- - Monday, March 30, 2015

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — As the world’s richest horse race galloped to a thrilling conclusion over the weekend, event host and UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum rushed from the royal box to the winner’s circle and left behind a swirl of conversation that covered Gen. David Petraeus, the new Chinese elite and the threat of the Islamic State.

This year, the 20th running of the Dubai World Cup more than equaled the red carpet glamour of the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot. The Middle East’s social event of the season, the race attracted 60,000 fans to the world’s premier track as horse racing’s fastest thoroughbreds competed for a total purse of $30 million.

But for this small Gulf nation, which boasts the world’s fourth-largest known oil reserves but is situated in one of the world’s most troubled regions, the World Cup is far more than just a horse race.

Since early 2006, the lively, bespectacled 69-year-old Sheikh Maktoum has officially ruled Dubai and guided the Emirates through the global economic downturn, regional instability and the recent plunge in oil prices. Part of his success has been his popularity, and no event captures that quality more than the Dubai World Cup.

First conceived by the sheikh when he was just a teenager, the event has evolved into Dubai’s premier vehicle for soft-power showcasing, projecting an image as an open, secure and, most of all, progressive city. Its major trade partners and potential military protectors, including the U.S., Britain and China, all take note.

In addition to spreading the country’s name and influence through sport, the race also has a growing reputation as an opportunity for discreet diplomacy in a troubled region. While neither the U.S. Consulate in Dubai nor its British counterpart sent official delegations, diplomats and backroom operators from far and wide attended the weekend extravaganza.

“Sheikh Mohammad has used his love for horse racing as a platform to introduce people,” said Carter Carnegie, a veteran of 12 World Cups who promotes British horse racing. “This event shapes the image of Dubai and brings influential people together. A lot of borders are crossed.”

If a test of soft power is to produce intriguing moments and unexpected cultural cross-pollination, the World Cup constantly satisfies. Two years ago, the sheikh entertained Chechen Republic President Ramzan Kadyrov as former Hollywood bombshell Bo Derek lingered nearby. These days Mr. Kadyrov owns racehorses, and Miss Derek sits on the California Horse Racing Board. They might have simply discussed the race, while perhaps mixing in a little talk on Chechen investment in California.

“People who meet at horse races tend to have more intimate conversations,” said an American diplomat attending the event in an unofficial capacity. When asked to identify himself, he merely winked.

Long time coming

This soft power triumph took years to develop. In the 1960s Dubai was a poverty-ridden settlement of 30,000 on the Arabian Gulf. During that time, the future Shiek Maktoum was a teenager away in England studying.

Young Maktoum soon discovered European horse racing, a sport that also honored his Arabian heritage. During his Bedouin childhood he had learned to read desert sands and often shared breakfast with his horse. In England he quickly became a successful horse owner.

Upon returning to the UAE to be groomed for power, the sheikh held the Emirates’ first thoroughbred race on a dusty camel track in 1981. A basic racecourse soon opened, and he reached out to adventurous horse owners from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Enough of the invitees made the journey for the inaugural World Cup to be run in 1996.

Along the way, Dubai’s policymakers pushed economic diversification. The tiny port transformed itself into the futuristic commercial capital of the Arab world.

At the Meydan Racetrack, that branding of the UAE as a forward-thinking and tolerant outpost in the region was on full display. European crowds wearing wide-brimmed hats, pinstriped tuxedos and revealing dresses drank cocktails among Arabs in flowing white robes. In some parts of the Muslim world, that culture clash is messy and tense, but not here.

Such diversity extends to the horses. Eight American owners have won during the World Cup’s 20-year history. The sheikh and Kentucky’s horse racing masters are old friends, and some serious Kentucky talent actually helps manage the World Cup.

“Sheikh Maktoum is one of the greatest gentlemen I’ve ever met,” said Steven Coburn, the owner of California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who was favored to win his weekend race. Instead, California Chrome lost to Prince Bishop, a 14-1 long shot, after the UAE-owned horse staged a stunning upset.

Asia is also heavily involved. Japanese, Hong Kong and especially mainland Chinese horse racing fans were everywhere talking up the future. A Malaysian-Chinese architect helped design the new Meydan Racecourse, and massive new racing facilities are in development in the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Chengdu.

Side events have also flourished, including what’s now known as British Polo Day Dubai. Founded by Ed Olver, the son of a British diplomat, British Polo Day uses polo to promote English culture and sport around the world. “The horse is an international language,” said Mr. Olver, 33, who also served alongside Princes William and Harry in the British Army’s Household Cavalry.

Mr. Olver knows how to assemble a serious crowd. “Regardless of language, if you understand the horse,” he said, “you have a tremendous bridge between cultures.”

Nearby, a retired British major general discussed the race and then considered broader regional stability. The great-nephew of Land Rover’s founder, the general fought in Iraq alongside Gen. Petraeus. He soon lamented the scandal that ended the American general’s career.

“He was truly, truly a cut above the rest of the crowd and would have made an excellent Republican candidate,” the general said.

The race ended as another military rumor circulated: The female UAE air force pilot who gained fame by leading the first wave of last year’s airstrikes against the Islamic State was reportedly a special guest at the race. Given the Dubai World Cup’s spirit, that sounds about right.

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