HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Off the Beaten Path


The Middle East has a long history of enthusiasm for motorsports, beginning when the first annual Dakar rally kicked off in 1978, and in the subsequent years as competitive drivers and manufacturers from around the world flocked at the opportunity to challenge themselves and their machines against the hostile terrain of the rugged desert environment. Sadly, due to security concerns of terrorism in 2008, the Dakar rally was cancelled and subsequently relocated to South America starting with the 2009 race. Other high-profile motorsport events in the Middle East occurred fairly recently. In 2004, Bahrain became the first Middle Eastern nation to host a Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit. The event was so well received that other Middle Eastern nations quickly followed suit. In 2005, the Istanbul Racing Circuit in Turkey held its first Formula One race, followed by the Yas Marina Circuit in the U.A.E in 2009. These Formula One events represent the upper echelon of motorsport competition, and highlight the acceptance and integration of a traditionally western sport into Middle Eastern culture. But what is more interesting, at least to this author, is the enthusiasm for custom-built off-road vehicles and recreational 4-wheel drive off-road events found in some Middle Eastern nations and how similar these vehicles and racing events are to those found in the US.

Born mostly out of necessity for a competent vehicle to traverse the rugged terrain, and partially for the bragging rights to have the “ biggest toy around”, loyal enthusiasts formed clubs and organized off-road racing events akin to what has been done by “motorheads” in the US to share ideas for their common interests and put their vehicles to the test. The video above (filmed at a sand drag racing event in the U.A.E.) is a spectacle that most viewers would associate with a Friday night race in a rural American community. From my travels throughout the world, it seems that building and racing high horsepower 4-wheel drive vehicles is ubiquitous, if not contagious, and the Middle East is no exception. However, as any motorsport enthusiast will tell you, customizing a vehicle is an expensive endeavor.

From the video above, just glancing at those customized 4×4’s with massive turbochargers, air-to-liquid intercoolers and TIG welded stainless steel plumbing to connect it all together represents an investment of tens of thousands of USD. In light of this fact, it comes as no surprise that most of the 4-wheel drive clubs and events found in the Middle East are located in nations such as the U.A.E and Qatar, which boast higher than average per capita incomes for the region due to their petrochemical stimulated economies. Abu Dhabi 4×4, Team Saluki, Qatar 4×4 and Dubai Off-Road Club are just a few notable clubs that stand out in either organizing or competing in off-road racing and trekking events in the Middle East. One of the most famous off-road races in the Middle East, organized by The Automobile and Touring Club of the United Arab Emirates, is the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. At the time of writing this blog (April 1), this annual race is in the final leg of its five-day course. The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is comparable in length (~1200 miles) to the Baja 1000 (~1000 miles) that most in the US are familiar with, but the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is broken up into segments spanning a five-day period, whereas the Baja 1000 is completed in a single race.

Retrospectively, it comes as no surprise that people the world over would become so attached to their 4-wheel drives, especially in an area of such rugged terrain that most Middle Eastern nations encompass. The 4-wheel drive vehicle reigns supreme in mankind’s quest to conquer the unpaved wilderness.They are the workhorses that allow us to travel far off the beaten path, and return safely to civilization. The passion for motorsports is practically universal among people of all nations, including those in the Middle East. While we might think of aggressive off-road vehicles capable of conquering any obstacle the landscape can produce, and the clubs and racing events people who build these machines attend as a purely American (or western) phenomenon, there are people the world over who share this enthusiasm for their machines. This enthusiasm can eventually lead to like-minded people with shared interests finding each eachother and forming a club. In some cases, as we have seen, this enthusiasm sometimes leads to bolting two 130mm turbochargers onto a Nissan Patrol and showing everyone just how fast you can accelerate down a 400m sand track!

-Trevor McElhenny




  1. ashumway3 says:

    This is definitely an interesting topic! I have always associated souped up cars and trucks with monster truck rallies or NASCAR, not with racing in the desert. I wonder how the sand affects the wear and tear on the engines. It must be very difficult to have to clean all the sand out of the exposed engines after every race! Thank you for sharing your interest in cars with us. Good job relating your interest back to the material of this course!

  2. wcarter31 says:

    I never really stopped and thought about offroad races in other countries outside of the USA as being a “thing” but it really doesn’t come as a surprise to me after reading this. I am sure there is a lot of fun to be had racing across the sand.

  3. Travis says:

    Cars are actually one of my greatest interests. Whenever something breaks down on my car, I love to try to fix it myself. As a result I know that car parts are, like you said, very expensive but it’s cool to see the product of the expenses. You really made me want to go and try driving one of those some day.

  4. jkempa3 says:

    This is an interesting piece. I would be interested to learn about how that environment effects the vehicles they are using compared to that of the environments seen in Georgia. I would expect that the sand and dry, high heats would offer a new set of challenges than that of high humidity and mud found in the southeastern United States.

    • nsumi3 says:

      Exactly my thoughts. It looks as if they have some seriously beefy cooling systems and filters. I’d like to see a matchup between someone’s offroad vehicle they use in the Nevada/Californian deserts and one of the ones shown in the video.

  5. kimpgt says:

    I did not know that motorsports were popular in the Middle East- or even had participants. It is amazing that they host Formula One events and international circuits. I think it raises awareness and tourism to the Middle East. I feel that the rest of the world has a certain, strong opinions of the Middle East and most of those people have never been to the area. By participating and hosting motorsport events, I feel that the Middle East has a common ground with other countries, especially the USA, which has a fan base for strong motorsports. Like you said, hopefully this can bring people together and form organizations and club where people from all over come together to just enjoy motorsports.

  6. austinsoper says:

    Motor sports and the Middle East: There’s two topics you don’t often hear together. This gives me hope for a region torn apart by violence that there are some creative outlets available to the people.

  7. jyount6 says:

    This is a really cool topic, and it reminds me of the movie Hidalgo. This seems like it might have roots in the racing of horses in the Middle East. This is cool to see the evolution of a sport that most people don’t identify with the Middle East.

  8. missypittard says:

    Talk about a new perspective. It is crazy cool to see that not only rugby, but only recreational vehicles can bridge a gap between nations. There is no doubt diplomatic political relations are a necessary occurrence, but it is really like-minded people, brought together by shared interests, that will be the vehicle for global harmony.

  9. ssweeny3 says:

    Over the past couple of weeks we have seen many blog posts that have been about an idea, organization, or general interest that might bring the Middle East and West closer together. Now, performance racing can be added to the list that music and rugby are already on. This, however, is really interesting because of which Americans are interested in off road racing as well. The stereotypical American that enjoys 4×4 racing as a hobby is probably doesn’t have a great attitude to those from the Middle East. They, unfortunately, are probably the type who think that all people from the Middle East are terrorists who live in caves and have no sense of what is modern. This obviously proves them wrong, especially if some of these 4×4 teams from the Middle East can beat out teams from the states.

  10. corypope6 says:

    I never really thought about sand dune racing occurring in the Middle East, but now that you mention it, it seems like the perfect spot to do it. It also seems like a great opportunity to unite the West and the Middle East. Some United States racing companies should invest in these areas and solidify some good relations.

  11. cryan3232 says:

    I think that it is very important for the region that they are being given the opportunities to host these events. From your post it sounds like this region provides the ideal audience and support for these races and hopefully they will continue to be able to host these. However, if the threat of terrorism continues to pose a problem it may be hard to create a lasting presence in the Middle East from racing such as formula one.

  12. jenglish7 says:

    I find it very fascinating that people from diverse backgrounds and differing cultures can all find common ground when it comes to hobbies, though I will say I have to agree with you that the interest in motorsports is something I would expect more in rural American than in the Middle East. Though upon further thought it’s not as if you can say the terrain in the region isn’t suitable.

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