The Godolphin racing scandal is not the first time that Dubai’s racing scene has been tainted by doping.
The sport’s global governing body, which is presided over by Sheikh Mohammed’s wife Princess Haya, in 2009 issued him with a six-month ban from racing after one of his endurance horses tested positive. The trainer said he administered the steroid without the sheikh’s knowledge.
The ruler’s son and heir apparent, Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, also that year received a ban for doping, which he blamed on “intense competition among grooms”.
But the high profile of Godolphin’s horses, some of which are due to race in major events this season, has rocked the sport as Dubai seeks to boost its already significant presence in the UK racing industry.
The doping scandal comes after Dubai signed a four-year deal to sponsor racing coverage in the UK. Industry observers said Sheikh Mohammed would be livid at the development, but also indicated that the review might be necessary to identify whether a culture of doping had developed.
Sheikh Mohammed has a love of all things equestrian. He often takes part in desert endurance races together with competitors ranging from members of other Gulf ruling families to some of his closest economic advisers.
After a brief hiatus, investment in his vast racing and breeding operation has revived, centred on the Meydan racetrack, the deluxe home of the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup.
Sheikh Mohammed, who is also prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is renowned for his hands-on approach – to statecraft as well as his racing empire. The 63-year-old ruler constantly checks up on the initiatives that have transformed a regional trading post into a global metropolis.
Dubai rode the great credit bubble of the last decade, engineering a mammoth housing bubble that burst in 2008. The emirate then sleep-walked into a sovereign debt crisis in 2009, which ended with the UAE’s oil-rich capital of Abu Dhabi underwriting bailout loans of $20bn to prevent a default.
Sheikh Mohammed was less visible in the early days of the crisis, which fuelled media schadenfreude at the glitzy emirate’s troubles. But he was quick to resume his cheer-leading, and four years later Dubai has refocused on its core strengths of trade, transportation and tourism. It has also escaped the unrest of the Arab spring revolutions.
This global doping scandal, coming on the heels of past transgressions, will prove another test of his mettle.
“We all make mistakes because we work,” the sheikh said of Dubai’s economic recovery this week. “But the biggest mistake is not to learn from your mistakes.”