The Monday Interview: Sheikh Mohammed: A night at the track with horseracing's Mr Big

The most powerful man in the sport of kings may be about to pull out of Britain. John Roberts rode into the Dubai desert to have his card marked by Sheikh Mohammed
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A SHAMAL (a northerly wind threatening rain) is gusting at the Nad Al Sheba track. Nine sofas line the front row of the Royal Box and four large television sets are placed before the Maktoum family.

The guests at this night at the races rise for the arrival of HH General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Minister of Defence, United Arab Emirates, crack shot, weapons expert, first-class flier, sportsman, poet and all-round motivator.

We are introduced in the winners' enclosure and it is noticeable that Sheikh Mohammed's rather stern countenance softens during conversation, at least when he warms to a topic.

Last year, when a deluge washed out the $4m Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race, Sheikh Mohammed was knee deep in mud, inspecting the course. He persuaded all but one of the owners and trainers to remain in Dubai, all expenses paid, from Saturday until the race went ahead the following Thursday.

"When I want to do things, I want to do them 100 per cent," he says. "It is necessary to do things by example. People are happy here. Look at the faces."

He remembers a time, not long ago, when the now burgeoning Dubai landscape was practically devoid of buildings. "I used to ride where the buildings are now," he said. "It was a desert."

To illustrate the point, Anita Mehra Homayoun, director of marketing and media relations for Dubai Department of Civil Aviation, produces a 1983 photograph of modest stables at Zabeel, which has developed into a lavish establishment.

The Sheikh recounts the drama of an occasion, in the early 1970s, when Anita first rode a horse, at Zabeel Palace. "She dug her heels in, and it ran. She lost the reins and was clinging to the horse's neck. I promise you that when my horse was catching up, Anita was falling."

"He grabbed me and saved me," Anita confirms.

Like in the movies? The Sheikh laughs.

"Yes," Anita says, "Rudolph Valentino to the rescue!"

Casting his mind back 20 years, the Sheikh recalls his first racing venture in England. "I bought three horses, and I was saying to myself, `This is for the Guineas, that's for the Derby, and this is for the Oaks'."

While falling short of such lofty ambitions, all three were winners, "but Hatta [a filly bought for 6,200 guineas] was a special one, because she won a Group II race."

The four Maktoum brothers - Maktoum Al Maktoum, Hamdan, Mohammed and Ahmed - today have more than 1,000 horses in training, a large proportion in Britain, for the moment.

There has been more than a stir of activity since Sheikh Mohammed, a Sandhurst graduate, declared, last December, that the family would withdraw its horses from Britain unless there were "positive signs of progress" with regard to prize money and funding. Tristram Ricketts, the chief executive of the British Horseracing Board, and other leading members of Britain's racing authority travelled to Dubai in an attempt to resolve the situation. Horse racing is rated the sixth-biggest industry in Britain, and Sheikh Mohammed is the richest owner.

Had he been appeased? "If you are here for the World Cup next month, I will tell you," he says. "My reason for not talking about it is that I said what I said, now it's up to them.

"By the time of the World Cup I will have something to say, because whatever I say I have to stand by. I am not just a man who says things without thinking. I mean good for racing in England. I love racing in England. We want new owners."

We are interrupted by a Frenchwoman. "Excuse me, your highness," she says, "is it possible to take a photograph of me and you?"

"Yes, but with other people," the Sheikh stipulates.

The conversation turns to Lammtarra, the Maktoum family's Derby winner. Sheikh Mohammed is yet to see his own colours triumph in the Epsom classic. "I tell you," he says, "the winning of the Derby by Lammtarra gave me double the pleasure of winning it myself. Lammtarra was here in Dubai, and he was here sick, and to do what he did, nobody could believe, because everything has to come right for a horse to win the Derby, and we were worried here if he's dying or not dying. When he pulled through the way he did I knew he would have the strength and the heart to win the Derby."

Of the horses in training, which inspire the highest hopes for success this year? "I'll tell you, we'll do better than last year," he says, laughing. "And that's a promise. We can't do worse than last year."

And is the long-term forecast promising for the World Cup on 28 March? "We will be better prepared," the Sheikh says. "The track is better now.

"We will talk about today. I want Dubai to be a place where everybody from all over the world meets each other, don't think of fighting or hate, just love it, enjoy their sport, and that's it."

Converting a desert into an international centre for trade, tourism, sport and entertainment has allayed fears for a future, some 25 years hence, when there will be no oil to sell. "Many oil countries live entirely on their oil, but less than 25 per cent of our economy is from oil," the Sheikh says.

"My eldest brother [Sheikh Maktoum, the Emir] told me, `When you meet a person, you like him, or you dislike him, from the face. The airport is our face, so concentrate on that, always remember that'. Now we are working on something with the people who work at the airport, with the taxi drivers and with the people who work at the hotels. We are lecturing them to be welcoming, friendly and helpful to all our visitors."

He is keen to expedite visitors' progress through the arrival terminal with regard to documentation and the time taken to be reunited with luggage.

Incentive schemes are in operation at all levels of trade, business and services, not excluding government departments. "And I told them, `the last one, they will be in trouble'." The Sheikh chuckles.

Born to untold wealth, the 48-year-old Crown Prince could afford a life of leisure, but is not inclined to recline. "In the last 11 of 20 years in England I was champion owner. I could have stayed like that. Why, then, did I build up Godolphin [Dubai's winter training establishment]? Because trainers, you have to dig and talk to them, and talk to them, but I was here.

"What I think is that a man who is idle should be out of a job. People who are working for you should be enthusiastic and bring something new, something to convince me to say, `Yes'. I will come to him with two or three ideas.

"For example, when I said, `Dubai for tourists', the reaction was, `What do you have? You don't have anything, you have only sand and water, and it is very hot'. I said, `No, I'll do it'. There is no limit for a man who wants to do it.

"We have an example in Arabic. We say there are two ways. You either do something yourself, you create something, or you follow somebody. If you want to follow anybody, you have to wait for them to get in front of you to follow them. I want to be a winner, so I want to create. I cannot lie back and be idle, because I want everybody to work as hard as I do. How can I ask people to do things I'm not doing?

"For example, every day during Ramadan I brought the government ministers in for serious meetings to improve things, 21 times during one month of Ramadan. Once they finished what they were doing and came to me, I knew more about their office than they did. My theory is work hard, do the best you can, or get out.

"My people, they come to me on committees, and everybody says what he thinks. And then I say, `That's what you're going to do. Even if you don't like it, you're going to have to do it the way I say."

The ever changing skyline is a testimony to his drive and initiative. "Now, we go to Egypt, Jordan, countries that were ahead of us, to show them how to run their expositions, their seaport, their duty free zone. I'm very proud of that.

"My theory on life is that life is beautiful. Life doesn't change. You have a day, and a night, and a month, and a year. We people change - we can be miserable or we can be happy. It's what you make of your life."

Of all he has achieved, what gives him most pleasure? "When I see people happy, working and happy and doing well." (As he spoke, Sunbeam Dance, one of the Godolphin horses, was in the process of winning the concluding race for Sheikh Maktoum).

"And it gives me pleasure when people call me `My Friend'. They were perhaps at my school and I am now the Crown Prince and the Minister, but I never think of that. `How many advisers do you have?' they ask. They think I have 20 Americans, 11 British and two or three French or something."

Although much travelled, he adores his home environment. "I love Dubai, especially when I go in the desert sometimes. Perhaps two of us will ride out, and I will go a different way, seeing the desert like a map - a snake passed here, a rabbit ran here, a fox there - and my companion probably thinks I have got lost."

Another therapy is to spend nights alone in the desert, making a hollow in the sand for his blanket and sleeping beneath the stars. "I used to sleep in the desert once every week, now it is every two weeks, most of the time alone. It's beautiful. What I enjoy is taking my food and cooking for myself. I go, for example, by four o'clock, take the desert road, stay in a place, make a fire, cook for myself, maybe follow some animals with a torch, go back, sleep, and get up very early. It is good for your heart, and for your ears."