Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

Day of shame for Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum, the ruler of the Kingdom of Dubai and current Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, could have had fewer more embarrassing and troubling days than on Monday of this week.

When the shock news broke that his revered Godolphin racing stables in Newmarket, England, had been exposed by investigators as having run a significant proportion of its blue-blooded horses on prohibited anabolic steroids, the shock waves quickly reverberated far beyond the lush pastures and palatial stable blocks of the historic town close to Cambridge, quickly reaching Sheikh Mohammed’s desert HQ.

Mohammed – whose second wife is Princess Haya of Jordan, daughter of the late King Hussein – is best known to many for creating the tourist paradise that is modern Dubai. In the sporting world he is also acknowledged as having made thoroughbred horse racing a top priority, investing literally billions of dollars in acquiring some of the best horses on the planet and establishing a bloodstock empire that spreads across the globe, including breeding and training centres in the US, England, Dubai, and Australia.

The absolute ruler is fiercely competitive and for him nothing but the very best will do. His Nad Al Sheeba race track was considered as good as it gets, but it wasn’t good enough for him, and so – despite the downward spiral of his nation’s finances during the recent economic crisis – he invested more than $2 billion in a brand new breathtaking track at Meydan, the new home for the recently staged Dubai World Cup.

The great and the good of the racing world along with many of the world’s most glamorous people and international jetsetters, were there to see an exceptional evening’s racing in which the main event carried prize money of $10 million. The Sheikh’s horses came nowhere as the prize was carried off by America’s Animal Kingdom.

For the record, who did Sheikh Mohammed choose to seat next to him in pride of place throughout proceedings? Well, none other than the distinctly dubious Chechen Islamist leader, Raslan Kazyrov.

The pressure for Mohammed’s two private racehorse trainers – Saeed bin Suroor and Mahmood al Zarooni – to come up with top-flight winners must be immense. In recent seasons many in the know have been dismayed at the relative lack of success of the Godolphin horses compared to other leading international owner/breeders such as the Ballydoyle stables of Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien, or the international Juddmonte Farms operation of Prince Khaled Abdullah.

Whenever Godolphin has enjoyed big winners both his trainers have been quick to credit Sheikh Mohammed with being the guiding hand behind everything they do; which horses run where, riding tactics, jockey bookings etc. They have always been at pains to make it clear that the Sheikh’s hand is the one almost always on the tiller.

Strange then that when Sheikh Mohammed’s horses – to date some 15 out of 43 tested – test positive for illegal substances, (the penalty for which is suspension from the sport for a period of many years and even a lifetime ban), all of a sudden the man who lets no detail escape him and is eternally credited with being the main decision-maker had absolutely no knowledge of what had transpired.

Mahmood al Zarooni, the trainer whose stable is at the centre of the scandal, held his hand up with alarming speed within minutes of the news reaching the press, stating, “I deeply regret what has happened. I have made a catastrophic error.”

(For the record, anyone with even the most scant understanding of the Rules of Racing – never mind an experienced top international trainer – would know that the use at any time of such substances is simply illegal.)

He might well have been caught out, but al Zarooni’s hurried admission of guilt without even attempting to defend himself against charges that will spell the end of his career, (and who knows what punishment back home), could conceivably smack of him being rushed into taking the ‘fall’ for his boss or others above him in the Godolphin pecking order.

This afternoon further news broke that Sheikh Mohammed had ordered the lock down of the Newmarket stables in an apparent damage limitation exercise. His statement released on Godolphin’s website read, “I was appalled and angered to learn that one of our stables in Newmarket has violated Godolphin’s ethical standards and the rules of British racing. I have been involved in British horse racing for 30 years and have deep respect for its traditions and rules. I built my country based on the same solid principles. There can be no excuse for any deliberate violation.”

The “solid principles” on which Sheikh Mohammed suggests Dubai is based are open to much question, the Gulf nation having long been seen as a pivotal point for the alleged laundering of international criminal money, including substantial amounts for repressive Islamist regimes and well known regional terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

There’s no such thing as democracy in Dubai, the country’s treatment of foreign workers was described recently by Human Rights Watch as “less than human”, and Dubaian authorities forcibly clamp down on any political dissent.

The revelations from Newmarket may indeed be down solely to the desperate actions of a racehorse trainer prepared to win at any costs in order to satisfy the appetite for success of his famously pedantic patron, but then again….

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at