The Cartier Challenge

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The Qatar Airways polo team hopes to achieve three consecutive tournament victories at the Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge this month. Lewis Borg-Cardona caught up with Amr Zedan, ambassador for the Cartier Challenge.

Amr Zedan is a busy man. As Chairman and Group President of Saudi Arabia’s Zedan Group of companies, his business commitments are extensive. But as well as being a high-flying executive, he’s also an enthusiast; so when he knows I want to talk to him about his first love – polo – he’s more than happy to take time out from his busy schedule to enthuse about the sport that gives him so much pleasure.

For the first time he’s riding at the Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge, which takes place between March 23 and 26 at Ali Albwardy’s plush Desert Palm Polo Club and resort, located just 20 minutes outside Dubai city. It’s a prestigious event, and Amr is more than happy to be involved: “Most definitely; I’ve been really honoured to be appointed as an ambassador for the Cartier Challenge event and I’m also proud to be patron of a team which I’m looking forward to. As an amateur I usually act as patron for a team; assembling the team and turning up with that team at the various tournaments.”

In only five years the Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge has established itself as an elite fixture in the world polo calendar. The invitation-only event attracts royalty, celebrities, socialites, and VIPs aplenty, plus the attendant paparazzi who ensure press coverage around the world. “It’s definitely on the map when it comes to the World Polo Tour,” Amr says. “As well as the sport, Cartier has a special ambience that travels with it, which makes it a great opportunity to socialise on a personal level. There’s a saying: ‘equestrian sports are a passport’; well, polo is a diplomatic passport. You get to meet interesting people and potential business partners. The sport of polo is a bridge that acts essentially as an ice-breaker. Also, the benefits go to good causes in Dubai and I look forward to being part of that.”

The Cartier Challenge is fast becoming part of the social season for the horsey set, of which Amr counts himself part: “I always liked horses when I was a child. Growing up I tried various events – endurance and horse jumping – but they didn’t suit me. When a friend introduced me to polo I took to it immediately. I went to London in 2002 for what was essentially polo ‘boot camp’, and I guess that’s when I first learnt to play polo properly. Now I’m still essentially an amateur, but as a patron you’re the focal point of the team and that means I get to play alongside some of the world’s best players, like David ‘Pelon’ Stirling.”

Amr may protest his amateur status, but you have to be pretty good to feature alongside a player ranked number eight in the world according to the official WPT ranking. Or you can always credit your partner: “In Dubai my favourite is a pony called Princesa; she’s fast, she’s easy to ride – I’m on her wavelength and she’s on mine. She gives me confidence like no other pony.”

Riders like Amr may refer to their mounts as ponies, but Thelwell’s Riding Academy it is not. Go to a polo match for the first time and what strikes you immediately from the sidelines of the playing field – 300 yards long and 160 yards wide – is the size and strength of the animals. Displaying both bursts of speed and great agility during the course of a match, polo ponies require expert horsemanship from their riders in order to function as a competitive unit. It’s a skill that requires plenty of training, and being resident in Saudi Arabia means Amr is at a slight disadvantage: “I live on the east coast of Saudi Arabia and we don’t have the facilities here. Riyadh is an hour’s flight from where I am, and there my friend Fahad Abunayyan has established an eighteen-hole golf course. Next to it he has now built two polo fields. I think polo is a little like Las Vegas – you know, ‘build it and they will come’. Just look at Dubai; Dubai has the through traffic of people for polo to have picked up as a sport. I think Riyadh has the same ingredients: the traffic and the thriving business environment.”

Now Amr spends a good deal of his time following the sport all over the world. In January this year that meant travelling to Switzerland to take part in the St. Moritz Polo World Cup on Snow; battling on the frozen surface of Lake St. Moritz – a new experience for the Saudi horseman: “Certainly I wanted to try it. In fact, playing on snow is much like playing on grass except for the ball. The ball is much bigger and it flies everywhere. Because of that there’s a major element of luck involved in the ice game. Also of course, coming from Saudi Arabia, the cold was a factor for me!”

On the more familiar turf of Dubai this month, Amr will be teaming up in the Cartier colours with industrialist Sunjay Kapur, who last year captained the Qatar Airways team to its second tournament victory in consecutive years. This year the holders compete again in their distinctive burgundy colours, with teams from Julius Baer and Bentley making up the competition quartet. Whatever the result, Amr will be enjoying himself; and according to this power broker, chilling out in the process: “Polo is one of those games that when you’re in the game, you only think of the game; the concentration is such that everything else melts away. So in that way it comes as a great release from the stresses of my business life.”

Connect Dubai, UAE Distance: 377 km Flight Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes Frequency: 8 flights a day cartier challenge

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