From World Games to World Stage: Equestrian-Friendly Royal Families and Turmoil in the Middle East

The crack endurance team from Bahrain entering the stadium during the opening ceremonies at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last September. (Fran Jurga photo)

Maybe you’re not a newshound like me. All this Middle Eastern political news might leave you cold. You don’t know these people, you think. And you never will. Does it matter?

I think it does matter. It matters in the big picture of the world, of course. The unrest is disturbing, and violence distressing.

But on a much more personal level, there’s a lot to be said for some high stakes in horse sports riding in the balance, as political unrest in the region spills into the Gulf states with the violence in Bahrain. The high stakes cover four areas that I can think of immediately: the breeding of Arabian horses, the breeding and racing of Thoroughbreds, the sport of endurance and the executive office of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).

Take the current crisis in Bahrain, for instance; for the past year or so, I have been following an outbreak of the disease called glanders in that island nation. That research led me to learn about the horse breeding program there, and the endurance team. As this political crisis took over the news, veterinary authorities were set to inspect every horse in the kingdom in order to declare the country free of glanders. No horses have been allowed off the islands during a long quarantine.

We’re hearing so much on the news about the King of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and I’m sure most Americans don’t give him a second thought. They couldn’t find Bahrain on the map, and I admit that I have trouble finding it, myself. But just google him, and watch all the photos of him on horseback show up.

[VIDEOSINGLE type=”youtube” keyid=”d5Cylij0svQ”, width=”560″, height=”344″]Sheikh Nassar bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king of Bahrain, was a quiet star at the World Equestrian Games endurance competition. Now his family is starring on CNN. The soundtrack of this fan-made video is a poem written by the sheikh and set to music.

But just a few months ago, His Highness Shaikh Nasser? bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the king’s son, was right here with us, walking among us at the Kentucky Horse Park. He was the head of the Bahrain endurance team at the World Equestrian Games. He finished 12th, riding Khandela des Vialette, a chestnut Arabian mare. He was one of two riders from Bahrain to complete the event, resulting in a ninth place overall finish result for Bahrain. His relatives by marriage from the UAE won the team gold medal. In 2008, the Bahrain team finished third (behind the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) in the FEI Endurance World Championships.

The sheikh is married to HH Sheikha Sheikh Shair bint Mohammed al Maktoum, the daughter of the Emir of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. That means that his father-in-law is the most powerful breeder and owner of Thoroughbred racehorses in the world, as well as a member of the reigning world champion team in endurance. And that man is married to the president of the Federation Equestre International, Princess Haya, who is in turn a member of the royal family of Jordan, which has also been in the news because of political rumblings in her country.

What’s going on in Bahrain? The Khalifah royal family has been in power since the 1700s, when they drove out the Persians, but they are members of the Sunni Muslim sect, ruling a nation of mostly Shi’ite Muslims. That translates to tension, no matter how long the tradition.

Until the 1970s, Bahrain was a British Protectorate, the BBC just told us. The king did change the government over to a limited constitutional monarchy with democratic elections and a Parliament in 2002. But the royal family is still very much in control.

Still sound like an irrelevant place? It’s the home port of the US Navy’s fleet in the Middle East.

What goes on in the Middle East affects the horse business very deeply. While there is not much information available about the Bahrain royal family’s involvement in horses beyond endurance and breeding Arabian horses, and we can’t read the minds of endurance riders we only met briefly, the countries in the Gulf have a strong tradition of intermarriage and it’s hard to say what domino effects could be felt in the horse world when and if power shifts in any of these countries.

[VIDEOSINGLE type=”youtube” keyid=”PiaVY-V-tPc”, width=”560″, height=”344″]

So far, the United Arab Emirates seems relatively calm, but the royal family there is certainly acutely aware of how threatened other monarchies are in the region and throughout the Middle East. Not only their stability, but the stability of international equestrian competition and racing, may hang in the balance.

When you look at it that way, the news gets personal. And if you squint at that CNN news footage, you’ll be able to see horses in the background.




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