Polo is thriving in the Middle East, with luxury brands eager to associate themselves with the game
When businessmen and friends Ali Albwardy and Humaid bin Drai opened Dubai’s first polo club in 1974, it was little more than a sandpit while the stables were made of scaffolding.
There were few players to use Dubai Country Club, as it was called, other than its founders and a handful of western expatriates who knew the game.
But it sowed the seeds of a homegrown passion, which in the past four decades has propelled the United Arab Emirates to the top of the league table of countries fostering a love of polo and a serious contender in terms of hosting competitive championships and attracting sponsorship and prestige.
The Dubai Country Club in Nad al Sheba has long gone, flattened in 2001 to make way for the Meydan racecourse. In its place are the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club opened eight years ago and the Desert Palm resort, opened by Albwardy in the 1990s and taking things up a notch with an exclusive retreat featuring 85 villas overlooking a 150-acre private polo estate – a kind of nirvana for players and followers of the game. The resort hosts the Cartier International Polo Challenge and the Nations Cup and has seen some of the world’s leading players stampeding across its hallowed turf.
Those two sites will soon be joined by a third, the Al Habtoor Polo Resort and Club, named after the Emirati business dynasty who conceived the idea. The family, who are avowedly devoted polo players, will open the first phase by the end of the year. The luxury development will eventually include a 136-room hotel, 162 villas, a polo academy with four playing fields, a riding school and stables for 500 horses.
Together with the Ghantoot polo club in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, it ups the ante in a nation where a love of polo is relatively new. But is there a market for four polo clubs in a small country where few locals have the skills to play competitively?
“I think there is,” says Mohammed al Habtoor, 46, chief executive of the Al Habtoor Group, who first learned to play the game in Desert Palm 14 years ago.
“We have about 20 Emirati polo players here. This is very low for such a country, where polo is advancing and becoming recognised internationally.
“We are fourth or fifth in the world as far as the level of tournaments goes and now we are studying how we can encourage Emiratis to come and play. We want to give them a bit of a privilege to encourage them because other nationalities are already coming and know the game, whether they are from Pakistan, India or England, where polo is already big. We need to convince Emiratis to start playing.”
The only surprise, really, is that the Emirates has only recently embraced the sport. Not only is the UAE a horse-loving nation with a long association with equestrian sports but the glamour associated with the polo pitch make the two a natural fit.
Then there is the potential for lucrative sponsorship with luxury brands clamouring to be associated with a sport deemed to be fast, exciting, skilled and attracting an equally salubrious clientele.
Al Habtoor, who started the Gold Cup in 2009 as well as fielding horses and players for the Dubai-based British Polo Day, has had to turn down sponsors for his event.
“This year we have McLaren, Bentley and Julius Baer,” he says.
“This is a game that attracts a lot of sponsorship.
“The patrons are high net worth because it is an expensive game. It costs a couple of million dollars for each patron to play every year.
“The people who come and attend are always the quality that the banks and luxury cars need. The clientele and the fans who come are the target of these sponsors.
“Polo was first played by royalty – kings and princes who played the game in their own compounds privately and invited lords to play with them.”
Polo is thought to have originated in Persia more than 2,500 years and spread throughout the Levant and Asia. Favoured by royalty, it was nicknamed “the game of kings”.
For Torquhil Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll in Scotland and an ambassador for the 214-year-old brand Royal Salute whisky, which sponsors the UAE Nations Cup, the product made a natural pairing with the prestigious sport.
“People in this part of the world are passionate about horses,” he says.
“It goes without saying that to be right up there in the polo world and to be a serious patron, you need very good financial backing.
“We are the king of whiskies and polo is the king of sports. It is all about skill, prestige and luxury so we thought this might be the right way to talk to our consumers and it just took off.”
The company first started sponsoring polo tournaments in Shanghai in 2007, one of 14 sites where it backs polo. At the time, there were only a couple of polo clubs in China but that has soared to about 20. Like many luxury brands, Royal Salute has not only targeted countries where a love of polo already exists but places where there is a potential to tap into wealthy investors who could be drawn to play and back a game they know little about.
The duke says, “It was a really successful way of speaking to the right people. Royal Salute has become one of the biggest global sponsors of high goal polo and it is because we are not just a sponsor. We take the game to countries that want to expand polo and put a lot of time and effort into the game, as opposed to just talking to people who turn up.”
Malcolm Borwick, one of England’s leading professional players, adds, “With the history of the UAE, Persia and Asia, horses have played a huge part in the culture of the country for centuries so the combination of the sport, the love of horses and the glamour that goes with polo is a really attractive combination for this part of the world.”