Galloping goodwill: The horse racing history of British-Arab relations

Knights returning from military campaigns in the Middle East during the 11th Century brought large numbers of Arabian horses back to Europe

Nabila Ramdani
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Knights returning from military campaigns in the Middle East during the 11th Century brought large numbers of Arabian horses back to Europe. 

The stamina and agility of the oldest human-developed horse breed in the world came to be hugely prized, not least of all by the English nobility including members of the Royal Family.

Such thoughts were high in the mind of British race goers last month, when two Arabian stallions belonging to the Queen were paraded at this year’s Dubai International Arabian Races.


Mlolshaan Mahrous and Tuwaisaan Tha’atha’a – who both took part in Her Majesty’s 90th birthday pageant in May – looked magnificent at Newbury Race Course.

With 24 European runners from five different countries taking part, Newbury was hosting arguably Europe’s most prestigious Arabian horseracing fixture, which returned to the Berkshire town for the 14th time on July 24.

Staged under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance, it was designed to bring horse lovers of all kinds together.

The event was organized by the world-renowned racing stables and stud farms Shadwell Stud, which was set up by Sheikh Hamdan in Norfolk in the 1980s after he was introduced to Thoroughbred flat racing while studying languages at Cambridge.

Beyond the fine racing on offer, Newbury sealed a cultural bond between Britain and the UAE in a manner that was not lost on VIP guests.

Former British Health Minister and Conservative MP Alistair Burt, who was among those enjoying the Sunday afternoon event, told Al Arabiya: “It’s a very important day for the Emirates, and indeed for the Arab community in the United Kingdom.

“The importance of the Arabian strain in horse racing is well-known throughout the world. It has particular resonance in the United Kingdom.”


Praising a “lovely family day,” Burt said: “You see a big crowd here, people love the horses, and it’s another thing which helps build the relationship between the United Kingdom and the UAE.

“I think that’s very important these days. We’ve become very used to associating these relationships with very difficult things, whether it’s conflicts in other parts of the world, whether it’s issues here, whether it’s all based around religion and faith rather than other cultural values that we share.

“Here is a day to recognize that for the British public racing has been part of their background and history for generations.”

Admission to the Arabian Races was free for the 10,000 plus crowd that turned up, and there were plenty of opportunities for all to engage with Arabian horses and culture.

As always, it was a celebration of world-class Arabian racing, and this year Sheikh Hamdan’s horses – Jamaayil, Foaad, Radames and Muraaquib - won four out of eight contests.

There was also other entertainment for everybody, whether they were regular race goers or local school children visiting a course for the first time.


Live falcons were on display, together with Henna artists who offered hand decorating synonymous with Arab traditions.

Some 14 schools from Berkshire and Hampshire also took part in the Arabian Rainbow competition, which has awarded some £80,000 ($104,620) to such educational establishments over the past seven years.

The contest challenged pupils and teachers to paint near life-sized sculptures of Arabian horses with their own design reflecting Anglo-Arabic art.

Many of the youngsters were budding jockeys who were able to use a mechanical horse developed to help riders improve their style.

The competitions also ranged from best dressed lady to best selfie. Prizes included a new Citroen car and five-star holidays to Dubai.

Elizabeth II’s Arabians Mlolshaan Mahrous and Tuwaisaan Tha’atha’a were just as popular as the prizes, however.

His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain personally selected the pair from the Royal Stud of Bahrain before presenting them to the Queen in 2013.

In Newbury, they were paraded by Jenny Lees, who looks after the horses at her Pearl Island Arabians stud in Hertfordshire.

“Yes, they were lovely,” said Burt. “I saw them go round the parade ring, beautiful horses, pure Arabian horses, and of course Her Majesty’s interest in racing is well-known, and it’s always lovely to see that reflected on a course like Newbury.”

It was the medieval Gaelic King, Alexander I of Scotland, who first presented an Arabian horse to St Andrew’s Church.

Then, in 1616, James I bought one, before Charles II sent his Master of the Horse to the Levant, the vast historic area around the eastern Mediterranean, to buy stallions and brood mares.

They have since become arguably the most influential breed in the world, and certainly the most important in the development of the English Thoroughbred.

The Godolphin Arabian, which lived in Britain up until its death in 1753 and was also known as the Godolphin Barb, was one of three stallions that produced the Thoroughbred race horse bloodstock, along with Darley Arabian and Byerley Turk.

Royal links remain as strong as ever, with Sheikh Hamdan saying he was particularly honored to see the Queen’s horses at Newbury, even though “Her Majesty is too old to ride now.”





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