AUGUST 18, 2008
A new target in the Middle East
Not long ago, motor racing was banned in Saudi Arabia, but as the sport spreads through the Middle East, things are changing. In 2007 the kingdom was included in the FIA calendar for the first time with a round of the FIA International Cup for Cross-Country Bajas. In 2008 the laws were changed to allow for the construction of racing circuits and very rapidly several facilities have emerged, including a privately-owned circuit near Riyadh, called the Reem Auto Club Experience and a dragstrip in Jeddah.
Saudi has great potential for the sport. It is the largest automotive market in the region with half a million new vehicles sold each year and it has its own Saudi International Motor Show in Jeddah. The country has an oil-based economy - with 25% of the world's proven petroleum reserves and 75% of the national revenues coming from oil. The government is keen to reduce the country's dependence on oil and is investing in a number of different sectors, notably tourism, especially along the Red Sea coast.
To date Saudi involvement in motorsport has been solely financial, beginning in the late 1970s when a consortium of Saudi firms including Saudia, Albilad, Technique d'avant Garde (TAG), and Dallah-Avco all help to fund Williams. TAG went on to become a partner in McLaren, funding the highly-successful Porsche-built TAG turbo engines in the 1980s and the Ojjeh family is still involved in McLaren.
It is interesting to note, therefore, that Saudi Telecom, the largest telecom company in the Middle East, has just agreed a five-year sponsorship deal with English Premier League club, Manchester United.
If soccer can find money in Saudi Arabia, one would imagine that motor racing can do likewise, particularly given the links between the automobile industry and oil.