United Arab Emirates Goes Gaga for Racing's Formula One; Welcome to 'Ferrari World'
By MARGARET COKER
Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates, a young country with about 600,000 citizens, has been using its oil billions to stage an elaborate audition. It's trying to settle on a national sport.
Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have played here, but golf and tennis don't seem to fit the cultural vibe. Soccer and cricket have won some local followers, but these games face some obstacles in a place where grass is a contrivance.
This past weekend, at a new $1-billion track in Abu Dhabi, the number of Emiratis in traditional dress who sat in the stands, relaxed on yachts docked at the course or mingled in the pits where the smell of motor oil lingered in the air, suggested this audition is effectively over. The winner is Formula One.
"This is one of the best things to happen in our country, ever," gushed Khalid al Qubaisi, a 34-year-old fan.
In the days leading up to last weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this city was fraught with the stomach-churning giddiness common in American cities celebrating the first season of an expansion team. Streets along the seaside promenade were festooned with flags. Public parks were turned into bumper-car arenas. Local restaurants served special Formula One meals.
When word spread a week before the race that tickets had sold out, some local families tried to trade in tribal favors for seats for Sunday's finale. The fact that Britain's Jenson Button had already been crowned champion two weeks earlier in Brazil made no difference, said Hamid al Marri, an 18-year-old Abu Dhabi native. "I want to tell my kids that I watched this live and not on TV," he said.
This race, the final stop of the Formula One season, was held at the brand new 3.4-mile Yas Marina Circuit. With 21 corners, the track has the longest straight in F1 and impact-absorbing barriers that allow fans to get closer to the cars. With 50,000 fans, an appearance by U.A.E. leader Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and entertainment from Aerosmith, the event was considered a wild success—one that has some talking of starting a local team.
"I've been trying to get Formula One here for 15 years," says Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the U.A.E's only professional race car driver. "It's a perfect match for our love of cars and love of speed, but our traditional culture has always been nervous about trying new things."
Formula One is, in many ways, a logical choice for this country. In the 1940s, around the time of the discovery of oil in the region, the nomads who roamed the vast expanses of Arabian desert treasured two belongings above all—their camels, which could carry their possessions and lead them to watering holes, and their horses, which were used in attack or defense. Both animals provided entertainment, too, and Arabs–and in particular Emiratis—were driven to own the fastest, strongest and hardiest creatures for themselves and their tribe.
The nation's existing sports culture revolves around contests of speed. Horse racing's Dubai World Cup, which kicked off in 1996, has an average attendance of 50,000. Camel racing also draws similar crowds and more regional rivalries. The rancor between fans of the sport's two giants, the son of Dubai's ruler and the son of the ruler of neighboring Qatar, resembles the animus between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
The nation's passion for cars, especially fast ones, is difficult to miss. The highway between Abu Dhabi and the desert town of Al Ain is a frequent setting for spontaneous—and often perilous—races between young men in their Porsches. In the sand dunes stretching to the Saudi border, parties of bored Emirati youth in souped-up Toyota Land Cruisers hold rally races that are the scourge of parents, police and environmentalists.
When neighboring Bahrain hosted the region's first Grand Prix event in 2004, a revived sense of competition spurred ambitions in Abu Dhabi, the capital and one of seven city-states that make up the U.A.E.
In 2005 one of the government's investment bodies, Mubadala, bought a 5% stake in Ferrari, and two years later, it signed a three-year sponsorship deal for Ferrari's F1 team. Over the past three years, Mubadala and its subsidiaries provided much of the funding to construct the Yas Marina Circuit.
This burst of enthusiasm—and money—comes at a time when Formula One, racing's most glamorous international circuit, is desperate for good news. German auto maker BMW won't be racing next season because of the economic downturn. Toyota was said to be preparing to announce Wednesday that it is leaving. Bridgestone, the circuit's sole tire supplier, announced this week that it won't seek to renew its contract when it ends next year. The sport itself has been embroiled in political battles over rules and proposed spending limits, with teams threatening earlier this year to withdraw and form a new circuit.
On Sunday, these issues seemed small and far away. Emirati fathers and sons lined up behind German and Brazilian F1 fans to snap up team T-shirts and souvenirs. The U.A.E.'s main cellphone provider crashed in the last laps of the finale, apparently due to the fast and furious text messaging in the stands.
Abu Dhabi organizers have reiterated their commitment for another race at Yas Marina in 2010 and plan to complete a theme park called Ferrari World to draw in visitors between race events. Farther in the future, Abu Dhabi officials say the government will be increasing engineering scholarships and opening a professional drivers' training academy in hopes of building a home-grown Formula One team.
"Excitement and enthusiasm for Formula One is stronger than ever," said Khaldoon al Mubarak, the chief executive of Mubadala and chairman of the Yas Marina Circuit.