An International Sui Generis: Dubai’s World Cup

Horse racing in Dubai continues to bring together diverse masses that share an admired commonality.

Updated: March 28, 2019 • 8:50 AM ET

Horse racing in Dubai is an experience like no other in the region.

There was once a magnificent aqueous empire that abutted an important estuary. People came from far and wide to marvel at its innovative spirit that included temples built specifically for trade and commerce.

The leaders of this land were farsighted. Experience taught that maintaining a balance for their people vacillated somewhere between hope and the harsh realities of everyday life.

Outlets for the greater populace were aplenty, despite a stratified class system. One of these was the sport of horse racing, a social leveling experience no matter your status.

Some of the greatest equine athletes plied their trade on their courses, while the enlightened leadership built an infrastructure that was carefully handed down to successive generations. Each year brought a series of races that touted the very best. It was truly sui generis — defined as something unique and one-of-a-kind.

We could be speaking of England near the Valley of the Horses in Newmarket or up the road at Ascot, where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has presided over the royal meeting each June.

We’re not though.

Rather, it’s quite a different fulcrum that has progressed for the state of horse racing. This is one in which a brand has spread to almost every corner of the globe, led by a family who has put their own stamp on things.

Actually, England goes there to run.

On the Persian Gulf, just south of the all-important Strait of Hormuz, is the small, yet powerful member of the United Arab Emirates known as Dubai. For many years now, the Dubai World Cup (DWC), hosted by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, has put on a day of racing that has transcended borders, nations and led to the making of dreams.

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Once again, this Saturday at Meydan Racetrack, the DWC will take center stage. Yet, the construction of the edifice wasn’t anything that occurred overnight. In no way, shape or form was it a foregone conclusion.

It all began with the Trucial States, which just sounds like something connected to a humiliating colonial past. They were treaty-based possessions from the decrepit mandate system, a remnant from the First World War. Britain and France thought they had found a clever way to “maintain” colonies without using that name. Lines were drawn on maps, and oil possessions were handed over like trading cards outside a 7-Eleven.

Finally, the time test elapsed in the 1960s, as beleaguered British prime minister Harold Wilson let the people of several colonies go. For the defunct Trucials, political state-making coalesced around December 2, 1971. The result was that Dubai, together with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah, signed what became known as the Act of Union to form the UAE.

Two ironies were present at this point in the making of the UAE, and they were both connected tangentially to horse racing. The first was the day that Sheikhs Rashid and Zayed first met in the desert between Dubai and Abu Dhabi at Argoub El Sedira to discuss how they would harness nationalism. Among the witnesses was none other than Sheikh Mohammed.

As the heir, he witnessed the birth of a new commerce-laden seaborne empire that he would intimately influence and construct. The new empire was a vehicle, he drove himself, for one of his great passions — horse racing.

The second irony was the Act of Union that created this new country. It seemed historically familiar to the one in the early 18th century that brought together England and Scotland. Interestingly, one of the architects of that plan to create the new Great Britain was the First Lord of the Treasury, the Earl of Godolphin. That name became synonymous with one of three founding horses to be bred in the West by the son of the First Lord, the Godolphin Arabian.

Flash forward 300 years and that name, Godolphin, has new meaning because it’s hypersonically linked to the royal blue silks of the powerful global brand that Sheikh Mohammed created. His stable produces horses that breed, race and win on several continents (they just swept the Golden Slipper in Australia, the first major two-year-old race of the year).

Centralizing and legitimizing authority, that was what Britain did, and Sheik Mohammed’s approach to Dubai is similarly all-encompassing.

His racing operations are highly progressive (he and the Queen, another longtime horse racing leader in the sport, have met many times). Like satellites orbiting grassy pastures, Godolphin is just like anything he puts his mind to, i.e. Emirates Airline, Burj Al Arab Hotel, Burj Khalifa Tower and Dubai Internet City, to name a few.

To be sure, Sheik Mohammed’s Dubai isn’t a utopia by any means. He has faced international pressure and criticism. Multi-ethnic hubs of activity are challenging to master. Privacy laws are loose and human trafficking rears its head frequently. Expectations are high from a large foreign-born population that aren’t remotely part of the original Emirati identity.

Despite these concerns, Dubai will host the 2020 World Expo with the theme "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future," a first for a Middle Eastern city. World’s Fairs have supposedly always been seen as the mark of a truly advanced society.

The world is coming to Dubai, but they do every year at the end of March for the one of the greatest horse racing events on the calendar. That was made possible with the vision of one person, but it was done so with the centralization of decision-making power.

What Sheik Mohammed has achieved cannot happen in the expansive republic of American horse racing, though the Breeders’ Cup works hard at it. Dubai and its World Cup are sui generis, and that’s created a powerful story for the future.

However, maybe we should first recall the words of the British historian J.H. Plumb, who wrote extensively about legitimacy when he said, “The past has always been the handmaid of authority.”

As a feat, we should welcome that.

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