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AlUla, a hidden treasure unveiled… and one hell of a win for Cambiaso.

©RB Presse

Since 2019, Saudi Arabia has been issuing more tourist visas and has started to develop tourism which makes that area and its hidden ‘treasures’ more accessible to the world. Among these is an extraordinary and still quite unknown site: AlUla, in the north-west of the country, which combines natural splendors – the magic of a spectacular desert with rocks artistically sculpted by the winds – and archaeological riches which are reminiscent of those of Petra in Jordan. A site we were able to discover during the Richard Mille Desert Polo tournament and thanks to the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (Afalula).

AlUla is a site the size of Belgium. At its heart is a spectacular oasis as well as architectural treasures retracing the 7,000 years of history that the King and the Crown Prince have decided to reveal to the whole world, a rather revolutionary approach.

Incredible, little-known heritage

Afalula and its Saudi partner collaborate closely to develop this beautiful region in various sectors, including tourism, archaeology, urbanisation and sustainable architecture, agricultural development, water and energy management, the environment, infrastructure, culture, sport, botany, and training. Afalula, chaired by former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, coordinates the skills and expertise, (mainly French) at the service of this development and on behalf of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). Today, AlUla has a population of 50,000, which will eventually rise to 150,000, which is neither surprising nor disproportionate. Buildings rise out of the ground at incredible speed. The priority objective is however to preserve these historical and natural treasures: the Nabatean tombs (first century BC), in the same vein as this civilization has established itself on the much better-known site of Petra in Jordan 400 kilometers away, the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms (first millennium BC) as well as the prehistoric remains.

The horse will have a large place in the project, as it does in the Arab civilization. Antoine Sinniger, director of the Afalula equestrian project, manages this activity on the French side with the Royal Commission for AlUla. Two equestrian villages will be built on the site: one, a culture center around a Horse Museum primarily dedicated to the Arabian horse, and another, a sports center that can host major show jumping, endurance and polo events. Competitions in respective disciplines already exist on the site and the best polo player of all time, the legendary Argentine Adolfo Cambiaso, is an ambassador of AlUla and has been coming to play with his Dolfina Team in demonstration on the desert sand since the beginning of the project as part of one of the major operations to promote the site.

For tourists, even before the site fully develops, even in a reasonable way, visiting AlUla currently remains a privileged escapade, far from the crowds of Petra. The hotel accommodation is already top-of-the-range and well-integrated into nature. And let’s not forget Maraya, the incredible cultural center, a palace of glass and mirrors set in the middle of the desert, reflecting its sandy and rocky backdrop. It hosts several events and concerts, including one by the Paris Opera, which we were able to attend.

Polo in AlUla: the Cambiaso Garden

In Palermo, La Dolfina’s shirts are emblazoned with the “Saudi AlUla” logo – quite a significant sponsor. Invited since 2020 to orchestrate the Richard Mille Desert Polo tournament, Adolfo Cambiaso has firmly established himself in AlUla’s equestrian project. He has become Saudi Arabia’s Mr Polo. In 2020, at the very first edition, he came with his La Dolfina players (Stirling, Nero and McDonough) to play a first arena tournament on local horses. This year, after selling around forty horses from his La Dolfina stud, which were used in the tournament, he brought an ‘extended family’: the 2023 La Dolfina team with his son Poroto, Pablo McDonough, the ambassador for the main tournament sponsor Richard Mille, and a few professional friends such as Alejandro Novillo Astrada and Polo Ralph Lauren muse Nacho Figueras, and the La Dolfina girls: Mia, his daughter, Lia Salvo and Nina Clarkin – all world-class female players. And let’s not forget the patrons such as Melissa Ganzi, David Paradise, Lila Pearson, and Nicky Sen. In short, the organization was 100% La Dolfina, with the addition of a few local players, mainly royal highnesses of the region.

Of course, in the end it was Cambiaso who won under the colors of Team Saudia, along with Nigerian Sayuu Dantana and American Melissa Ganzi. Incidentally, the team won the final by a score of 9-4 against the Richard Mille team led by its former team-mate from La Dolfina and now opponent at La Natividad, Pablo McDonough. It was the perfect scenario, with the two 10-handicap teams going head-to-head, Cambiaso undoubtedly a little more motivated and, above all, very well assisted in attack by the excellent Sayuu Dantana.

But the most important victory for Cambiaso was the cooperation contract he signed at the end of the tournament with The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). The respective press release states, “The agreement lays the technical foundation for the annual tournament’s success as well as the introduction of new events in the future”.

And further, “La Dolfina will assist RCU in the creation of a new Polo Academy in AlUla, as well as planning and executing training programs for the community, visitors, and Saudis eager to learn the sport under the watchful eye of some of the best coaches and players in the world. La Dolfina will also provide horses to take part in polo tournaments in AlUla”.  A good outlet for La Dolfina breeding…

“Among the sport’s most successful teams, La Dolfina counts Adolfo Cambiaso among its star-studded line up of players. Cambiaso and his La Dolfina teammates along with technical staff will lend their extensive knowledge and experience to the expansion of polo in AlUla. 

Sure to grab the attention of the global polo and sporting community, as well as KSA-based players and local equestrian fans, the new partnership marks the transformative and ambitious next stage in the growth of the sport, and desert polo in particular.

As AlUla aims to solidify its role as the leading winter destination for equestrian tournaments, the new strategic collaboration with La Dolfina will super-charge the introduction of robust technical developments, attracting players, teams, enthusiasts, and more to AlUla and its rapidly evolving landscape of facilities and purpose-built infrastructure such as the equestrian Al Fursan Village.

Members of the La Dolfina staff will provide high-level advisory, technical and professional assistance to AlUla’s polo community while also encouraging participation in the sport, increasing capabilities, and helping to establish new economic opportunities.

The new agreement comes with numerous benefits for equestrian and heritage sports in AlUla (and for Cambiaso, editor’s note!) supporting the promotion of deep-rooted cultural traditions around horses in KSA; expanding tourism into new markets with a sophisticated and dedicated audience of global fans; generating new avenues of economic development for the community; and engaging local people to foster a sense of pride and positive participation in AlUla’s regeneration”.

In short, a gigantic project which, in addition to the construction of a 400-stall stable on the site, will see the creation of two grass polo fields… quite a challenge in the desert. But one thing’s for sure: this agreement is another great victory for Adolfo Cambiaso, not only the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) on the polo field, but also in the polo business! Let’s face it, polo at AlUla is Cambiaso’s backyard.

Text & Photography: Pascal Renauldon / RB Presse

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