JEDDAH: A very special equestrian event this week will break new ground not only for Saudi Arabia but for global sport.
AlUla Desert Polo is the first official polo event to be played on a field of sand, rather than the more usual grass. It is also the first match organized in association with the Saudi Polo Federation, which was formed in July 2018.
However, as federation chairman Amr Zedan explained, the inspiration for the event, which will take place from Jan. 16 to 18 as part of the Winter at Tantora festival, comes from a very different environment.
“It’s inspired by the snow polo event in St. Moritz,” he said. “AlUla Desert Polo is a unique event in both Saudi and global terms.”
Zedan, who has played polo around the world for 20 years, established the Zedan Polo Team in 2005. However, this week’s event is particularly special to him, as he hopes it will help to promote the sport in the Kingdom, encourage young people to give it a go and provide a solid foundation for its future growth in the country, which is something he is passionate about.
“From my perspective, the highlight of AlUla Desert Polo is the power that sport has to instigate positive change in society,” he said.
Zedan believes the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative to develop and diversify the country’s economy and society has helped to make great strides in the development of many sports, including polo.
“Saudi Arabia has a great pool of untapped talent in all sporting arenas,” he said, adding that a growing number of Saudi equestrians have excelled in international competitions around the world.
“We know that many young Saudis love horses and we want to give them a chance to become involved in what is an exciting and rewarding sport. This event brings the world’s best.”
First played as long ago as the 6th century BC, according to some historians, polo is one of the oldest equestrian sports in the world. Two teams of four players on horseback use mallets with long handles to attempt to hit a wooden ball into the opposition’s goal. The desert sands of AlUla not only provide a different type of terrain on which to play, but the ancient, historic location is an unusually stunning venue.
“Polo has never been played against such a unique, spectacular and unspoiled backdrop before,” said Zedan. “AlUla is an ancient, UNESCO World Heritage site, with very strong links to the horse heritage that runs throughout Saudi Arabia. It will be an outstanding event, one that the people who play in it and watch it will never forget.”
The safety and welfare of the horses is paramount, given the unusual venue and surface. Zedan said that experts have been brought in to prepare a playing surface that is suitable and safe for the animals, without damaging the unspoiled landscape of AlUla’s sandstone outcrops.
“This game has given me so much pleasure over the years and I feel great satisfaction in being able to now share this passion with the people of Saudi Arabia,” he added. “In addition, I am from the Madinah Al-Munawara region, of which AlUla is a part, so this event is something of a homecoming for me.”