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!