sheikh mohammed bin khalifa al maktoum

Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum
(Nicholas Goss)

charl pretoriusCharl Pretorius FreeracerOn Sunday 27 April, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum became the first member of the Maktoum family to attend a race meeting on Hong Kong soil. He flew in with his entourage to see his charge Archipenko go to post in the QEII Cup at Sha Tin racecourse.

Punters on the island failed to see this as a good omen for the Mike de Kock-trained runner - he was easy to back at around 14-1. Barring Terry Spargo, the pre-race presentation team didn’t give Archipenko a top-three chance, ignoring Mike De Kock and jockey Kevin Shea’s widely publicised confidence. Of course, he won.

The racing world will sit up and take notice. De Kock and his Dubai-based patron’s achievements at the 2008 Dubai Racing Carnival signalled the turning of the ignition of what could well become the luxury vehicle of world thoroughbred racing.

In Hong Kong, De Kock’s foot stepped on the pedal. Now, the conquering of the English racing world awaits and not many will bet against the high-riding South African trainer and Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum speeding away from the opposition like a sports-model Bentley.

The image of a smart white Bentley flared up when I was asked to describe my few encounters with Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa and to interview him for Racing Express.

Two incidents sprung to mind.

The first: In his Dubai Palace, packed with many important invitees sitting in a large circle around his reception hall, Sheikh Mohammed stands up when his eight-year-old grandson joins the guests. His associates and guests rise as one, following suit. The boy touches noses with his grandfather, then steps around the room to greet the others with a handshake. Then, we all sit down. While this might be an Arabic tradition, the Sheikh performs the ceremony with a touching humbleness.

The second: After a lavish Palace dinner, around 9pm, everyone walks up the road leading from the Palace to the Sheikh’s stable complex. The Sheikh himself is driven there in his Bentley. He shows us his newly built stables, every one about as large as a one-bedroom apartment. When the group disbands to go home, De Kock paces back down the road to the Palace parking lot. He is some way ahead of us. The Sheikh’s magnificent car stops next to him and the window rolls down. He offers Mike a lift.

“No, thank you Sheikh Mohammed, I need the exercise,’’ quips Mike. At this point, Sheikh Mohammed opens his door, steps out and says: “I will walk with you!’’ He takes his walking stick and together they strut down the dimly lit road, talking away, with the Bentley in slow pursuit. Looking at them from behind, in deep conversation, almost arm-in-arm, one realises that this is a partnership built to last.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum is a calm, humble and soft-spoken man - one wouldn’t say that he is the highly energetic type who actually cycles and spear-fishes in his spare time. In the often brash boldness of Mike he has found a somewhat contrasting personality that is nonetheless one that enchants him, one he can perfectly relate to.

Mike represents Sheikh Mohammed’s racing vision for the future and they get on like a house on fire. “He is a teacher, he is a superstar, perhaps the best in the world,’’ says the Sheikh when we sit down to tea in his office in downtown Dubai.

In racing circles Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum is sometimes confused with his first cousin, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the owner of the all-blue Godolphin thoroughbred empire.

But Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa (son of Khalifa) is the Minister of Land Affairs in Dubai, a position he has proudly held since 1971. His cousin, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (son of Rashid) is the Ruler of Dubai and also Prime Minister of the seven-state UAE.

They grew up together, went to school together and then received tertiary education in England at the Bell School of Languages, being taught English as a first language. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa came back to Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid went to military school in the UK to further his interests in the military.

Time for a question: How much has he, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa, had to do with the emergence of Dubai as one of the most attractive tourist destinations for South Africans and other international travellers?

He stresses: “The Dubai that you see today is the result of the vision of Sheikh Rashid, an extraordinary man whose ideas were and are being implemented by his son, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. He is a similarly gifted visionary. He was his father’s eager student, his father’s beautiful vision for the UAE lives on in him.

“As for me, I was appointed by Sheikh Rashid 37 years ago. He gave me his trust and my department has carried out his vision for Dubai, we have followed his instructions implicitly.’’

He adds: “The great city you see today, in 2008, will look remarkably different if you were to come back in 2015. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has created this sprawling metropolis, but I assure you this is only the beginning!

“Dubai and the UAE are not dependent on oil at all, that is the wrong perception. Our income now and in the future lies in tourism and property development. Dubai will not stop growing. It is amazing what today’s architects can do and they can do it anywhere they want, regardless of the quality of the soil, which incidentally is better away from Dubai and deep into the desert than in Dubai itself.

“We have some challenges, like roads and transport, but the solutions are a part of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s master plan. He has created this to invest in our people, to empower them. He already knows the way ahead, but he is not a one-man show. He asks for expert advice, everyone works closely together.’’

The United Arab Emirates, with Dubai as its flagship, is a world leader in the fields of tourism, architecture, construction and finance.

The Department of Land Affairs conducts business to the value of an astonishing AED 3 billion and more per month (the equivalent of about R6 billion). Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa and his staff are charged with administrating, streamlining and regulating the incredible demand for property and the awarding of business rights to foreign investors.

He explains: “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has instituted a new law to protect local and foreign investors. Foreigners are allowed to develop land here, but they are required to fully complete their existing projects before they can go on to the next ones. This way all their financial commitments are concluded without ramifications and other investors get a chance to enter the market.’’

Dubai is proud model of the peaceful blending of Arabic and Western cultures, something that seems impossible in other parts of the world. My next question is obvious: How did they achieve this?

“We have stable traditional rule in Dubai with no political upheaval, and we achieve harmony by making people feel welcome in our land. How do you feel when you come here? You feel good, you are respected and you respect us in return. We are a peaceful people and we are sharing our vision of the world with everyone.’’

Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa’s love for thoroughbreds grew only in the last decade. He formerly trained and rode Arabian horses in endurance races of up to 120km, which were completed in a day. He also kept and trained camels along with the other Sheikhs.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Sheikh Hamdan and Sheikh Maktoum were the horse lovers since their early years. I liked the marathon horses. It was only when Sheikh Hamdan gave me four horses as gifts back in 1996 that my interest was kindled. One of them was Map of Stars, who won first time out, and we were delighted. But they were later sold.’’

In 2000, when Sheikh Mohammed and his right-hand man Mohammed Khaleel drove by the Dubai Polo Grounds on the way to his Palace, they decided to stop over and soon became involved in polo; the Sheikh played some polo himself. This led to another venture into thoroughbred racing and he invested in Sir Clive, by Bigstone, bought in New Zealand before the NZ Derby and placed second in the that race and the AJC Derby.

It is here that the picture started to unfold. Mohammed Khaleel began a study of thoroughbred pedigrees and the Sheikh expanded his Australian operation with more racehorses under the banner of “Al Adiyaat’’.

The growing popularity of the Dubai Racing Carnival on his doorstep prompted Sheikh Mohammed in 2006 to expand his operation to Dubai and Mike de Kock was recommended as a trainer to support him. They met with Mike and Mohammed Khaleel visited South African on the Sheikh’s behalf and liked it.

Mike suggested Candy Critic as a first purchase; the deal was secured just a few weeks before the SA Oaks, a race which the daughter of Candy Stripes won in good style. And so Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa’s first SA runner was a winner, like his first Dubai runner 10 years earlier.

Late in 2006 Sheikh Mohammed sent Mike to Argentina to buy rising star Husson, by Hussonet, but the price changed a few times and the deal fell through. On the same trip Mike, Jehan Malherbe and John McVeigh found Asiatic Boy, a one-time winner who had finished second to Husson, and secured him at a better price. Asiatic Boy’s sparkling performances since then include the 2007 Dubai Triple Crown and a second in the 2008 Dubai World Cup.

Out of the blue, in 2008, came another one-time winner in Honour Devil, who swept away the opposition in Dubai and won the Grade 2 UAE Derby, and Archipenko, from relative obscurity in the UK to glory in Dubai and Hong Kong.

With three aces in his hand of cards, Sheikh Mohammed is keen on making a huge success of Mike’s English raid this year and says he will support his trainer with whatever is required, including a stable complex with its own track and first-class facilities.

“It is the aim of Al Adiyaat to buy horses anywhere in the world, it doesn’t matter where. If Mike finds the right ones, we will buy them as we’d like to win big races all over the world, in the UK, the USA, Australia and South Africa!’’

Does that mean that Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum will be launching a challenge on the world stage to Godolphin? Does he wish to be as big and prominent as Godolphin?

He states: “I can be that, if God so wishes, but it is not in my hands at all. If things go that way, I will be happy. It is in the hands of God. But there will never be a contest for glory or world racing domination between myself and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. We are healthy competitors on the racetrack, like we were years ago when we rode against each other in endurance races. But that is where it stops.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid does everything to the glory of God and Dubai and so do I. If he were to come to me tomorrow and asked if he could have my horse Honour Devil for Godolphin, I will oblige, I will give the horse to him. All to the glory of Dubai.’’