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The dictator's horses
While horse racing does has deep roots in the Gulf, it has long been utilized as a form of soft power by the region’s authoritarian leaders.
Algiers appeared to have the race in the bag.
The locally trained thoroughbred held a significant lead after surging to the front of the pack with a furlong and a half to run at Saturday’s Dubai World Cup. But Ushba Tessoro and his jockey Yuga Kawada, who were dead as they turned for home, responded with a blistering turn of foot to run down Algiers to win by two and three quarter lengths.
"It was his first time overseas, his first time on a different surface (from Japan’s),” Kawada said of Ushba Tesoro. “He traveled quite well. It was just a matter of how much he could take into the race.”
The remarkable victory was was just the second time that a Japanese horse won the 2,000-meter Grade 1 race, which also happens to be funded by Dubai’s autocratic leader.
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Backed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the current ruler of Dubai, who also serves as the vice president, prime minister, and minister of defence of the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai World Cup was first inaugurated in 1996 and remains one of the richest cards in the world, with the feature race run on the dirt track.
Sheikh Mohammed, whose Godolphin operation has won the race nine times and who is widely considered to be a kingpin in the horse racing industry, was in attendance on Saturday, which also happened to be the third day of the holy month of Ramadan. The ruler was accompanied by his sons Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and Chairman of The Executive Council and and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of the UAE.
Following the event, Sheikh Mohammed noted that the success of the Dubai World Cup reflects the UAE’s determination to be a global role model for achievement and excellence in various fields.
“We take great pride in the accomplishments and global stature of the Dubai World Cup, which signify the UAE's leadership in the international equestrian sector,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “We extend a warm welcome to horse racing fans from around the world visiting the UAE to be part of this grand celebration of the sport that has deep roots in the heritage and culture of the Gulf region and the Arab world.”
While horse racing does indeed have deep roots in the Gulf, it has long been utilized as a form of sportswashing and political grandstanding by the region’s authoritarian leaders. It also has a history of corruption and doping scandals that have since lifted the veil on the Arabian love affair with horses.
In 2009, Sheikh Mohammed was suspended from horse racing by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) after several of his horses tested positive for banned substances.
Four years later, eleven of the horses from his Godolphin operation once again tested positive for banned substances, including ethylestranol and stanozolol, which are anabolic steroids. Seven more horses proved positive in further tests.
“I have made a catastrophic error,” said Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni. “Because the horses involved were not racing at the time, I did not realize that what I was doing was in breach of the rules of racing.”
The announcement was a significant blow to Sheikh Mohammed’s reputation. Godolphin was one of the world’s most successful stables with thousands of race wins since its formation in 1992.
In an attempt to salvage his stable, Sheikh Mohammed made doping horses a criminal offence in the UAE. “I have always believed in the integrity of horse racing and all other horse sports,” Sheikh Mohammed said in a statement.
Sheikh Mohammed continued to draw ire from the international community over the coming years, including in 2020 when the High Court in London found him to be responsible for the abduction of two of his daughters, Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa.
Princess Haya Bint Al-Hussain—the 47-year-old daughter of Jordan's former King Hussein—also fled from Dubai to the United Kingdom in 2019, claiming she feared for her life.
Sheikh Mohammed was also accused of kidnapping and enslaving thousands of young boys to race camels.
Despite the Dubai ruler’s alleged crimes, the UK and other Western governments continue to turn a blind eye due to Sheikh Mohammed’s exceptional influence in Britain’s horse-racing industry. He reportedly invested billions of pounds into the sport since the 1980s and owns tens of thousands of acres in Newmarket, the spiritual home of horse racing located in eastern England.
“Without him, Britain wouldn’t have a racing industry,” an unnamed former racing official told Declassified UK.
The UK’s inability to distance itself from Sheikh Mohammed in fear of losing his substantial investments emphasizes how Western governments—supposed bastions of democracy—play a key role in propping up authoritarian governments.
While Sheikh Mohammed remains the undisputed lynchpin of horse racing, he is far from the only authoritarian leader to weaponize the already-controversial sport. In February 2020, Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi Cup, which quickly became the richest race in the world with a $20 million purse.
Saudi’s investment in horse racing was yet another example of the oil-rich nation investing in sports to boost the country’s socio-economic status while bolstering its reputation and distracting from ongoing human rights abuses. It is also an opportunity for Saudi to compete with its regional rivals to determine who will become a global hub for sports.
There is also a bizarre yet rich tradition of tyrants, despots and dictators posing on horseback. Among those who have participated in this display of symbolic masculinity include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, and Turkmenistan’s former president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. American presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Regan have also posed on horseback.
Kadyrov, the tyrant at the helm of Russia’s Chechnya region has accused of widespread human rights abuses, also fancies himself as a horse owner. Several of his horses have won the Russian Derby and competed around the world in countries like Canada, Singapore, Dubai and England. However, in 2011, one of Kadyrov’s horses—Sweet Ducky—was removed from races in New York and Kentucky due to accusation of human rights abuses.
While Kadyrov later opted to focus on building a mixed martial arts empire to export internationally, Sheikh Mohammed continued to weaponize horse racing as a form of soft power. HIs decision to do so helped the Dubai ruler build a relationship with the British royal family, who shared his love for thoroughbreds. He even rode in the Queen’s carriage as her guest of honour at Royal Ascot races in 2009.
Sheikh Mohammed’s investment in horse racing is yet another example of how authoritarian rulers manipulate sports as a form of diplomacy and soft power, further ingratiating themselves among royals, elites, and politicians as magnanimous benefactors rather than power hungry autocrats.