F1 racing in the Middle East picks up speed

Abu Dhabi succeedes in convincing Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone to bring event to UAE’ Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

F1, Formula 1 car (photo credit: AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
F1, Formula 1 car
(photo credit: AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
Bahrain was the only Arab country in the region to host a Formula One World Championship auto race up until last year, when, Abu Dhabi succeeded in convincing Formula One CEO and president Bernie Ecclestone to bring the event to the United Arab Emirates’ Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. 
There was one Formula One race in Libya back in the 1930s, but since then there was not an F1 race in the Middle East until 2004 when Bahrain hosted its first Formula One race.
Now Formula One, regarded by many as the world’s highest class of auto racing, will hit Qatar.
“The chairman of the Qatari Motorsport Federation Khalifa Al-Attiyah actually surprised a lot of the audience when he admitted in a live interview on Al-Jazeera Sport that Qatar is planning to host a Formula One,” Mohamed Sheta, editor of Auto Arabia Media Group, tells The Media Line.
“Qatar is one of the early countries in the region who already has a circuit but is not approved for Formula One racing. They were mainly holding motor Grand Prix and motorcycle races there,” he explains.
“There was also other rumors,” Sheta goes on to say. “We know that Bernie Ecclestone actually visited Lebanon a few years ago. Lebanon was very keen on hosting a street race like we have in Monaco, for example. And also some rumors that Egypt was planning on hosting some F1 races in the region and that would be a real surprise if Egypt would succeed in that.”
When asked whether there is a genuine motor interest in the region or whether the desire to host a race is a matter of national pride, Sheta responds it is the latter.
“The competition between Arab countries is something we are used to in many things, be it artificial islands, for example, if one starts with artificial islands, the others start as well,” says Sheta.
“Yes, it’s definitely a matter of national pride. If we look at Bahrain for example, Bahrain is a very small country and in order to have successful Formula One racing you need to have a lot of other circumstances,” he adds.
“You need a lot of motor sport culture in the country. You need a large audience that will go and watch the race at the circuits and of course you need the TV audience. So actually, Bahrain was not really the ideal candidate for hosting the first Formula One race in the region. Nevertheless, they succeeded in hosting it and have been doing so for seven years,” Sheta says.
However, Barry Hope, of Gulf Sport Racing LLC, a motor racing products and services company in the United Arab Emirates contends locals do not make up the target audience, it is the TV viewers.
“The market is the television,” Hope says. “In Formula One and motor racing the main thing is not to have a huge local following.”
Hope says that some 600 million people worldwide follow Formula One on TV.
“Most of the sponsors that pay to have the cars racing are nearly all global players and they don’t care where in the world they are and building the F1 tracks is nearly always done by the [local] government,” Hope says. 
“The return on investment is what decides [whether to build a new track or not] and it’s very good,” he says. “It gets their attention and puts the country on the map and with the rate of return on investment you have your money back in one or two days. And as far as the country is concerned it’s a major branding and marketing effort,” responds Hope when asked what motivates governments to invest in building Formula One tracks.
“It’s simple and works extremely well,” Hope adds.
Sheta agrees.
“Definitely, everyone is befitting this and this is why a lot of countries see it also as an advertising tool. The media coverage is amazing when it comes to the TV audience of Formula One,” he says.
“Like Bernie Ecclestone said in many interviews, he put Bahrain on the international map. Actually, this is true. I mean, very few people in Europe, for example, knew where Bahrain was located before it hosted the Formula One race,” Sheta adds.
“So this is definitely one of the main reasons why a lot of Arab countries are planning to get involved with Formula One and it’s growing.”
While one might think that an abundance of cheap gas would lead to a thriving motor sport culture, according to Sheta, that is not the case. 
“We don’t have a motor sport culture in the Middle East like you have, for example, in the United Kingdom, Germany or in the United States,” he says.
“It’s growing step-by-step. In the past 20 to 30 years there was maybe one or two Arab companies involved in motor sport, like for example, the Saudi Arabian Airline that was a sponsor of the Williams Formula One team, and now it’s starting to grow. You have the Abu Dhabi team in the Porsche Cup, and you have many Abu Dhabi drivers in the different rally series,” Sheta says.
“But the problem with Formula One is that if you want to start a motor sport culture, you need to start from the bottom and not from the top and Formula One is at the top of the motor sport and so far you hardly have any carting schools, for example, in the Middle East region,” he contends.
“Until you really start from the bottom…you will not be able to really grab the attention of the masses of these countries,” Sheta says.
“I think this is something that many of the decision-makers in the Middle Eastern countries need to take care of and start from the bottom, not just from the top.”