DUBAI // In business, their united family front makes them a force to be reckoned with. Yesterday, sitting shoulder to shoulder on magnificent thoroughbred horses, the Al Habtoors were just as imposing opponents on the polo pitch. The family is passionate about the sport and is using the considerable clout of the multibillion-dollar business empire founded by Khalaf al Habtoor, which includes hotels, construction, cars and engineering, in a campaign to bring polo, which originated in Persia, back to its Middle Eastern roots and make it an established sport in the UAE.
"It is not just a game, it is a way of life for us," said Rashid al Habtoor, 43, the founder's son and the president and chief executive of Al Habtoor Trading Enterprises. "It is like eating or sleeping. All my life goes into polo. It is an addiction; we are polo junkies. "It is the feeling you get when you hit the ball, the thrill you get from playing professionals. Every time I play, it is like the first time."
His brother Mohammed, 41, the chief executive of Al Habtoor Group, is an equally keen polo player. "It is a fast game which is more exciting than any other sport. It is about teamwork and tactics and is very physical," he said. "In the last two years it has grown in popularity but is still relatively new here and we want to encourage more people to play." As part of that goal, the family organised the inaugural UAE-Palestinian Polo Challenge at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club yesterday. Rashid and Mohammed turned out for the UAE with their respective sons, Tariq and Habtoor, both 18, in the event held to raise funds for the Welfare Association, a Palestinian charity.
With Khalaf al Habtoor, the patron of the event, looking on, his sons and grandsons won the match by five and a half points to five. "When I first started playing in 1990, there was no polo pitch," said Rashid, who serves as chairman of the club. "We had to play on compacted sand, which was hard to work with. "I have seen Dubai grow from having a few players and bad polo to breeding international teams and opening four polo clubs. Now we want more."
Polo has been played by royals and aristocrats around the world for centuries. Rashid counts Prince Charles, Prince Rashid bin el Hassan of Jordan and a Malaysian crown prince among his polo-playing friends. It requires a princely sum to take up the sport. An aspiring player would have to invest in at least six horses and a thoroughbred polo pony costs anywhere between US$25,000 (Dh92,000) and $150,000, pay for their stabling and staff to look after them, and buy an array of equipment needed to play, from mallets to hit the ball to polo boots, helmets, leather knee pads, whips and special saddles.
While his father is a horse rider rather than polo player, Rashid became interested in the sport 20 years ago after being invited to a game. He and Mohammed now own 60 polo ponies and a decade ago formed their own team, Habtoor Polo, which plays in international tournaments including the prestigious Queen's Cup in Windsor in the UK. In the same way the Al Habtoor stable of companies are kept in the family, so too are the younger members groomed to follow their fathers on to the pitch though not always with immediate success.
Mohammed's son Habtoor, who is studying for an International Baccalaureate in business and computing at Emirates International School, not only loathed the game to begin with but also discovered that he was allergic to horses. "I started playing polo at the age of 12 because my father forced me, but I hated it," said the teenager, who takes anti-allergy pills before matches. "For the first two years, I did not want to play; it was torture.
"I just wanted to go out with my friends so I complained to my grandfather, who took my side, but my dad kept saying I was lucky as not everyone gets the chance to do it. So I decided to try it again and now I love it." The fast and furious game can be dangerous too, as Mohammed's 14-year-old son Ahmed learnt the hard way last week when his uncle Rashid accidentally smashed a ball into his face, knocking out three of his front teeth.
Yesterday's match marked a reunion for Rashid and Tariq, who is studying business management at Brunel University in Berkshire in the UK but has returned to Dubai for a month-long holiday. "I play every weekend with Ascot polo club [in the UK] but I prefer it here because I know everyone," Tariq said. "My friends and family are here." The family is still some way from establishing a thriving polo scene in the UAE. Besides the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, which opened in 2006, there are only three others Ghantoot, Desert Palm and Plantation in the country, compared to more than 40 in the UK.
A landmark for polo in the UAE will be the hosting of its first international tournament, the Dubai Gold Cup, March 6-12. Six teams from Chile, England, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be taking part. While the glamour of the polo pitch might seem a world away from the hardship and deprivation endured in Palestine, whose citizens can only dream of open green fields and the chance to play the sport of the privileged, yesterday's match aimed to raise awareness, said its organisers.
On the Palestinian team was Raja Abuljebain, 28, the Kuwaiti-born technical director of the engineering firm Unetec, who lives in Dubai and has never set foot in Palestinian territory his grandfather left during the 1948 exodus but said his family was "very patriotic". "We come from a large Palestinian family and try to do as much as we can to help, such as opening a library in Jaffa five years ago.
There is a big Palestinian expat community in Dubai and it is good for us to get together for a common cause. "Polo and Palestine might be poles apart but events like this bring together the more fortunate to help the less fortunate. "Historically, while horses are a part of the Arab world, the interest in polo is relatively new. We want to see 20 polo clubs eventually opening across the UAE." Mr Abuljebain was joined by Abdulaziz Shakhashir, 17, a student, and Ahmed abu Ghazaleh, 33, the chief executive of the private jet companies Arab Wings and Gulf Wings whose Palestinian grandfathers also left their homeland in the 1940s.
The Jordanian-born Mr Ghazaleh, who flew in from his home in Chile for the charity match, said: "Polo is the game of modern-day gladiators. It is sticks and horses - a testosterone-fuelled, real-man's sport. So many generations of Palestinians are symbolised by struggle. "It is good to show there are Palestinians who can play polo and be successful, even if they have to leave to do so." The Palestinian team was completed by Josh Morris-Lowe, a professional British player for Habtoor Polo.