Boris Johnson just got the biggest diplomatic slap in the face since President Macron last gave him one. And it may well be why he regrettably compared the war in Ukraine with Brexit. It could also have serious ramifications for the top horse races in Europe this summer.
On March 16 our Prime Minister traveled to the United Arab Emirates where he set out his deep concerns about the chaos unleashed by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Two days later President Assad of Syria arrived in the UAE and was welcomed by Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the vice-president and prime minister.
It was by then public knowledge that Assad had pledged to send 16,000 troops to fight with Putin’s army in the Ukraine. Sheikh Mohammed’s staged photo with Assad coming so soon after Johnson’s visit looked very much like a very deliberate two fingers up to Britain.
There is also the matter of the UAE helping Russian oligarchs who are allied to Putin to sidestep sanctions in the West by offering a safe haven for their ill-gotten wealth.
So what has prompted the UAE seemingly to turn against Britain? And what will the consequences be not only for Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed’s racing operation in Britain, but also Manchester City, owned by Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the UAE?
Sheikh Mohammed has been absent from British racecourses since his divorce was played out in the High Court in London. The Sheikh’s strategy during the case was straight out of our own monarch’s playbook. A dignified “never complain, never explain.” But it cost him £550 million and an avalanche of adverse headlines, all of which may not have endeared Britain to him. He has subsequently denied allegations made against him, not that anyone seems to be listening.
It seems trite in the great scheme of global tensions to imagine that a high-profile divorce can in some way have added to the UAE’s antipathy towards Britain. But within the context that the UAE may be feeling there is a general lack of respect towards them from our Government, perhaps it isn’t?
It certainly cannot be a foregone conclusion that Sheikh Mohammed will be racing his Godolphin horses as per normal in Britain, or even Europe this year. That would be a very strange juxtaposition to facilitate Putin’s financial supporters during this war.
And why should Manchester City happily play away in the Premier League whilst not being placed under the same restrictions as Chelsea? How can Roman Abramovich be subject to sanctions whilst Sheikh Mansour, through his position of him in the UAE, aides and abets Putin and yet faces no consequences?
Dysfunctional BHA is hindering crucial Levy negotiations
Joe Saumarez Smith will shortly take over the role of chairman of the British Horseracing Authority from Anna Marie Phelps. And he is inherent in an absolute car crash.
Phelps’ departing press release was an extraordinary work of illusion, painting a ludicrously rosy picture of the state of the BHA – although one insider told me: “If you think that was bad, you should have seen the first draft.”
There was no mention of the most important issue facing the industry – a renegotiation of the Levy deal with the bookmakers. Phelps’s failure to persuade Westminster that this is desperately needed if jobs are not to follow the best horses abroad is currently costing the industry a conservative £70 million a year.
This could have been sorted out three years ago if racing had been better represented. But it was not, and there is now a catastrophic collapse in investor confidence.
One of the reasons the politicians are dragging their feet is the lack of progress on sorting out the dysfunctional governance of the BHA.
Phelps appears to consider it an achievement that the board will continue to “retain the same level of independent representation as at present, in line with governance best practice.”
But who does she think she is kidding? Certainly not the Government, which has made it clear that best practice is for a regulatory board to be fully independent.
The board she has perpetuated has the regulators regulating themselves, and as long as this continues, there will be no help from ministers who would otherwise be wholly supportive of racing’s arguments.