Saudi Arabia to build on equestrian legacy after world’s only desert polo tournament

After the roaring success of two polo tournaments this year, Saudi Arabia is looking for other ways to solidify the presence of equestrian events in the kingdom.

The second edition of Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo — the only modern polo tournament in the world to be staged in a desert environment — took place on February 11 at AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site. It formed part of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s commitment to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s cultural relationship with art and its horsemanship heritage.

Twelve players from four teams faced off over the two-day event, a mixture of professionals and invitees.

There is a long-standing connection between equine culture and AlUla’s heritage, the Director of Special Initiatives at the Royal Commission for AlUla, AbdulRahman Alsuwaidan tells The National. The commission is working on “connecting and preserving” this legacy.

Last month, AlUla hosted two major equestrian events — The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup 2022 and the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo. Mr Alsuwaidan said these world class events are part of a larger, long-term commitment to develop the equestrian sector to the highest global standards with the view to making AlUla an international destination for equestrian sport and tourism.

Polo is a new sport in the kingdom, but the kingdom has experience of bringing in big international sporting events, such as F1, boxing, football games, among other events. Known as the “sport of kings” the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo invited 18-year-old Saudi Prince Salman bin Mansour Al Saud to participate at the event. The award winning “Polo Prince” won the Most Promising Talent award. “Our aim is to create a sustainable economic sector covering three main pillars which are develop human capabilities and partner with key organisations and industry players, introducing and applying the best policies and standards for equine facilities and activities and developing priority equine facilities and infrastructure,” he said.

In line with this ambition, he said, the kingdom hopes to host the FEI Endurance World Championships.

“With that, there would be a great opportunity across many areas for the local economy in AlUla. It’s a new era for sport in the kingdom, and to stage such an event would require a stellar infrastructure.

“That is why a lot of our core objectives at present are focused on best practice in terms of animal welfare and all-round competition organisation. With our infrastructure, the sports and leisure experiences for horse lovers, we are focusing on delivering opportunities to the local communities, creating skilled jobs for people which no doubt will be at the centre of developing AlUla as a must-visit destination.”

Saudi Arabia's Prince Salman Bin Mansour was among the competitors in the AlUla Desert Polo event, the only modern polo tournament to be staged in a desert environment. All photos AFP
Four teams took part in the event in Saudi Arabia's north-western city of AlUla.
Prince Salman Bin Mansour, left, and Saudi scientist Hosam Zawawi on their horses.
Hosam Zawawi competes in the tournament, which was returning after a two-year coronavirus hiatus.
A chukka takes place against the spectacular mountain backdrop of AlUla.
Spectators enjoy the action at the Unesco world heritage site.
There were four matches in the specially designed arena.
Members of the AlUla polo team celebrate their victory in the tournament.
French entrepreneur Jean-Francois Decaux was among the invited competitors.
Uruguayan player David Stirling Jr prepares to take part in a match.
Jean-Francois Decaux, right, in the thick of the action.
Teams competing in the arena specially built for the event.
David Stirling on his mount ready for a match in the desert of AlUla.
A team talk for Prince Salman Bin Mansour, left, and Hosam Zawawi.

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman Bin Mansour was among the competitors in the AlUla Desert Polo event, the only modern polo tournament to be staged in a desert environment. All photos AFP 

The equestrian sector is a key pillar of the RCU’s longer-term strategy, highlighting the monumental beauty of AlUla as a place that is unique in the Arabian Peninsula.

He said polo has undergone a major transformation globally as participation among women in polo has increased and “women have taken on more active and prominent positions in the sport”.

“There is so much talent in the kingdom, and our aim is to increase participation and inspire the next generation of athletes,” he added.

The Saudi Polo Federation intends to continue to work to increase the profile and interest in desert polo and in the AlUla Desert Polo event, he said.

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