During the months of October to March, the racing takes place in King Abdulaziz Racetrack, Riyadh, culminating this year, with the introduction of the world’s richest horse race – The Saudi Cup on February 29th, 2020. The summer season takes place in the temperate hills of Ta’if from June until September.
In the 2018-19 season, the tracks put on some 635 races worth an average of US$30,000 apiece.
There are over 9,000 thoroughbreds in training, with a breeding herd of more than 5,000 mares and 390 registered stallions producing an annual foal crop of just short of 2,000. The reigning champion is Jorvick, a Juddmonte-bred son of Mizzen Mast, who previously raced in France.
The Kingdom’s most successful racehorse is Premium Tap, the son of Pleasant Tap who won two Grade 1s in the US – the Clark and the Woodward. He was bought by King Abdullah, having run third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic behind Invasor and Bernardini. The following February, he won the Custodian Of The Two Holy Mosques Cup in Riyadh and, next, ran second in the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup – once again finding America’s Horse of the Year, Invasor, a couple of lengths too good.
Premium Tap has gone on to sire many local champions in Saudi.
Visit the Jockey Club Of Saudi Arabia’s official website at https://frusiya.com
The SAUDI CUP might be Riyadh’s first international race – but jockeys from around the world have been competing on its wide dirt oval for years. How do they rate the experience?
‘The surface is a mixture of sand and woodchip and horses like it. It’s a very good track, and a very fair track – the best horse nearly always wins’
‘In my experience, all the time I rode there I found the track good and safe with a nice stretch run. Horses handle it very well.’
‘I’ve had many trips there riding for Prince Faisal and I’ve found it to be very safe and a very fair track. It doesn’t favor one type of horse over another, whether you had a horse that was more of a front runner or a deep closer. I’ve always thought that the surface was good. It’s a course that always gives every horse a chance and that’s what you want in racing. It’s a great track to ride on.’
‘It’s one of the best dirt tracks in the world. A wonderful track and I know that the American jockeys like it very much because it really suits the American horses; and there are two ponies if you have a horse who is playing around. It has a long straight, about 400m, and there is not much kickback.’
‘The track is pretty much based on the same circumference and design as Belmont Park. It’s a traditional dirt track and rides extremely well. The facilities are top class. A fabulous racecourse.’
‘It’s a big circuit and they go a good gallop in most races which makes it a very strong test of ability. It has a nice dirt surface which rides very evenly throughout. All starts are fair with a nice run to the first turn.’
‘It’s a great, galloping, fair racetrack – you wouldn’t find a better one anywhere in the world. It should be fair for American and European horses. It has a fine, powdery dirt surface but I wouldn’t be put off by the fact that it’s dirt. I’d love to have a horse good enough for the race!’
‘It’s a fabulous big, wide, galloping track and, in my experience, the best horse almost always won; there were no hard-luck stories. The layout of the racetrack is excellent: the big race will start from a chute down the back straight, so you don’t have the issue of the draw. You can win from anywhere, and there’s a big long straight, a bit like Newbury. I always loved riding there. The racecourse, parade ring and the weighing room were absolutely super. The starting stalls are very modern, on the American design, and members of the RaceTech team were sent out from England to help school the local stalls handlers.’
‘I’ve been lucky enough to ride over there quite regularly for five or six years now. It’s a beautiful track to ride and very fair. You can win making the running or come from the back. For a dirt surface there is very little kickback and most horses go through it. I’ve never ridden a horse that hasn’t faced the kickback there. I really can’t fault it – it’s one of the nicest dirt tracks I’ve ever ridden on.’
‘It’s a massive, galloping track, very wide and everyone gets a fair chance. Frankie Dettori and Olivier Peslier say it’s the best dirt track in the world. I haven’t ridden on enough dirt tracks to give that opinion, but I certainly enjoyed my time in Riyadh and we were very well looked-after, so hopefully I can find a good horse to take me there for the Saudi Cup.’
‘It’s a galloping track with quite a long straight and lovely sweeping bends. The kickback is minimal. You can’t fault it at all. I’ve been there a few times and it’s pretty straightforward; usually the best horse wins.’
The Saudi Cup is a desert homecoming for the thoroughbred. But, in truth, this great new international horserace celebrates a great old international race of horse – a breed formed by imperialism… and steeped in mystery
It is not just the great new prize of the 21st century that summons racehorses from all round the world to the desert. There is also an accompanying call back to their roots, for each and every thoroughbred famously traces its ancestry to one of just three founding fathers, imported to Restoration England from various corners of the Ottoman Empire around 300 years ago.
Two of these direct male lines have been all but eradicated by the one extending from the Darley Arabian, which nowadays accounts for 19 in every 20 thoroughbreds. The Godolphin Arabian and Byerley Turk male lines have been asphyxiated by those proliferating over the past century, in the Darley Arabian cause, from Phalaris – an incredible legacy for a sprinter confined to a skeleton racing programme during the First World War.
This, of course, is just the male line. In terms of genetic material, each foal divides its inheritance 50-50 between its parents and even with a relatively foreshortened view, a pedigree always entwines a complex mesh of influences: within a racehorse’s first five generations, in fact, there are as many as 62 different names.
Enable, the most recent apogee of the Darley Arabian line, is divided by 24 generations from the stallion exported from Aleppo by Thomas Darley in 1704. So when one rewinds to the first pedigrees collated in the General Stud Book, much later that century, you quickly see that the early breed was in fact sown with many diverse seeds.
Few people today realise that the three celebrated founders were, at the time, relatively anonymous among some 200 other stallions imported to England in the century following the regicide of 1649, and known as ‘oriental’. (These horses came from the Arabian Peninsula – ‘Oriental’, clearly, has since come to denote something very different, and the ‘Middle East’ only developed as a term as the Englishmen’s sense of the world expanded, with their own empire, into Asia.) Many of these stallions congregated in North Yorkshire, which became the cradle of the thoroughbred through their collective contribution to the first families catalogued in the Stud Book.
The Darley Arabian arrived in Europe the same year as the first volume of The Arabian Nights. During a pan-European cultural vogue for what they called ‘Turquerie’, equally measurable in coffee or carpets, perhaps the ultimate symbol of imperial chic was the Arabian horse – celebrated for its elegance, courage and intelligence.
In 1684, the diarist John Evelyn watched three desert horses, captured at the siege of Vienna, presented before the entire court of King Charles II in St James’s Park. ‘They trotted like Does, as if they did not feele the ground,’ he wrote. ‘Never did I behold so delicate a Creature… in all reguards beautifull & proportion’d to admiration, spirituous & prowd… with all this so gentle & tractable.’
They commanded a corresponding price, 500 guineas sought for the finest of the three, a sum equivalent to more than £1m in today’s money. At a time when English equitation manuals show a decided coarseness in the breeding and handling of crudely utilitarian stock, these stallions were status symbols imbued with the refinement and opulence of an Empire that had been progressively transformed in the esteem of Christian Europe.
The Ottomans were by this time an envied imperial model, having stabilised vast swathes of territory for mercantile and cultural exchange. The Ottoman Empire’s sheer scale can be usefully measured by the journey reputedly made by the Godolphin Arabian in his youth, from Yemen to the stud of the Bey of Tunis. Yemen lies some 600 miles south of Riyadh – home of the great prize that seeks to bring the modern breed full circle – while Tunis is 2,300 miles to the west.
Power across such vast territories was pragmatically devolved from the Sultan to regional control of the main trading routes. But it was in a lawless desert interior that the most coveted breeds of horses would often be traded by nomadic tribesmen. Remarkable enterprise was required by those intrepid diplomats and merchants by whose efforts such animals made their way to Britain, not least as there was a prohibition – albeit enforced more earnestly at some times than others – on the export of purebred Arabians.
Thomas Darley was long described as Queen Anne’s ‘consul’ in Aleppo, but he was in fact a singularly unsuccessful member of a small community of English merchants sharing the Levant Company compound in that ancient city. Most returned home after no more than a decade, having accumulated a fortune, but Darley had been stuck in Aleppo for 18 years, deep in financial difficulty. He seems likely to have made the transaction for the Arabian he sent home to Yorkshire in a nerveless excursion with a single compatriot south of Aleppo in 1702, quite possibly at the lost desert city of Palmyra.
Darley died, poignantly, as the result of a fall from a horse, just a couple of months after the Arabian was stowed on a man o’ war escorting a Levant Company convoy home. But horses of this ilk were in such widespread demand that the one who arrived at the Darley family seat, at Aldby, remained relatively obscure during his lifetime. He covered just a handful of mares every spring, mostly belonging to the family or their kinsmen, and left reliable evidence for only around 20 foals. The Darley Arabian’s prowess would not be grasped until the emergence of a dazzlingly fast son, Flying Childers, after his death.
Laying the foundations of the breed, then, was a work shared with dozens of other stallions and their daughters. And their antecedents were too hopelessly varied to support anything beyond the broadest characterisation. Often they had reached Britain as war booty or diplomatic gifts; or to alter the athletic capacities of cavalry horses, now that gunpowder had shifted the emphasis from bearing the weight of a knight in armour to agility and speed.
Blood favoured for sporting proficiency might be from such nimble Celtic breeds as the Hobby or Galloway. Imported strains from Andalusia, Italy and North Africa were conflated by unscientific labelling, say as ‘jennet’ or ‘Barb’. Identification as Turk or Arabian or Barb would as often reflect a point of embarkation, or even an attempt to exploit fashion, as an actual breed. In principle, a Barb should have originated in North Africa, but sometimes it denoted any swift racer; while the Turkoman, from between the Caspian and Black Seas, would be conflated with a ‘Turk’ emerging from any steppe between the Balkans and Mesopotamia.
The catalyst for the dissemination of these hybrid influences had been the English Civil War, notably through the break-up of the royal stud at Tutbury in Staffordshire. Exotic blood previously monopolised by the monarch was now in private hands and was cultivated by the likes of James Darcy, who acquired several ‘royal mares’ for his stud at Sedbury in North Yorkshire; or by the Buckinghams at Helmsley, either side of an enlightened interval of custodianship during the Protectorate of the 1650s by Cromwell’s commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
‘Royal mare’ is another of those indeterminate labels that constantly recur in the earliest pedigrees. A royal mare might have been sent across seas and mountains as a gift to the King; or she might have been locally cross-bred by the court studmaster, using an Andalusian cavalry sire and a Hobby mare from Ireland. Sometimes different names were used for the same horse. Other horses had none. We know little about most of the imported Ottoman stallions beyond the names of their English owners, typically minor aristocrats or provincial gentry like the Puritan squires of the Darley clan.
Even those stallions purported to have a full history tended to acquire it through posthumous embroidery, not least in the case of the Darley Arabian himself. Some of the claims about the Godolphin Arabian, supposedly discovered towing a water cart in Paris, are preposterous. There is, moreover, scholarship to suggest that the Byerley Turk, reputedly captured from the Ottomans at the siege of Buda, was actually bred in Yorkshire (albeit as a son of another ‘oriental’ stallion), though it does appear to be true that he served as Captain Byerley’s charger at the Battle of the Boyne.
The true parentage of many significant contributors to the early breed is contentious. Even accepting the record at face value, however, one can very soon get a sense of the mystery, and romance, surrounding these forgotten names. Take the very first sire responsible for extending the Darley Arabian line: not Flying Childers, who proved a disappointing stallion, but his brother, Bartlett’s Childers, whose kinship to a champion qualified him to recycle their genes at stud.
Their mother Betty Leedes was a classic example of the kind of chaotic cross-breeding that underpinned what became viewed – paradoxically enough – as the most scrupulously certified of animal breeds. Her sire Old Careless was considered an exceptional runner, albeit in a form of racing we would barely recognise today, then comprising heats and matches over enormous distances. His dam was listed only as a Barb Mare. Old Careless was by Spanker, himself regarded as the ‘best horse at Newmarket in Charles II’s reign’; a son of Darcy’s Yellow Turk out of the Old Morocco Mare, who was in turn a daughter of the Fairfax Morocco Barb and the splendidly named Old Bald Peg.
Early sources propose that Old Bald Peg may have been of ‘oriental’ parentage. Whatever the family’s origins, its later champions have been globally significant and include the US Triple Crown winner Count Fleet and the hugely influential 1933 Derby victor Hyperion, as well as a British Classic winner as recently as Sariska, in the 2009 Oaks, a direct female line descendant of Old Bald Peg 29 generations before.
For a long time, racehorse breeders clung to the misapprehension that all thoroughbreds descended from purebred Arabian stock, scrupulously corralled by the early Yorkshire nurseries. This simplification has been definitively exposed by science, which has also established strong British and Celtic strains in the modern thoroughbred gene pool.
The breed’s three founding fathers serve largely as usefully legible points on a baffling map. They are like oases that melt away, as you get closer, into the mirages of history. And the trackless expanses between them will remain ever uncharted.
Once upon a time, an English nobleman challenged another to a wager to decide which of them had the fastest horse – and the sport of horseracing had begun. Early races were occasionally named after their prize money – such as the 2,000 Guineas, first run in 1809 – and, as breeding and racing thoroughbreds has grown into a global business, the stakes have, quite literally, become ever higher.
In 1886, a new racecourse to the west of London, Sandown Park, decided to promote itself with the help of a headline-grabbing contest: Britain’s first £10,000 event, the Eclipse Stakes.
Almost 50 years later, the Agua Caliente Handicap was the first to offer a US$100,000 purse – the big prize luring American competitors to the Mexican resort in the Prohibition era. Seabiscuit won it in 1938 and great Australian champion Phar Lap made his only northern hemisphere appearance in the race, winning in record time in 1932. Some 50 years later, another prize money breakthrough came in Chicago: the first million-dollar race.
In its first running, the Arlington Million Invitational – which is staged on turf – was won by Horse of the Year John Henry. The old boy did it again in 1984 at the age of nine, and he remains its only dual winner.
Though match races are now largely a thing of the past, racing fans were thrown an enticing prospect back in the summer of 2000 when HH Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai challenged Michael Tabor to a winner-takes-all US$12m contest between their outstanding colts Dubai Millennium and Montjeu. Alas, on the morning the challenge was issued, Dubai Millennium suffered a career-ending injury on the gallops and was retired.
The new Saudi Cup leads an illustrious roster of valuable contests attracting the best horses from all over the world.
With a race value of US$20m and a first prize of US$10m, the first running of the Saudi Cup in 2020 will be the richest race ever run. Its value is equivalent to that of all 635 races run in the Kingdom in the 2018-19 season, a potent indication of the Jockey Club Of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the sport.
Dubai World Cup
Created in 1996 and run annually on the last Saturday of March over 10 furlongs on the dirt, now for a purse of US$12m. The Hall of Fame American champion Cigar won the US$4m first running. Two of the most valuable turf contests in racing are now staged on the same card: the nine-furlong Dubai Turf and mile-and-a-half Dubai Sheema Classic, each worth US$6m.
Pegasus World Cup
In 2017 and 2018, America’s Pegasus World Cup knocked the Dubai World Cup off the top spot in the global prize money rankings. First run in January 2017 at Gulfstream Park, the inaugural race was won by Arrogate – owned and bred by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud.
It was worth US$12m, raised by 12 owners paying a stake of US$1m each to run. The following year, overall prize money was boosted to US$16m. Then in 2019, the nine-furlong dirt race, which had been given Grade 1 status, dropped in value to US$9m when the Pegasus World Cup Turf was included in the day’s program, itself with a US$7m purse.
In the same year the Pegasus World Cup was launched, Racing NSW in Australia introduced a similar contest: The Everest. Its USP is that, unlike all the other richest races, it is a sprint over 1200 metres (six furlongs). Staged during Sydney’s Spring Carnival in October, The Everest is the most valuable race in Australia, worth AUD$14m (US$9.8m). It is both the world’s richest sprint and richest turf race.
The self-styled Thoroughbred World Championships, the Breeders’ Cup was first run in 1984 as a triumphant last hurrah for the season’s best horses in America and beyond. Initially staged on a single afternoon, the meeting has grown to two days. The lucrative prize money is drawn from stallion and mare owners who pay nominations for sires and their offspring to be eligible to run. The meeting’s traditional finale is the 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic, nowadays worth US$6m. On the grass, the 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup Turf is run for prize money of US$4m.
Japanese racing boasts good prize money across the sport. Leading the way is the Japan Cup, an invitational race run over a mile-and-a-half on the Tokyo turf for ¥648mn (US$6m). The country’s premier Classic, the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), is run for ¥432m (US$4m).
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
Widely considered to be Europe’s premier weight-for-age contest, the Arc is also now also the continent’s richest race at €5m (US$5.6m). The mile-and-half-contest celebrates its centenary in 2020.
Once famed as the race that stops a nation, these days the two-mile Melbourne Cup can claim to beguile much of the racing world. In 2019, the total on offer is AUD$8m (US$5.6m) making it the world’s most valuable staying race.
The sport’s defining race, founded in 1780 and arguably the one with the most prestige: Epsom’s famous Blue Riband has given its name to many imitations around the world, but the original Derby, despite being Britain’s most valuable race, comes some way down the global rankings. In 2019, it was worth £1.62m (US$2m).
If you ask Frankie Dettori, he’ll tell you what he told us: Riyadh’s wide, galloping dirt track is the best in the world. Now a turf course is under construction inside King Abdulaziz Racetrack’s sandy oval, on which three valuable new international races will be run as part of the Saudi Cup undercard. And, according to Richard Stuttard, head of consultancy at STRI Group, the British company building it, ‘the goal is to create the best grass track that the jockeys will have seen’.
It may seem an impossible task to grow turf in a land where the temperature can rise above 50°C. But Stuttard says the job is ‘entirely practical’ because the racing will be held in February, in the depths of what amounts to the Saudi winter, when the temperature drops to a lovely 25°C. Think Derby Day at Epsom in June.
In some ways, the venue will be reminiscent of Belmont Park, stage for the culmination of America’s Triple Crown, which has an emerald ribbon of turf looping inside the golden dirt track. But there is a difference in the constitution – what agronomists call the ‘profile’ – of the root zone of the two tracks. Belmont has a base layer of natural soil, a thick layer of sandy topsoil, and a verdant carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass. By contrast, the Riyadh track will have a sandy profile that befits the climate and geography and which is being ameliorated to produce a rich sward ideal for horseracing.
The foundation layer is compacted limestone. ‘It’s not concrete,’ says Stuttard, ‘but it’s as good as.’ Above this is an 11cm layer of finely-graded gravel, which facilitates not only the drainage of the course but also, by a quirk of physics, the necessary moisture retention in the upper part of the root zone. On top of the gravel layer is a 30cm layer of sand. In each case, the gravel and sand have been scrupulously selected. ‘You can’t just go to the nearest quarry and pick up some gravel and sand,’ explains Stuttard. ‘We have been to various sites across Saudi Arabia, collected samples, and then tested the gravel and sand for their suitability at our laboratories in England.’ In other words, he says, ‘we’ve mixed the best available gravel with the best available sand…and what we now have is a scientifically-designed profile for growing grass in the anticipated climactic conditions of a Saudi winter.’
The experts at STRI Group – which was founded in 1929 and which, among other things, advises Wimbledon on the development of its world-famous grass courts – have mixed the sand with other ingredients: organic material designed to improve the biological activity and moisture retention that facilitate the growth of the grass and some ‘artificial stabilising material’ that ensures the track has a uniform surface traction. Explaining this approach, Stuttard says: ‘You have to make a track that is safe. That’s a given. Of course, it wants to look great – and it will – but the primary thing is safety. It’s critical that you have a consistent surface. For the horse and the rider, they need to have confidence that the track will perform in a uniform manner for the duration of the race.’
STRI Group takes a very scientific approach to everything it does. It has testing facilities in Yorkshire and uses the latest computer-aided design technology to develop a sports venue – whether its a golf course, a football or rugby pitch, or a racecourse. As Stuttard discloses: ‘We work for Wimbledon, and we simulate Wimbledon tennis courts here in Bingley in Yorkshire. We subject those to simulated tennis-player wear so we can determine what the best grasses are for Wimbledon each year.’ It does the same for other sports, including football, rugby, cricket and, of course, horseracing – it worked, for example, on the redevelopment of Ascot racecourse, realigning its straight mile. So it knows all about the impact of 14 horses, each weighing about half a ton, thundering down the King Abdulaziz Racetrack’s home stretch at speeds up to 40 mph towards the winning post. That, and more, is what STRI Group’s turf is designed to withstand.
The construction work began in July, and the first step was to remove the top layer of sand and dirt from the existing training track – which is a little over nine furlongs (1,832m), and covers around 39,500 square metres. Once this was completed, workers from Desert Group, a Dubai-based company contracted by STRI, started installing the gravel and sand layers as well as an irrigation system. In a land of searing heat, the watering of the course will be critical to the success of the project.
Riyadh lies about 250 miles from the Arabian Gulf, and so desalinated water is transported to the track by tankers, supplemented by supplies from nearby wells, and stored in vast tanks. As Stuttard noted: ‘There’s more than sufficient water to ensure that the grass is kept alive even if the Saudi winter is warmer than anticipated.’
The computerised irrigation system uses a series of automatic pop-up sprinklers to irrigate the track. ‘They work their way around the track over several hours,’ says Stuttard. ‘Over that time, the whole track gets an even watering. There are a few hours off, and then the whole thing starts again.’
The irrigation system will be in place by the end of September. After that, says Stuttard, there’s ‘a waiting game’, as STRI’s experts watch how the climate changes and decide when to begin sowing the grass seed. As preparation for this moment, they have left nothing to chance. For a start, they have conducted detailed research into the local environment. ‘We’ve studied the climactic data for Saudi Arabia over the past 50 years so that we can understand what the potential highs and lows could be,’ he reveals.
Also, they have selected a ‘cool-season’ grass seed that will thrive as the thermometer drops to the pleasant mid-20s°C. ‘We’re going to be using a grass that’s ideal for a race in February,’ says Stuttard. ‘There’s no point using warm-season grass for an event that’s going to be held in the Saudi winter. So we’re waiting for temperatures to drop to a point that’s not excessive. If you sow cool-season grass, and the temperatures are still pushing 40°C, then it just wouldn’t be able to cope with that kind of heat during the establishment phase.’
Sowing in the autumn, observes Stuttard, leaves plenty of time for the grass to get properly established. ‘Grass will appear within just a few days of sowing. But, of course, it’s not going to be very strong at first. Critically, in a climate like Riyadh’s, you need to encourage the roots to grow deep into the profile. Otherwise you could have a surface that superficially appears to be lovely and green but in essence is not very strong. You need some time to get sufficient water and sufficient nutrients into the track to allow the roots to penetrate down into the sand.’
The process of establishing the turf will take place between November and January, and during this time, there will be a rigorous monitoring regime by STRI’s irrigation and drainage engineers and the team of consultants who designed the turf track prepare the going for race day. As Stuttard says: good, or good-to-firm, ‘we can basically manipulate the track conditions by careful agronomic management to produce the required going for race day.’
The first horses will test out the turf track a few weeks before the Saudi Cup and its lucrative undercard of turf racing treats. But already the excitement is building. ‘We’re ahead of schedule,’ says Stuttard, ‘and currently we have no concerns that the track will be anything but fantastic for race day.’ He, like the rest of the team at King Abdulaziz Racetrack, eagerly await Frankie Dettori’s review.
Masmak Fortress rises like a golden cliff in the heart of the old quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. Seemingly impregnable, with high slanting walls and four watchtowers, it presents a forbidding face to would-be attackers. But here, in the dead of a cold January night in 1902, one person led his men in a daredevil mission. His name was Abdulaziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud – later known as King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. With his warriors, he scaled the city walls using a palm tree trunk as a ladder, overwhelmed patrolling soldiers, and prevailed over the city garrison. In doing so, he restored the honor of the House of Saud, which had ruled the city for much of the previous 150 years.
For a decade, Abdulaziz had dreamed of taking back Riyadh. In 1891, his father, Abdul Rahman, then ruler of Riyadh, was forced out of his city by the invading forces of his family’s historical rivals, the Al Rasheed, following the ill-fated Battle of Mulayda. For the next two years, he and his family endured a perilous nomadic existence with the Murrah, a Bedouin tribe in the Rub al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter. Here, Abdulaziz sheltered in a black goat-hair tent, survived on a diet of camel milk, dates and bread, and learned the fighting skills that would serve him well in the years to come.
After two years on the run, the Saud family was given protection by the ruler of Kuwait, and it was from his coastal kingdom that Abdulaziz marched for Riyadh at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the history of Saudi Arabia started with Abdulaziz’s victory in the battle of Masmak Fortress, the story of his family’s rise to prominence started long before that, in the early eighteenth century. In 1726, Muhammad Ibn Saud – a trader and horse dealer and forefather of the modern House of Saud – became emir of Diriyah, a small city north of Riyadh in a narrow, verdant valley called Wadi Hanifa where palm trees defy the beating sun. Two years before, the horse who would be remembered as the Godolphin Arabian, one of the forbears of all thoroughbreds, was born a few days ride to the south.
For the next 18 years, Muhammad’s rule was unremarkable. But in 1744 the fortunes of the House of Saud were transformed when the Emir allied with Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar, to unify the wide and divided land of Arabia under one flag. By the end of the century, the Saud family ruled a vast land that stretched from the Arabian Gulf in the East to the Red Sea in the West.
This might have continued, but in 1803 the Saudis seized control of the holy cities of Mecca, where the prophet Muhammad was born, and Medina. This action drew the ire of the Ottoman Emperor in Istanbul, who ostensibly ruled the Arabian Peninsula. He ordered Muhammad Ali, his viceroy in Egypt, to take back the holy cities. This was done with brutal efficiency, and the Ottomans did not stop there: pushing further into Saudi territory, they devastated Diriyah, smashing the palace as well as the stud where 300 of the finest Arabian horses were said to be stabled. By 1818, the Saudis had been chased from their ancestral home. The ruins stand today, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Saudis moved their capital to Riyadh, where they enjoyed an uneasy rule for 73 years until Abdulaziz’s father was forced to take his family into exile. After Abdulaziz stormed Riyadh in 1902, he began recapturing other territory that had once been ruled by his family. For the next 30 years, he and his followers fought 52 battles: his rivals included Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, who aspired to be recognised as the King of the Arabs and who won the backing of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – during the Arab Revolt in the First World War. During this turbulent time, Abdulaziz became known as The Last Horseman, a sobriquet for being the last ruler to lead his army into battle on horseback.
It was now that Abdulaziz struck his own deal with the British, who were looking to safeguard their interests in the region, considered a vital conduit to the empire in India. He made an immediate impression on Gertrude Bell, the travel writer: ‘He is a man of splendid physique, standing well over six feet, and carrying himself with the air of one accustomed to command,’ she wrote.
After the war, Abdulaziz moved swiftly to control the main regions of the Arabian Peninsula. By 1921, he had captured Hail, a city to the north of Riyadh, and in doing so, he became the Sultan of Nejd, a region that encompassed Riyadh and Hail. Five years later, he added another title to his name: King of Hijaz, a region that included Mecca and Medina. He now ruled a vast swathe of the Arabian Peninsula and, to put his family’s personal stamp on the territory, he announced the creation of a new sovereign state in September 1932, unifying the separate kingdoms of Nejd and Hijaz under the name Saudi Arabia, a reflection of the rich history of the founding family.
It is hard to believe now, but when Saudi Arabia was created it faced enormous financial challenges.
Three years earlier, the Wall Street Crash had seen billions of dollars wiped off the New York Stock Exchange. It triggered a global recession, and the devastating impact was felt in the oases of the Arabian desert. At that time, the Saudi economy was highly dependent on the Muslim Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy lands in Mecca. In the late 1920s, some 130,000 pilgrims visited Mecca for the holy rituals, but the numbers fell down by 1931 to fewer than 40,000. The impact on the young Kingdom’s economy motivated the King to seek a more secure economic structure.
It was then that Charles Crane, an American businessman and philanthropist, walked into his life. Long interested in Arabia, Crane initially travelled to Egypt in search of the perfect Arabian stallion to take back to America. There, he met Sheikh Fawzan al Sabik, King Abdulaziz’s ambassador and the proud owner of a celebrated stud farm. The two men struck up a rapport, and Sheikh Fawzan offered Crane a stallion and a mare as a gift. In return, Crane offered to pay for the services of an engineer, who would search for mineral riches under the sands of Saudi Arabia desert.
King Abdulaziz accepted the offer. It had long been speculated that valuable minerals lay beneath the Arabian desert. The reports by Crane’s engineer were sufficiently optimistic to encourage interest from both Standard Oil of California, and the Iraq Petroleum Company. An auction for the concession was coordinated by Henry St John Philby, an Englishman and Muslim convert, a confidante of King Abdulaziz. It was won by the American firm, which had struck oil in neighbouring Bahrain in 1932 and which agreed to pay £50,000 in gold (about $3.5m in today’s money) for the right to search for oil.
The deal was signed in 1933, just a few months after the founding of Saudi Arabia. It took a long five years before the gamble of the Standard Oil executives started to pay off: the company’s subsidiary, a forerunner of Aramco, started producing commercial quantities of oil on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. In Dharahn, near the fishing village of Dammam, miners opened their seventh well, and it turned out to be a real gusher.
With King Abdulaziz’s newfound wealth came power and the leaders of the world’s great nations started beating a path to his door. American entrepreneurs were the pioneers of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Yet the US government was slow to appreciate the potential of the Kingdom. That changed in February 1945 when President Franklin D Roosevelt, returning home from his summit with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Yalta, secretly invited King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy, then anchored in the Suez Canal. This summit resulted in the historical treaty that established a long-honoured friendship between the two countries, still influencing international relations till this date.
For the rest of King Abdulaziz’s life, Saudi Arabia enjoyed stability and rising prosperity. When he passed away in 1953, at the age of 78, his heritage was a stable and rich country, with oil revenues amounting to $100 million a year. But, for all his success, there would be no fanfare, no funerary monument, no pyramid to mark his life. In keeping with his family’s traditions and religious believes, the first king of Saudi Arabia – father of all six kings who have ruled since – was buried in an unmarked grave.
King Abdulaziz founded Saudi Arabia on September 23rd, 1932. Three days earlier, and 6,500 miles away in New York City, eleven construction workers posed for a now-famous photo as they tucked into their lunch while sitting on a girder of an unfinished skyscraper in the Rockefeller Plaza, their legs dangling a vertiginous 840ft (260m) above the streets below.
The photo, published a month later, was meant to put a smile on the faces of Depression-era New Yorkers. The Plaza was the brainchild of John D Rockefeller Jr, whose name would have been familiar to King Abdulaziz: Rockefeller’s father was the founder of Standard Oil, the corporation that spawned the Standard Oil Company of California, which struck oil in Bahrain in June 1932 and, on that basis, agreed to pay King Abdulaziz for the first concession to search for oil in Saudi Arabia.
The Rockefellers were not the only great American dynasty to see their fortunes rise in 1932. On November 8th, Franklin D Roosevelt, distant cousin of former president Teddy Roosevelt (who gave his name to the Teddy bear), won a landslide victory in the presidential election. FDR secured his win by promising a ‘New Deal’ for the American people. If this was a significant moment with lasting influence, there were many others throughout the year:
- In the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth hit his famous ‘called shot’ at least 440ft (134m) over the deepest part of center field after pointing to exactly where he intended to put it;
- Radio City Music Hall opened with a show featuring Ray Bolger, who went on to play the scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz in 1939;
- Driving his car Blue Bird at Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1935, he became the first to top 300mph on land;
- Louis Armstrong recorded All Of Me and then toured Europe. At a concert in London, his nickname ‘Satchel Mouth’ was misheard as Satchmo. It stuck.
- Buster Crabbe, who would later star as Flash Gordon, won a swimming gold at the Los Angeles Olympics; Chicago mobster Al Capone – also known as Scarface and Public Enemy Number One – was jailed for tax evasion at the age of 33; Sir Malcolm Campbell set a world land speed record of 253.96mph driving his car Blue Bird at Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1935, he became the first to top 300mph on land;
- Louis Armstrong recorded All Of Me and then toured Europe. At a concert in London, his nickname ‘Satchel Mouth’ was misheard as Satchmo. It stuck.
In horseracing, the Kentucky Derby, first run in 1875, was won by Burgoo King, who subsequently took the Preakness Stakes but did not run in the Belmont Stakes as the required paperwork had not been completed: the Triple Crown – a term coined only two years earlier – went uncontested. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, first run in 1920, was won by seven-year-old Motrico, who was tasting victory for the second time and remains the oldest winner of the race.
The richest race of 1932 was the Agua Caliente Handicap, staged in Mexico. With a purse of US$100,000, it attracted horses from around the world, among them Phar Lap, foaled in New Zealand but trained in Australia. The Melbourne Cup winner was hailed as a wonder horse, and Phar Lap raced to victory in record time. Two weeks later, he was dead. There were suggestions he had been poisoned.
The day before Phar Lap’s fateful last race, Sydney Harbour Bridge – 7,500 miles away and now part of one of the world’s most iconic vistas – was officially opened.