April 2nd, 2012
01:49 AM GMT
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(Image: Getty Images)

(CNN) – It was a storybook finish at the world’s richest horse race. After a six-year drought on his home turf (actually a synthetic surface called Tapeta), Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum watched with a royal smile that could light up the Meydan Grandstand at the racing venue he built on the outskirts of his emirate Dubai.

Monterosso, ridden by the French jockey he personally picked, Mickael Barzalona, cruised to victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. In a CNN interview right off the winner’s circle at Meydan, the Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates told me, “My heart was in my throat at that time and I didn’t know what to say but thank God we won it and everybody has won - all of the country - I’m double happy now!”

“Double happy” because the Godolphin stables took one and two after not winning since 2006. The President of the UAE called to send his congratulations knowing how passionate Sheikh Mohammed is about his racing empire.

Triumph and tragedy for Godolphin stable

The state-of-the-art facility was filled to the rafters with just over 80,000 spectators, who were entertained in Dubai style, including a dazzling fireworks and dance show which included a neon lit, acrobatic plane that criss-crossed the night skies in front of the grandstand.

The Dubai World Cup is one piece of a grand puzzle that Sheikh Mohammed has assembled over the past two decades to build out the brand of his emirate. Key pieces include: Emirates Airline, one of the largest in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, and the Palm Jumeirah, the near-shore housing and tourism development in the shape of a palm tree.

The chairman of the company that built the Burj Khalifa and the largest developer in the country, Emaar, Mohammed Alabbar says that the race “adds that important element, heritage, tourism, Dubai, horses, the Middle East, all one in the same.”

But is this translating into a full recovery for Dubai after the 2009 debt troubles?

The answer is mixed. Emaar’s profits were down 27% in 2011, with the glut in apartment rentals eating into its bottom line. Apartment sales were down 85%, single family villa sales were up the same, a sign property strategists say that excess inventory still needs to be worked through.

But Alabbar says all the other key components for Dubai point to the bottom having been hit and the arrow pointing to faster growth than the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is suggesting for 2012 of 2.5% for the UAE overall.

Dubai hosted 9.3 million hotel guests and cruise passengers last year, up 10% on 2010. Guests stayed longer, with bookings rising 23% from the year before and Alabbar says retail sales in his giant mall complex near the Burj Khalifa were up 30%.

Ministers who hosted visitors at events around the World Cup talked of the emirate benefiting from years of investment into “world class infrastructure” and tapping a broader market from South Asia to Africa of 2.5 billion people. No one can argue with what Dubai has become since I first visited in 1990-91. Its airport is the hub between East and West, the Jebel Ali port is the largest in the Middle East and North Africa by a wide margin and the Dubai International Financial Center is credited with creating a real home for financial services.

Long term strategists say it all happened too fast and on too grand of a scale. As we know by now it was built on a huge mountain of debt, some $118 billion, according to credit rating agency S&P. About 10% of that is being restructured in 2012 and there is no discussion about default any more.

Sheikh Mohammed built a strategy on being first, with such a long lead that he could stay ahead of the fast charging competitors with oil revenues above $1 trillion for the first time.

The Ruler’s response to the Dubai World Cup victory taking the top two slots is fitting for his emirate’s long term goal, “A one-two finish, I mean when they came to the straight I thought will we win or is somebody coming to catch us? But it’s great.”



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