Polo has arrived in Saudi Arabia – with the Kingdom already making history by hosting the world’s first ever desert tournament
The galloping stallions are unparalleled in their magnificent movement and the backdrop of the ancient Unesco World Heritage Site of AlUla, with its breathtaking rock formations, makes the scene even more extraordinary. Both the polo players and their steeds appear at home in this unique arena, in the heart of the desert. It’s hard to believe this event is the first time polo has been played in Saudi Arabia, especially with the Kingdom’s rich equine history. King Abdulaziz and the sovereigns before him rode horses into battle and the country has bred some of the world’s best racehorses, culminating in the inaugural Saudi Cup race this February – the richest race in history due to the US $20 million prize.
Part of the Winter at Tantora culture and sports festival in AlUla, which ran until March, the inaugural polo event was organized by the Royal Commission for AlUla in partnership with the Saudi Polo Federation. It’s the first time competitive polo has been played in a desert, a concept inspired by the prestigious and original snow polo tournament in St Moritz, Switzerland. The three-day Desert Polo competition attracted some of the finest players from across the globe, all of whom were mesmerized by the beauty of their latest match setting.
“What a venue. I’m not sure polo has been played in such a spectacular place,” says the Marquess of Blandford, George Spencer-Churchill, who was part of the winning team. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s amazing to be one of the first people allowed in this area; it’s only just opened for tourists. To play polo here is an honor.” The model and ambassador for La Martina adds, “I have a feeling that polo in Saudi Arabia will be big and this is just a taste of things to come.”
The event welcomed Argentinian legend Pablo Mac Donough, considered to be the greatest polo player in the world. “It’s privilege for us to be among the first people to be part of this tournament,” he says. “We have an amazing space here in AlUla, the experience has been great. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia becomes one of the places in the world that can host new tournaments and maybe even a season here – there’s a lot of potential.”
It’s a sentiment the man behind the tournament agrees with. “The highlight of AlUla Desert Polo is the power that sport has to instigate positive change in society,” explains Amr F Zedan, chairman of the Saudi Polo Federation. “Polo has not only brought the world’s best players and a large crowd of spectators to AlUla, it will also serve as a way to inspire young people in the country to start asking questions about the sport.”
The Saudi Polo Federation, which was formed in 2018, is working on moving the sport forward, putting in place a number of initiatives, including international best practice collaborations, development of new facilities across Saudi Arabia, and the formation of training camps for Saudi nationals. “We have also recently formed a strategic alliance with the Saudi Equestrian Federation,” explains Zedan, a keen horse rider who fell in love with polo after trying it for the first time in Dubai 20 years ago. Zedan hopes the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative will help produce the next generation of Saudi polo players.
“The effects of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has allowed our leadership to make great strides in many athletic areas, including polo,” he says. “We know that many young Saudis love horses and we want to give them a chance to become involved in what is an exciting and rewarding sport. We want to tap into the undiscovered sporting talent that we know exists among young Saudi men and women and encourage greater levels of participation in our sport.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Photography: RAYAN NAWAWI
Style: MOHAMMAD HAZEM REZQ