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Mohammed Al Habtoor was already a fan of St. Regis hotels when he discovered the sport of polo. When he was a student in the United States in the 1990s, the original Fifth Avenue property served as his weekend home while he continued his education in business management at Cornell University. But it wasn't until the age of 31 that Mohammed, already an avid equestrian, picked up a mallet for the first time at Dubai's Desert Palm Polo Club after watching his older brother Rashid in competition there—a moment of curiosity and competitive spirit that ignited his natural affinity for play. “I played the very next day and have never looked back,” he says under the shade of his family tent along the playing field’s sideline, a crowd of fans forming around him as his valets equip him to play.
Witnessing that match led to an obsession that transformed the game's standing in the Middle East, and in turn, the Middle East's standing in the polo world at large. "As I became a competent player I decided to start my own team, and eventually a series of competitions," recalls Mohammed, who founded the Habtoor Polo team the following year in 2000, and is now responsible for uniting play between the region's once segregated, invitation-only clubs. The result: "Dubai now has one of the longest polo seasons in the world."
Now, with the St. Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort and Club, opening February 2017, in Dubailand, an expansive interior tract of vacationland in the UAE's most ostentatious Emirate, the ambitious real estate magnate has combined two of his passions, luxury hotels and polo, into one passion project by constructing a 6-million-square-foot luxury sports and recreation complex to champion his leisure time enthusiasms, and welcoming through open membership a more diverse audience of players and picnickers alike. "We just won a match over Christmas which was attended by Flo Rida, and the football legend Zinedine Zidane," says Mohammed, who took to the field that day as a flank of luxury villas neared completion in the distance.
"There are too many places in Dubai that focus on the Arabic," suggests Mohammed, who nonetheless prefers the traditional condura over western dress, save for when he dons his Habtoor Polo jersey. To differentiate the hotel from the city's private polo clubs, he drew inspiration from Andalusian horses, Argentine polo clubs, and rural Mexico, likening the palatial hotel's rustic charms to a palm-trimmed Mexican hacienda that he says would make even the notorious El Chapo envious. This resort opens roughly one year after the nation's first St. Regis hotel opened in Dubai's Al Habtoor City (in November 2015)—a man-made metropolis along a newly carved canal that also boasts Dubai's first W Hotel and second Westin, and which represents the largest investment in the region to date by the Al Habtoor Group, the family business that Mohammed's father Khalaf founded 45 years ago. And while Mohammed's retired saddles and mallets adorn that St. Regis's signature bar, 110 of his horses now occupy this hotel's state-of-the-art vaulted stables, which boast capacity for hundreds more.
For guests who don't wish to stomp divots back into the tournament field, the St. Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort and Club offers countless ways to observe the region's winter polo season at its peak: the quarter-billion dollar property has its perks. Among the hotel’s 151 rooms, suites, and villas, the two-bedroom royal suites feature marble terraces where guests can view the field from outdoor Jacuzzis, a field-side buffet brunch is offered at the Andalucia restaurant, and picnicking guests can take to the steps that stretch the length of the hotel's facade. However, it's Mohammed's ultimate goal for guests to actively engage the property’s sporty offerings as well––a welcome evolution from the original St. Regis hotel in New York, which a century earlier was a favorite destination for visiting spectators who came simply to watch the game on Governors Island.
"We became tired of developing properties where customers come to sleep and leave the next day. With Al Habtoor City we created an experience," says Mohammed of the mutliuse development, touting its spas, karaoke bars, nightclubs, and a forthcoming 1,300-seat theater designed to host La Perle, a Cirque du Soleil-like water show conceived by Dragone, the producer of Le Reve at Wynn Las Vegas.
Here in Dubailand, guests should find comfort in the outdoor pools, tennis courts, and Iridium Spa, but Mohammed’s focus for this resort is squarely on the opportunities for more equestrian pursuits. "I expect families will come so their children can learn to ride horses, and if you like, you can ride horses to a bespoke breakfast made just for you behind the stables."
Mohammed Al Habtoor doesn't just talk the talk; he refuses to abide bystanders in his own family, too. His three sons have been ingrained with a dedication to the game, a commitment proven by the extraordinary obstacles they've overcome on the field. A lifelong allergy to horses couldn't prevent Mohammed's eldest son from competing in the Royal Windsor Cup Series before HRH Queen Elizabeth II. (All six of Mohammed's children are allergic to horses.) "And my younger son was struck by his uncle. This is a habit with my brother," warns Mohammed, half-kidding, "to hit people with the ball in the face and knees." He also wants to make sure both his sons and daughters understand the business just as he now does, so the next generation may one day pave the Dubai desert with tributes to their own passions.
Of course, he was young once too, and he knows the discipline, even to complete a labor of love, is not so easily instilled. "It was a big shock, because I had literally just returned to Dubai after finishing my studies, and I was ready for a well-earned break. But my father had different plans than mine. I wanted to relax and hang out with my friends but he called me to his office at the crack of dawn and told me that I was starting work that day at The Habtoor Grand Beach Resort," he recalls. "My father is a great believer in on-the-job learning alongside schooling, and my position was something I had to earn. I even got sacked on a few occasions."
But for Mohammed, his fervor for real estate today is in stride with his love for polo. Once as reluctant to pursue the family business as he was the game, a singular success can have a transformative effect not just on the man but the nation. He says "now my plan is not just hotels and real estate but to open more fields, stables, and clubs around the country."
The St. Regis Dubai, Al Habtoor Polo Resort and Club opens February 2017, at Wadi Al Safa 5, Emirates Rd. 611 Dubai, United Arab Emirates; 971-4/435-4400; stregisdubaialhabtoorpoloresort.com.