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Mohamed Ben Sulayem, right. Mike Young / The National
Mohamed Ben Sulayem, right. Mike Young / The National

Drive for progress

FROM THE F1 MAGAZINE - Previously known for his rally skills, Mohammed ben Sulayem tells Gary Meenaghan of his determination to develop motorsport both in the UAE and in the Middle East

Mohammed ben Sulayem has so many cars he intends to one day open a museum. You name it, he owns it.

A 1996 episode of Top Gear, an English television show, shows him standing outside his Dubai villa alongside what presenter Jeremy Clarkson describes as “four of the rarest, fastest cars in the world”: a Ferrari F40, an F50, a Porsche 959 and a Jaguar XJ220.

The Emirati, who profited from the UAE property boom, owns them all.

In the 17 years since that show was recorded, Ben Sulayem, 51, has continued to add to his collection.

During a recent interview at the headquarters of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), the organisation’s president conceded he has ”cars coming out of my ears”.

His latest purchase is a 1886 Mercedes-Benz Patent-Motorwagen, one of only 300 in the world and regarded by many as the first motorised vehicle built.

Yet here is the kicker: Ben Sulayem no longer drives. The traffic in Dubai has grown at such a rate that he no longer enjoys the experience, preferring to be driven to his various appointments and allowing him to work on the way. And work he does.

As an FIA vice president on the World Motor Sports Council, Ben Sulayem recently was appointed to oversee a task force charged with plotting a 10-year plan for the worldwide development of auto racing.

Add to that his commitments closer to home and the four phones that sit on his desk (three mobiles; one landline) suddenly seem justifiable.

“The load is getting more, especially the international responsibilities,” he said.

“But once you take a position, you have to understand there is no way out. You have to either give your everything or give nothing at all.”

In the past few months the task force has taken its leader around the world, from Buenos Aires to Botswana to Dubrovnik. Ben Sulayem’s increased travel schedule means not only does he have to be especially economical with his passport pages, but he is also yet to step foot on a recently purchased yacht.

“I always say failing to plan is planning to fail, and it is true,” he said.

“The task force is a challenge and a long-term process. The FIA, during its entire 109-year history, has never had a plan and that is not healthy.

“It needs to refresh itself; the world has changed. The FIA used to just be about Europe, but now we are focusing increasingly on the likes of China, India, Latin America, South America.”

Of course, there was a time when Ben Sulayem was better known for his achievements behind a wheel than behind a desk.

As a record 14-time winner of the Middle East Rally Championship from 1986 to 2002, he attracted a cult following.

A close friend recalls the most successful Arab driver in history turning up to a Beirut car launch only to be greeted by a mile-long queue of fans, one of whom promised to name a street in Lebanon after him.

“In my day, nobody could beat me, I was undisputed,” said Ben Sulayem, who curiously never officially retired from racing.

Since he was appointed president of the ATCUAE in 2006, he has successfully transformed the organisation into one of the world’s leading national motorsport authorities.

He is also what Richard Cregan, the chief executive of Yas Marina Circuit, calls “a kingpin” in the successful running of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“Now nobody can pass by the Middle East and ignore what is happening in the UAE,” Ben Sulayem said at the recent launch of the UAE 2014 motorsport calendar.

Yet it is the future he forever has an eye on and having overhauled one organisation he is now planning to run for the FIA presidency at next month’s elections, a campaign that could see him become the most powerful man in world motorsport.

“Transparency is what we all want,” he said. “Things will heat up, but what is important to remember is that it is about the organisation, not the personality. It is the right person in the right place — that is what our FIA needs.

“People say I am ambitious: OK, I have ambition, but it is not about me. It is a big responsibility because once you get elected to that post you are a public service officer.”

Make no mistake, Ben Sulayem is a strong candidate with respect on the ground and friends in high places. He was approached by several federations from around the world urging him to run and enjoys a warm friendship with the F1 president and chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, 82, whom Ben Sulayem jokingly calls “Houdini” in respect to his knack of always having something up his sleeve.

“I always say to Bernie we need to clone him. He is wise and controls F1 and look where it is now. Of course, he will have criticism, but he is dominating and doing a great job,” Ben Sulayem said.

Ecclestone, when asked about Ben Sulayem as a future FIA president, replied: “He is a very good representative and a very important member of the FIA. He’s a sporting guy as well as a proper business person and is very competent. So why not?”

There are several reasons why not: increased responsibility and workload, decreased privacy and time, intense pressure, inevitable criticism, hectic travelling. Most of all though, any hopes he harbours of stepping foot on his yacht, taking one of his mammoth collection of cars for a late-night spin or opening a museum will be rendered unrealistic for at least another four years.

“When people approach you for advice, you might get annoyed, but you must understand they only ask you because they know they can benefit from your input,” Ben Sulayem said. “To appreciate and deal with that you must have a big mind and a big heart. And patience.”

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