Saudi World Cup finalist eyes home advantage at Diriyah Equestrian Festival

Saudi World Cup finalist eyes home  advantage at Diriyah Equestrian Festival
Saudi equestrian star Abdulrahman Al-Rajhi in action during the first weekend of the Diriyah Equestrian Festival. (Photo/Supplied)
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Updated 19 December 2019

Saudi World Cup finalist eyes home advantage at Diriyah Equestrian Festival

Saudi World Cup finalist eyes home  advantage at Diriyah Equestrian Festival
  • For Saudi champion rider Abdulrahman Al-Rajhi, the festival has provided the first opportunity for him and his riding peers to compete professionally at home

RIYADH: Saudi champion rider Abdulrahman Al-Rajhi believes that the Kingdom’s equestrian stars will enjoy home advantage heading into the finals of this weekend’s Diriyah Equestrian Festival — and not only because of the passionate home support.

For the 24-year-old, the festival has provided the first opportunity for him and his riding peers to compete professionally at home, with the two-weekend event being Saudi Arabia’s first ever International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI)-sanctioned competition.

This meant that for Al-Rajhi at least, it has been one of the few times his entire family have been able to watch him ride at the very top level live and in person — a backing he hopes can help him and the festival’s other Saudi riders come out on top this weekend.

He believes that the riding conditions in the country — different from many other arenas on the international circuit — may be a much greater deciding factor in giving the locals an invaluable edge.

He said: “For me, this is such an exciting moment. It’s really important to focus and do everything properly and at my best as this event is in my home country. It will be the first time my whole family can watch me in Saudi, which means a lot to me.

“The visiting horses will have never been to the Arab League or Saudi Arabia and won’t be used to the weather or the flight here. The big competition classes are at night, which will be different for the international riders as they are not used to jumping at night and therefore not used to the lights or the shadows. I will be doing my best to try and win.”

Being an FEI-sanctioned event, riders taking part in the Diriyah Equestrian Festival are competing for qualifying points for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — one of the ultimate ambitions for every rider.

Last year saw Al-Rajhi, who has jumped in 30 locations across the world, lose out in the final of the 2018 FEI Show Jumping World Cup Final. While Olympic qualification is still his huge dream, the significance of the Diriyah Equestrian Festival is not lost on the multiple-Grand Prix winning rider, as well as the history-making experience he wants to grab with both hands.

“For me, the Diriyah Festival is not about Olympic qualification or anything else,” he said.

“I am a Saudi rider who has been doing it at pro level for a long time, jumping all over the world — except from in Saudi Arabia. That’s because we’ve not had the shows or the competitions that have allowed us to compete in our country.”

“For us, this opportunity and this competition makes us so proud. We now have such a beautiful and amazing show, with riders of the highest level. I hope this leads to more shows and competitions in the future and allows us to show the world we have all the capabilities to bring the top sport and competitors to Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Rajhi returns this weekend to Al-Duhami farm — the host for the Diriyah Equestrian Festival — with his three horses Bravour, Clea and Hot Stuff, all of whom he admits to be learning from every time he rides.

He said that the Kingdom could gain inspiration from the final weekend of the festival.

“Show jumping in Saudi Arabia is really strong in terms of riders, and I hope this festival, in terms of competitions and events, is an opportunity we take to grow (the sport).

“All the riders and teams are ready to put on one of the best shows on the planet. This year we have two weekends of shows. Hopefully next year we can take that up to five or six. That will support the riders and sports fans in Saudi Arabia.

“Countries like Germany have been doing shows like this for a long time. In time in Saudi Arabia the crowds will come to understand the sport more and support the riders. This is a good opportunity for a new generation to come and see the sport.

“If we need to build a second and a third generation of riders to take over from the generation of Prince Abdullah bin Miteb, Kamal Bahamdan and Ramzy Al-Duhami — who have been heroes in this sport for 30 or 40 years — we need to see other riders coming through. Hopefully the Diriyah Equestrian Festival can provide that inspiration.”


Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community
Updated 51 min 14 sec ago

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community
  • The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the US
  • The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in Detroit

NEW YORK: Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. “In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
“Welcome to Jersey, brother!”
Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR’s New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He’s optimistic it’s a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.
“For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars,” Mohamed said in an email to the AP. “We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.
Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
“Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”
While Saleh’s focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.
“Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. “But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.
“But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”