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An island oasis aims to bring VIPs to the UAE.
Published in BlackBook, August 2008
Brace yourselves—the Louvre and the Guggenheim are moving to Abu Dhabi. We had to trade them for oil. Kidding! Well, about the second part. But a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim and a Jean Nouvel-helmed Louvre will soon be cultural hot spots on Saayidat Island, a 10.4 square mile “island of happiness” (both literal translation and marketing slogan) less than half a mile from Abu Dhabi’s shores. The island, which has up to now been totally undeveloped, will over the next 15 years become a luxury community complete with residences, hotels and resorts, museums, restaurants and shops, a performing arts center, and even an NYU campus. While its main purpose is to boost tourism to the UAE, developers expect a year-round population of 150,000.
The official website has the feel of a videogame introduction (“Great explorers passed through these desert lands in search of a dream … they discovered the property of life …”) and the renderings resemble a mystical Sim City (the Performing Arts Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher, juts out over the sea like a futuristic amoeba), but Saadiyat promises to be a very real destination that bridges global cultures (case in point: France doesn’t give up the Louvre to just anyone). It’s not exactly secluded—two 10-lane freeways will connect the island to the mainland—but it is an easier trip than it seems, a mere 15 miles from the Abu Dhabi International airport. And you have plenty of time to pack: the first phases of development are scheduled for completion by 2012.
The women of championship Polo.
Published in Bridgehampton Polo (yes, secretly I am a polo master! Kidding), Summer 2008.
Polo, much like golf, hunting, and the presidency of the United States, has long been considered an upper-class men’s sport, but you wouldn’t know it at the Southampton Hunt & Polo Club. The first New York club to have an all-woman league, Southampton has seen women coming out to play in ever-increasing numbers, and the rest of the country seems to be following suit.
As recently as a decade ago, female players were few and far between in the 2,000 year-old sport. “I didn’t really see any women at first,” says Ashley Schiff, one of the highest-ranking players in the Northeast and the only woman to ever compete at Bridgehampton Polo Club (in the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge, see sidebar). “Then, after college, I started playing in Florida. It was the first time I saw incredibly competitive female players, like Vicky Armour and Sunny Hale, women who were great athletes and great polo players.” Hale, one of the top female polo players in the United States and the first woman to achieve a four-goal ranking, played her first match in 1979 at the age of ten and went on to found the Women’s Championship Tournament Polo (WCT) in 2005. “The only challenge I faced as a woman was getting the opportunity to play on teams as a professional player,” she recalls. “This was not the norm when I started.”
Professional athletes like Hale and Schiff share a deep commitment to and love of the sport (“I think polo is the most exciting sport around,” says Schiff). But there are other factors drawing more and more novice women players to the field.
“Women like polo because it is very social and team-oriented,” says Stacey Widlitz, who plays Novice/Intermediate League at Southampton Polo and is one of the organizers of the club’s recent Ladies Cup (see sidebar). Schiff agrees. “Women who showed as kids and want to get back into riding are seeing polo as a great opportunity for team play and competition,” she says. “Showing is very individual, and polo is very social.”
Women are well-suited to the sport, Widlitz adds, because so many of them have riding experience. “Most of the women who play polo have equestrian backgrounds,” she says, “So they are already skilled at riding. A lot of men have never been on a horse!” This gender divide tends to give women a leg up. “Your level of competence in polo is mainly based on the quality of your horse and your skill at riding,” says Widlitz. “Obviously there is some strength and muscle involved, but there’s not a real handicap for women.” Schiff is more blunt. “In polo, your horsemanship is of paramount importance,” she says. “The better you ride, the better you play, and that’s the bottom line.”
While riding skills are not gender-specific, “there are differences between male and female players,” Schiff admits. “After all, the best male player is a 10-goal and the best female player is only a 5-goal. I think that has to do with strength and maybe an inherent craziness. I mean, polo can be a dangerous sport. Women are a bit more practical and a bit more hesitant.” That said, she is quick to add that there are two women who have been on teams that have won the US Open—Gillian Johnston and Sunny Hale. “Women are just as aggressive as men,” Widlitz agrees. “I went to a coed match last year, and you wouldn’t know if it was a man or a woman playing, except for the ponytail.”
Increased visibility and media attention may be another reason that women are flocking to the fields. “I think that women’s polo in general is experiencing a new attraction and direction due to the network created between top women players, new players and sponsors through the WCT,” says Hale. “Polo has also become more commercialized,” says Widlitz. “It’s been made into a social event and sponsored by big name brands, so more women have watched it and thought, ‘Hey, I want to try that.’”
Frank McNamara, the president of the Southampton Hunt & Polo Club, is more puzzled by the influx of female players. “I don’t think polo is becoming more popular,” he says. “In fact, if you exclude the women, I think growth is probably declining.” Still, McNamara estimates that 80 percent of new members of Southampton are female, including 16 of its 19 novice players. “We do try very hard to make polo accessible to everyone,” he says. “And women seem to be responding.”
Widlitz adds that “inviting beginners into the sport has made it much more open for women. Most people don’t realize that polo is very approachable, and not all that expensive. You have to have a certain level of financial stability to afford the horse and training, but it’s far from the exclusivity people perceive.” Southampton makes everything is one of the few clubs that has a novice league, Widlitz says, which makes polo more accessible to women who are just beginning to learn.
Both Schiff and Widlitz agree that all types of women play at Southampton—“women who got hooked on it because their husbands play; single women; Wall Street women; artists.” And while Schiff is still the only woman to play at Bridgehampton (and will play again at this year’s tournament—see sidebar), she says that she isn’t treated any differently by her male teammates. “They see me as one of the guys.”