Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Prince of a Fellow

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - Saudi Arabia is bankrolling most of a big new art and archeological exhibition about the long relationship between man and the horse - and to promote it, a Saudi prince came to this central Kentucky city to talk Arabian horses and Saudi soft power.

The thirtysomething royal, grandson of the country's founder, is head of the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. Thus, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal Bin Fahad Bin Abdul Aziz's interest in the exhibit, called "A Gift From the Desert,'' which opened at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse ( May 26 and runs through Oct. 15.

I interviewed the prince, with Reuters writer Verna Gates, at a downtown Lexington hotel the day of the opening. Prince Nawaf entered in full desert regalia, accompanied by an entourage of watchful Saudi men nattily dressed in Western-style business suits. Gates and I were right on time. The prince was not, arriving 40 minutes late in the mode perfected by U.S. politicians and Hollywood movie stars. Once on the scene, though, he was affable and available, speaking largely through an interpreter whose English was not as good as his; the prince studied at UCLA.

We, who had been touring Kentucky horse farms, were not neatly dressed for the interview, but it was a rather quick invitation, almost a summons. We decided to go, despite our casual look; it's not every day that you chat with a prince. Not wishing to provoke an international incident, we lobbed softball questions and the prince stepped up to the plate.

Saudi Arabia, run by the hundreds-strong Saud family, decided to put this splendid exhibition - subtitled "The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse'' - in Lexington, because, Prince Nawaf said in so many words, Lexington is just so darned horsey. It bills itself as "the horse capital of the world.''

"With its history and knowledge of Arabian horses, putting it in any other city would, in my opinion, be a mistake,'' he said.

So, Lexington it is. The show (I'll write more about it in a future post) is magnificent. If you're in or near Kentucky, it is well worth seeing. Some 400 objects are on display, with the oldest going all the way back to the ancient city of Ur, 4500 years ago.

Ironically, though he is intensely interested in the sturdy, beautiful breed of horses developed on the Arabian peninsula, the prince doesn't ride - not anymore. "I used to be a rider, but after an accident I had on the horse, I stopped riding,'' he told us.

In theory, "A Gift From the Desert'' could have been put on anywhere, but it has been mounted in the U.S. the prince explained, because "Saudi Arabia and the people of the United States have a long-time relationship. Some do not know of this relationship. We want to enhance the connection between the United States and Saudi Arabia outside of the political phase.''

That has got to be a good idea, given the sometimes close but fitful relationship between these two very different nations. Both nations do, however, have a lot of people who know horses and care for them, and both have thriving breeding and racing traditions.

The prince opined that "a very limited number among U.S. people realize this fact,'' but said he feels "The ruling government of the United States realizes the friendship.'' Indeed, Prince Nawaf added that he considers U.S. President Barack Obama to be an interested and friendly head of state, and "all the people around the world'' have high hopes for Obama.

"I had the pleasure to meet him in Copenhagen,'' the prince said of Obama. "Although it was a short meeting, the way he greeted me showed that he really loves Saudi Arabia.''

I asked the prince if the Saudis would consider taking "A Gift From the Desert'' to other cities and countries if it is a hit here. He said they would.

One more thing about Arabian horses, and their importance in Saudi history and tradition: "The founder of Saudi Arabia, my grandfather (King Abdul-Aziz lbn Saud), unified the country from the back of a horse.'' Meaning, he rode far and wide in military expeditions, resulting in the creation of the modern Saudi state, in 1932.

With that, a smile, a handsake and a sweep of his robes, the prince was gone. That night, we would see him again at the show's opening gala, with its fashion show, Araby-meets-disco sound track, non-alcoholic wine (i.e., grape juice) and some very fine displays of jewelry inspired by Saudi traditional designs. And, of course, by horses.

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