Cambridge-educated and a writer of poetry, Sheikh Mohammed recently pledged $10 billion to set up an educational foundation in the Middle East. He is known informally in Dubai as Sheikh Mo or The Boss. He is among the very richest men in the world, listed by one source at No. 5.
Franko Vatterott says he got to know Mohammed when the sheikh funded the elite Tri-Dubai triathlon team. With top triathletes from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Germany, the Tri-Dubai team won several races, including the Ironman, raised money for charity and brought exposure to the emirate. But apparently, the covers of triathlon magazines were not exposure enough. When Mohammed took over as Dubai's ruler last year, Vatterott says the security around him rose exponentially and his contact with the sheikh was completely cut off, as was Tri-Dubai's funding.
"The sheikh is like Dubai Inc., and he's the CEO," he says. "He will empower everyone around him to make his city like New York. He's willing to do whatever he can. They're rich and Sheikh Mohammed is trying to make everyone in his whole city wealthy. I really believe that he will allow people to go for their vision. That's why they're doing things that are beyond belief."
Vatterott says that when he first met Mohammed: "I was definitely out of place. I was very, very nervous. He would enter the room and make me feel instantly comfortable.
"He doesn't have an ego. Everyone around him has a huge ego. He wears a very basic Swiss Army watch. He has all these palaces, but he doesn't sleep there. He'll go sleep with the horses in more modest dwellings, while his wives and family will be in the bling."
Well, that would certainly explain the air conditioning in the stables. Although, if Sheikh Mo doesn't have an ego, why are there murals of him covering the entire sides of skyscrapers?
A trainer blares the horn in a white SUV and drives alongside a lone camel galloping down the dusty race track. This is a training day, and the camel is being put through its paces on the long Nad Al Sheba course. The camel is running on its own without a jockey.
Hold on, it's not running alone. As the camel races closer to the covered grandstand, I can see -- what the hell? -- a small, remote-controlled robot jockey on the camel's back, slapping its little whip against the camel's flanks. It looks like an overgrown sock monkey.
Camel racing has a long tradition in Arab nations, but the sport drew worldwide condemnation because of the use and abuse of small, underage boys as jockeys. HBO's "Real Sports" detailed the brutal conditions in an award-winning 2004 broadcast, the U.S. State Department cited the abuse in a report on the U.A.E., and Anti-Slavery International said boys as young as 4 were "deprived of food and water to keep them light." ASI also claimed the government had turned a blind eye to the abuse, declining to enforce its own laws prohibiting the use of underage jockeys. A group filed a class-action suit last year in Florida against Sheikh Mohammed and the royal family over their possible involvement. Lawyers for the royal family told The New York Times that the suit is baseless, and the paper reported that a judge will decide within a month whether the case may proceed.