28 Mar 2010

Behind the Façade

She was a jumping rider. Now she is President of the Fédération Equestre Internationale. Haya Al-Hussein is also the wife of the Ruler of Dubai. A closer look at the Princess from the Orient. By Peter Jegen

All the doors open wide. Nada Lotfy has telephoned and the fairytale begins. The young lady leads you past muscular bodyguards, up escalators, across polished marble floors and over colourful carpets, along walls richly decorated with precious wood and sparkling lights. When the last door opens, you enter the space reserved for the Ruler of Dubai in the vast stadium building on the horserace track in Meydan. It bears the inscription “New Approach”. That was the name of the 2008 English Derby winner. An altogether apt designation. Here, shortly before the 15th Dubai World Cup, the race endowed with the highest prize money in the horseracing world, we recently met Haya Al-Hussein. She is the President of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). Last year, she had given detailed answers to our topical questions at the CHIO in Aachen. On that occasion, the interview had been organised on short notice. This time, it was a longer process. In Dubai, the Princess of Jordan is first and foremost the wife of the Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. That is why she is surrounded by people like Nada Lotfy from the personal staff of His Royal Highness. Haya, a former sportswoman, FEI President, UN Messenger of Peace, Founder of the Tkiyet Um Ali Charitable Organisation and Member of the Board of the Right to Play humanitarian organisation, is in fact quite accessible.

Focus on Her Daughter

“I promised my daughter I would watch the fireworks with her before the World Cup”, the Princess says looking at two year old Sheika Al Jalila, who is playing on the sofa next to her. She is wearing a dress of the same turquoise colour as her mother. That already answers our first question. Where does a lady like Princess Haya, who has travelled the world and knows many countries, actually feel at home? “Where my daughter is and where I have my family and friends,” she says without beating about the bush. It makes no difference to her whether she is in an Arab or a Western country. She feels deep within herself where her roots lie and that is where she is at home.

Haya Al-Hussein is therefore not inclined to compare different cultures, although she has often been asked to do so in the past. She does not seem to take to such questions. “A human being is made up of personal experiences with family, in school, sport and politics. In others words, I can only be the same person wherever I happen to be,” she says and recalls with visible pride her late father. She says that she learnt this confidence in herself from him at an early date.

But this is not Haya’s only answer to the frequently voiced criticism that her leadership of the FEI is shaped too much by her husband’s own ideas. She prefers to point out that the FEI has been headed up by aristocrats for decades. “My goal is to ensure that any capable person can one day take over from me.” This, she says is the underlying reason for the far-reaching restructuring operations of the recent past. They were essential to transform the FEI into a sports federation which does justice to the requirements of modern marketing. But the new processes and structures still need to be placed on a systematic basis and she sees this as an important goal for the current year.

But Haya is not just the President when she gives us these answers. She looks repeatedly across at her daughter and watches what she is doing; she takes little Jalila on her lap when the infant seems to be getting too impatient. A mother’s duties take priority and the mother and the Princess also come to the fore when she talks about the importance of sport for Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. “The fact that so much money, glitter and pomp are staged with the World Cup Premier in Meydan is just a façade,” the Princess says. Unfortunately, the public often do not see behind that façade. She says that her husband is pursuing far deeper and more important goals behind all this.

According to the Princess, a higher proportion of children suffer from diabetes and heart conditions in the United Arab Emirates than anywhere else in the world. “That is a result of the rapid change of lifestyles,” Haya concludes and describes sports as an effective means of tackling this social problem. Magnificent events are intended to attract children away from their television sets to sports. She hopes they will become fascinated enough by such events to take up a sporting activity for themselves. That is comparable with an experience which the Princess herself had in her early years.

In 1980, she watched the Olympic Games in Moscow on the television and listened to the political discourse which accompanied the event in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “That is when I decided that I would one day compete in the Olympic Games myself.” Originally, she hoped to do so in a gymnastics event because she was an enthusiastic ballet dancer. But there were no suitable training facilities in Jordan and her father sent her to train in dressage riding although athletes had little status in high Arabian society, as Haya confesses. But her father too had recognised the importance of sport as a way of helping generations traumatised by war in the Middle East. That is why he always actively supported her project.

Roots in jumping

Finally, it was only a small step for Princess Haya from dressage to the jumping saddle and in 2002 her long-cherished dream became reality. In Sydney, she took part in the Olympic Games as a jumping rider; admittedly her success was only modest but it is no wonder that her heart still beats loudly for this hippic discipline. She makes no attempt to hide the fact: “As the FEI President I believe I can be allowed that bias,” she comments with a smile. This must surely be a cause dear to her heart. Because even such a successful racehorse as “New Approach” has not been able to change it. Alongside the Derby, which is one of the most important races for every racehorse owner, that stallion won other major prizes in 2008 and even outdistanced powerful gallopers owned by Sheikh Mohammed. But Haya Al-Hussein still prefers her jumping horses.

Finally, we wanted to know whether she would be staying with the FEI and putting her name forward for another term of office at the end of this year. Haya said nothing. The fireworks began and the interview was over.

Photo top right - Between Arabian Nights and big business: Princess Haya in Dubai

Royal leadership

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” are the words spoken by King Richard III in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. And the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) is itself a federation for royal families. Before Haya bint al-Hussein who is now 34 years old, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, took over the FEI Presidency in 2006, Doña Pilar (sister of the King of Spain), Princess Anne (daughter of the Queen), the Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen’s husband) and Bernard (husband of the Queen of the Netherlands) had all headed up the Federation. Since 2004, Princess Haya has been married to Sheikh Mohammed, the 61 year old Ruler of Dubai.

Meydan the horserace track

A stage for Arabian tradition

The world’s biggest horserace course was officially inaugurated on Saturday in Dubai. That was no accident. For Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this is just the continuation of a tradition.

The Arab word Meydan means something like “a meeting place for contests” and equestrian contests are an integral part of Arabian culture. The race of English thoroughbreds, gallopers bred specifically for speed, can be traced back to three Arabian ancestors. English mares were covered by the Godolphin Arabian, Darley Arabian and Beyerly Turk stallions which had found their way to the island in the early 18th century.

Since then, the pedigree of every thoroughbred must be traceable back to one of these three stallions; that is why the English word thoroughbred and the French designation pur sang (pure blood) are more accurate than the German expression Vollblut (full blood).

Horse-mad Sheikh Mohammed built on these traditional equestrian ties when he organised the first Dubai World Cup in 1996. His Emirate was to become a meeting place for international turf. Thanks to high prize money, the venture proved an immediate success and the Nad al-Sheba racecourse was soon bursting at the seams. That is why it was replaced in just three years by the Meydan with a 1.6 kilometer ten storey high stand, giving room for 80,000 persons, a hotel and a cinema. The grass course is 2400 metres long and the sand track 1750 metres. Here, however, a break with tradition occurred. This track is no longer made of sand but covered instead with the plastic Tapeta mix.

Photo bottom left - Stand for 80,000 spectators. Meydan is a racecourse of superlatives