re­gions, the World Cup is far more than just a horse race.

Since early 2006, the lively, be­spec­ta­cled 69-year-old Sheikh Mak­toum has of­fi­cially ruled Dubai and guided the Emi­rates through the global eco­nomic down­turn, re­gional in­sta­bil­ity and the re­cent plunge in oil prices. Part of his suc­cess has been his pop­u­lar­ity, and no event cap­tures that qual­ity more than the Dubai World Cup.

First con­ceived by the sheikh when he was just a teenager, the event has evolved into Dubai’s pre­mier ve­hi­cle for soft-power show­cas­ing, pro­ject­ing an im­age as an open, se­cure and, most of all, pro­gres­sive city. Its ma­jor trade part­ners and po­ten­tial mil­i­tary pro­tec­tors, in­clud­ing the U.S., Bri­tain and China, all take note.

In ad­di­tion to spread­ing the coun­try’s name and in­flu­ence through sport, the race also has a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as an op­por­tu­nity for dis­creet diplo­macy in a trou­bled re­gion. While nei­ther the U.S. Con­sulate in Dubai nor its Bri­tish coun­ter­part sent of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tions, diplo­mats and back­room op­er­a­tors from far and wide at­tended the week­end ex­trav­a­ganza.

“Sheikh Mo­ham­mad has used his love for horse rac­ing as a plat­form to in­tro­duce peo­ple,” said Carter Carnegie, a vet­eran of 12 World Cups who pro­motes Bri­tish horse rac­ing. “This event shapes the im­age of Dubai and brings in­flu­en­tial peo­ple to­gether. A lot of bor­ders are crossed.”

If a test of soft power is to pro­duce in­trigu­ing mo­ments and un­ex­pected cul­tural cross-pol­li­na­tion, the World Cup con­stantly sat­is­fies. Two years ago, the sheikh en­ter­tained Chechen Repub­lic Pres­i­dent Ramzan Kady­rov as for­mer Hol­ly­wood bomb­shell Bo Derek lin­gered nearby. Th­ese days Mr. Kady­rov owns race­horses, and Miss Derek sits on the Cal­i­for­nia Horse Rac­ing Board. They might have sim­ply dis­cussed the race, while per­haps mix­ing in a lit­tle talk on Chechen in­vest­ment in Cal­i­for­nia.

“Peo­ple who meet at horse races tend to have more in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions,” said an Amer­i­can diplo­mat at­tend­ing the event in an unof­fi­cial ca­pac­ity. When asked to iden­tify him­self, he merely winked.

Long time com­ing

This soft power tri­umph took years to de­velop. In the 1960s Dubai was a pover­tyrid­den set­tle­ment of 30,000 on the Ara­bian Gulf. Dur­ing that time, the fu­ture Shiek Mak­toum was a teenager away in Eng­land study­ing.

Young Mak­toum soon dis­cov­ered Euro­pean horse rac­ing, a sport that also hon­ored his Ara­bian her­itage. Dur­ing his Be­douin child­hood he had learned to read desert sands and of­ten shared break­fast with his horse. In Eng­land he quickly be­came a suc­cess­ful horse owner.

Upon re­turn­ing to the UAE to be groomed for power, the sheikh held the Emi­rates’ first thor­ough­bred race on a dusty camel track in 1981. A ba­sic race­course soon opened, and he reached out to ad­ven­tur­ous horse own­ers from North Amer­ica, Europe, Australia and Asia. Enough of the in­vi­tees made the jour­ney for the in­au­gu­ral World Cup to be run in 1996.

Along the way, Dubai’s pol­i­cy­mak­ers pushed eco­nomic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion. The tiny port trans­formed it­self into the fu­tur­is­tic com­mer­cial cap­i­tal of the Arab world.

At the Mey­dan Race­track, that brand­ing of the UAE as a for­ward-think­ing and tol­er­ant out­post in the re­gion was on full dis­play. Euro­pean crowds wear­ing wide­brimmed hats, pin­striped tuxe­dos and re­veal­ing dresses drank cock­tails among Arabs in flow­ing white robes. In some parts of the Mus­lim world, that cul­ture clash is messy and tense, but not here.

Such di­ver­sity extends to the horses. Eight Amer­i­can own­ers have won dur­ing the World Cup’s 20-year his­tory. The sheikh and Ken­tucky’s horse rac­ing masters are old friends, and some se­ri­ous Ken­tucky tal­ent ac­tu­ally helps man­age the World Cup.

“Sheikh Mak­toum is one of the great­est gen­tle­men I’ve ever met,” said Steven Coburn, the owner of Cal­i­for­nia Chrome, the 2014 Ken­tucky Derby and Preak­ness win­ner who was fa­vored to win his week­end race. In­stead, Cal­i­for­nia Chrome lost to Prince Bishop, a 14-1 long shot, af­ter the UAE-owned horse staged a stunning up­set.

Asia is also heav­ily in­volved. Ja­panese, Hong Kong and es­pe­cially main­land Chi­nese horse rac­ing fans were ev­ery­where talk­ing up the fu­ture. A Malaysian-Chi­nese ar­chi­tect helped de­sign the new Mey­dan Race­course, and mas­sive new rac­ing fa­cil­i­ties are in devel­op­ment in the Chi­nese cities of Tian­jin and Chengdu.

Side events have also flour­ished, in­clud­ing what’s now known as Bri­tish Polo Day Dubai. Founded by Ed Olver, the son of a Bri­tish diplo­mat, Bri­tish Polo Day uses polo to pro­mote English cul­ture and sport around the world. “The horse is an in­ter­na­tional lan­guage,” said Mr. Olver, 33, who also served along­side Princes Wil­liam and Harry in the Bri­tish Army’s House­hold Cav­alry.

Mr. Olver knows how to as­sem­ble a se­ri­ous crowd. “Re­gard­less of lan­guage, if you un­der­stand the horse,” he said, “you have a tremen­dous bridge be­tween cul­tures.”

Nearby, a re­tired Bri­tish ma­jor gen­eral dis­cussed the race and then con­sid­ered broader re­gional sta­bil­ity. The great-nephew of Land Rover’s founder, the gen­eral fought in Iraq along­side Gen. Pe­traeus. He soon lamented the scan­dal that ended the Amer­i­can gen­eral’s ca­reer.

“He was truly, truly a cut above the rest of the crowd and would have made an ex­cel­lent Repub­li­can can­di­date,” the gen­eral said.

The race ended as an­other mil­i­tary ru­mor cir­cu­lated: The fe­male UAE air force pi­lot who gained fame by lead­ing the first wave of last year’s airstrikes against the Is­lamic State was re­port­edly a spe­cial guest at the race. Given the Dubai World Cup’s spirit, that sounds about right.

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