Skip to content Skip to Search
Skip navigation

Saudi Arabia should saddle up for soft power of horses

There is a strong rationale for the kingdom to take equestrian pursuits seriously

Contestants at the World Arabian Horse Championship Noushad Thekkayil via Reuters Connect
Contestants at the World Arabian Horse Championship. The Gulf has a longstanding passion for equestrian sports

In Saudi Arabia and the wider the Arabian Peninsula, few things generate more passion and enthusiasm than horses. 

In Riyadh they are gearing up for the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, on February 23 and 24, and the UAE has the Dubai World Cup at the end of March. 

The races in Riyadh and Dubai may have the mega prize money, but for the moment Jeddah on the kingdom’s Red Sea coast is the centre of attention as the city hosts the International Show Jumping Tour.

The Arab ponies and horses of the region have a natural grace, speed and athleticism well suited to jumping. 

If you head to one of Jeddah’s numerous riding schools or clubs – Al Jazeera, Mohra, Tijan or Horse School Academy – you will see riders of all ages, some of them very young indeed, cantering over enormous fences with death defying bravura.

One club stands out, however. Trio Sporting is tucked away to the east of Jeddah’s airport, in the Burayman suburb.

Trio was set up by the formidable Arwa Mutabagani in 1990, emulating the clubs she had ridden at in Europe.

Arwa is a legend in Saudi equestrian circles. Trio was Saudi Arabia’s first club to be established by a woman, and Arwa’s daughter Dalma Malhas was the first Saudi female to win a medal at the Youth Olympics.  

Saudi Arabia has won only four Olympic medals but two of them came in show jumping

For three weeks, 150 of the world’s top riders and 200 horses have been competing at Trio in 48 classes, in three weekly stages, under the supervision of an international team of judges overseen by the International Equestrian Federation.

Riders will compete for a prize pot of SAR1 million, as well as for trophies presented by Saudi ministries including the National Guard, Education and Interior, in front of an expected 15,000 people.

With the Paris Olympics coming up in the summer, the kingdom is hoping to build on previous successes. Over the years Saudi Arabia has won only four Olympic medals but two of them came in show jumping.  

This is the result of patient investment in riders and hard work, in a highly competitive discipline, in which Olympic-level horses can cost millions of dollars. 

UK newspapers reported back in 2009 that the kingdom was investing $500 million in building up a national show jumping team prior to London 2012. This time around, the word is that Saudi Arabia has again invested heavily in top, winning horses ahead of the Paris games.

It is not just show jumping. Polo was removed as an Olympic sport back in 1936, allegedly as a result of declining popularity, but the sport is flourishing in Saudi Arabia.  

Last month, up the road in AlUla, a particularly smart international set gathered at the Al Fursan Equestrian Village to watch eight international teams play four days of thrilling desert polo in the shadow of Elephant Rock.  

Aside from the equestrian events, the kingdom has been investing heavily in sport at home and abroad.

International soccer stars have been lured to Saudi Arabia to kickstart the domestic league while golf, motor racing, boxing, mixed martial arts and even snooker are also being enthusiastically promoted.

There is, however, a strong rationale for Saudi Arabia to take polo seriously, as well as show jumping and other equestrian pursuits.  

These are noble and ancient activities, combining athleticism, strategy, and teamwork.

The camaraderie of competition and the opportunity for young riders to progress to international standards are neatly aligned with the ambitions of Vision 2030 to build bridges with the world and develop young talents. And these are disciplines where investment can pay off.

For the moment, horses are still closest to the hearts of the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia.

In the words of the chairman of the Saudi Polo Federation, speaking at the AlUla semi-finals, surrounded by some of the world’s top polo players and celebrities: “Equestrianism is a passport to the world, and polo is the diplomatic passport.” 

Justin Doherty is chairman of Hemington Consulting and has advised companies, governments and charities on influence campaigns and reputation risk management

Latest articles

B8KRCP The Bank of England underground Gold Vaults in London Stacks of Gold Bars are taken into storage Gold bars are taken into storage at the Bank of England;central banks around the world are increasing reserves

UAE increases gold reserves with growth set to continue

The UAE’s gold reserves reached almost AED20 billion ($5.5 billion) at the end of March, rising 12.6 percent year on year, with expectations that the growth will continue into the rest of the year. The Central Bank of the UAE (CBUAE) said the Gulf state’s reserves of the precious metal have risen considerably over the […]

Construction workers in Manama. 'There is plenty of office space in Bahrain and the occupancy rates even in the better buildings are not that high,' says one real estate expert

Extra supply casts big shadow over Bahrain’s real estate sector

The completion of a raft of developments in Bahrain has dampened hopes for strong growth in its real estate sector this year.  A flurry of activity at the end of 2023 led some analysts to predict stronger growth this year, after a period of low-single-digit increases or dips in prices, rents and deals. In 2023, […]

Shell Aramco LNG

Shell beats Aramco in race to buy LNG business

Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has lost out to UK rival Shell in its bid to buy Pavilion Energy, a Singapore trader of liquefied natural gas (LNG), from Temasek, the Asian island nation’s sovereign investment fund. Both companies were shortlisted for a potential acquisition worth billions of dollars. No financial details of Shell’s […]

The UAE, which is keen to embrace new technologies, ranked second for employment and third for international trade World Competitiveness Ranking

Saudi Arabia and UAE up in World Competitiveness Ranking

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have improved their rankings in the annual IMD World Competitiveness Ranking this year, as both Gulf states embrace artificial intelligence (AI) to make their economies more productive. The list, which is compiled by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland, saw the UAE rise three places to seventh, […]