Sheikh Mohammed: Thoroughbred under pressure after Godolphin scandal

Horseracing’s greatest benefactor is at the centre of a drug scandal. The future of the sport – and his reputation – are at stake

When the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, flies into Newmarket for the Guineas races each May, he doesn’t bring just one plane. The man who has more wealth than he could possibly spend also, so the story goes, has Boeing 747s flying in provisions and luxuries from home. Visitors to his vast, redbrick Warren Towers – “the ugliest house in Newmarket”, or “the Maktoumerie”, as locals variously describe it – say these include such delicacies as camel burgers and camel milk.

The Sheikh’s global Godolphin empire has horses racing all around the world, from stables in the UK, Dubai, America and Australia. However, as he sits in his Dubai palace atop the biggest scandal in racing’s history, it is not yet clear if even the charms of Dawn Approach – this year’s 2000 Guineas favourite, in which he has a half-stake – will prompt him to make the annual pilgrimage. To outsiders, it is perhaps hard to understand why the exclusive world of racing is so utterly transfixed by events that have taken place at his yard in Newmarket, where a trainer has admitted to doping no fewer than 15 top racehorses.

But the reason is simple. Money. This sheikh, said to be worth more than $4bn by Forbes magazine, is single-handedly responsible for keeping British horseracing alive. One industry observer likens Godolphin to the megabanks bailed out by taxpayers to prevent the collapse of the global financial system: “too big to fail”. The Economist calculated two years ago that “Sheikh Moh”, as he’s known by employees, has pumped more than £10bn into the industry over two decades. And, while he sees victories in the top British flat races as his ultimate goal, his reach stretches far beyond the UK. “Panic sets in among the vendors if his plane isn’t spotted at the airport in Kentucky before the annual auctions,” says one racing journalist. “His spending is absurd. He has been driven mad by the equine,” says another. “It’s the biggest sporting folly since the building of the Coliseum.”

Others see him as more visionary than fool, particularly with regards to his transformation of Dubai from small desert town into skyscraper-studded international playground and financial centre. Mohammed’s father, Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, impressed on him and his brother, whom he succeeded to the throne in 2006, that, unlike its fellow emirates, Dubai’s oil was reducing to a trickle. It desperately needed to diversify away from the black gold that had sustained it for decades. Friends say the brothers revered their father, a more contemplative character. With their huge stockpiles of cash from past oil riches, they started building a modern city to attract the West. Finance, tourism and trade were its three targets.

They established property and finance companies to build their city in the sand, and went on a global corporate buying spree. Mohammed snapped up British ports operator P&O Ports, and took a stake in the leisure company behind Madame Tussauds and Legoland. He even launched an abortive bid for Liverpool FC. While such deals may look like the bauble collecting of a feckless billionaire, there was method at work. The P&O deal made sense for a place whose own rapidly growing port was one of the busiest in the world (even with Western sanctions against its main customer, Iran). And Mohammed always saw leisure, particularly sport, as the key to keep bringing Westerners to his sunny city. In his eyes, his Godolphin stable may have been costing him billions, but it was cementing the brand of Dubai as a place of dynamism and success.

But did the business plan require so much to be spent on his passion for the turf? Of course not. This was an obsession, sparked in childhood. The third of four sons, he quickly developed the Arab prince’s traditional passion for horses, riding long-distance races in the desert from a young age. An intensely physical man, he still rides regularly across the sands. He was educated in Dubai, polishing off at an exclusive English language school and Sandhurst. While there, he developed a reputation for bending the rules. Sir Charles Wiggin, a fellow pupil, fondly recalled in a BBC radio documentary how “he always sailed close to the line. He had a car, which we weren’t supposed to, and always wanted to drive us all up to London in it. He was permanently getting it taken off him, but [even when it was confiscated], somehow, a car would still always arrive to ferry us up to London for the night, and back home in time for the morning. He was that kind of character.”

Pushing the rules is a near-universal trait among entrepreneurs, and has won him admirers. Andrew Monk, a City broker who works across the region, says: “How can you knock the guy? He’s a visionary. Like a Richard Branson of the Middle East. He took a village in the desert and turned it into this crazy, amazing city.” With its man-made pleasure islands, soaring towers and glittering shopping malls, you can scoff at Dubai’s phoneyness while still being impressed by the transformation.

Brough Scott, the jockey-turned commentator who set up the Racing Post with the Sheikh’s backing, says: “I remember being out there with him in the late ‘80s. He points out and says: ‘I’m going to build a golf course over there.’ I look and say: ‘But it’s just sand’. He says: ‘No problem: we’re going to pour water on it.’ Sure enough, the next time I went, there was a lush, green golf course.”

The path was not always smooth. The property boom the Sheikh created had an inevitable by-product – an unsustainable price bubble and terrifyingly vast debts. It came to a head when the global economy juddered to a halt in 2008, causing many of Dubai’s – for which read Sheikh Mohammed’s  – state-sponsored businesses to almost collapse. At the time, Durham University’s Professor Chris Davidson described the crisis as: “The best evidence available of the ruler’s ego, his lack of grasp on reality and the real need for sustainable economic development.”

But unlike your average entrepreneur, he was able to call on his fellow clan leaders in Abu Dhabi, where the oil still flows freely, to plead for a bailout. The Khalifa family kept him waiting, but finally, fearing humiliation for the whole of the UAE if Dubai went bust, a monster $10bn loan was made to save Dubai World – the Sheikh’s main investment company – from bankruptcy. Billions of dollars more in loan guarantees were provided to keep the city-state afloat.

In return, Sheikh Mohammed humbled himself by allowing the much vaunted Burj Dubai tower – still the highest building in the world today – to be rechristened on its inauguration as the Burj Khalifa, sticking the Abu Dhabi family’s name on a building towering 828m above his glittering playground. Humiliating, perhaps, but also a testimony to his willingness to compromise to get the job done. Employees at his Godolphin stables testify to similar flexibility. He allows them to argue freely with him about his plans, and he does listen – although he often chooses to ignore their advice.

Western critics nodded knowingly at the Dubai upstart’s comeuppance during the financial crisis. But, as Monk points out,“Yes, he makes mistakes, but look what happened with the debt situation in the UK, Europe and the US. We’ve hardly got it all right ourselves. And when Mohammed messes up, he dusts himself down and starts again. Look at Dubai now, it’s booming.” It certainly is. Properties on the Palm-shaped islands have mostly been snapped up. Cranes tower wherever you look as ever more buildings scrape the sky. The hotels are full – helped by an icy European spring. The Dubai stockmarket only this week hit a three-and-a-half year high.

And what of his physical presence? Brough Scott says: “He’s only about 5ft 8ins but he has the charisma of a ruler about him. He is always surrounded by people but it is he who leads, makes the decisions.” He adds: “He gets you in really close, almost so he can smell you, and says: ‘Get the best. Be the best. The pursuit of excellence.’” Others are less flattering, describing how he drives his staff too hard, with regular demands at unnecessarily unsocial hours. Says one: “We’ve all been at industry dinners and functions when, at 11 o’clock at night, a Godolphin person’s mobile will ring and they all have to disappear off. Ridiculous.”

“He can have dark moods,” says a former employee. “But then, he can afford to.” With his neatly clipped beard and hint of a sneer about his mouth, he appears fearsome.  Peter McKay, the journalist, once described him cuttingly as a man “not as nice as he looks”. It was notable how few in the industry were prepared to go on the record for this article. “Just not worth the candle,” says one. Ruthlessness is, of course, the flipside of ambition. Witness the Sheikh’s deafness for decades to complaints about the slave-like working conditions for much of the immigrant workforce who built Dubai’s glittering towers.

He said he was appalled and angered when tests by the British Horseracing Authority showed the presence of anabolic steroids. For Godolphin stable staff, expect a quick clearout of trainers and other personnel as he deals with this crisis. Behind the high walls of Fortress Godolphin, it is already happening. Speaking via a racing industry friend last night, an employee at its base in France says: “I can assure you that the actions taking place right now are both severe and at the personal command of Sheikh Moh.”

If the sport is to survive its Lance Armstrong moment, the Sheikh must not put a foot wrong in this clean-up. Public trust in races has been shaken to the core. He always wanted to use horses to make himself, and Dubai, the centre of attention. Now, more than ever before, the world is watching.

A Life In Brief

Born: Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 15th July, 1949, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Family: He is the third of Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum’s four sons. Married his senior wife, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, in 1979. His junior wife is Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein. He has 23 acknowledged children: nine sons, 14 daughters.

Education: Attended schools in Dubai, Sandhurst and the LSE.

Career: After becoming Crown Prince in 1995, Sheikh Mohammed oversaw the development of ambitious projects such as Palm Islands, the Dubai World Cup and the construction of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa. He became Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and constitutional monarch of Dubai, in January 2006 after the death of his elder brother. He owns the Darley Stud thoroughbred breeding operation and the Godolphin Stables.

He says: “My mother, may her soul rest in peace, shaped my personality; thanks to her, I have acquired many values, good traits and skills.”

They say: “A man with a vision in a city of the future” – William Hague

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