When I found out I was relocating from the UK to the UAE, my wife bought me a book - one of those Lonely Planet things - so I could start to get my head around what it was going to be like living here. And one phrase within its hundreds of rather useful pages stood out more than any other: "Here the car is king". Or something along those lines.
The point its author was trying to make was that it's sometimes extremely dangerous just crossing the road in Abu Dhabi because of the dense, quickly moving traffic and speeding vehicles. But the statement had a far greater resonance with me once I started living here. Because, in the UAE, the car really does play an incredibly important role in everyday life for almost all of this country's citizens.
So, as you might imagine, when I heard there was to be a panel discussion on car culture in the UAE, held at Shelter in Dubai's Al Quoz area on Tuesday, I felt compelled to attend. It was the first event of its type that I've heard of here, so I had no idea what to really expect, but the evening confirmed what I've firmly believed since the day I arrived - the motoring community is as diverse and as alive as it is anywhere else in the world and, in most areas, more so.
The panel was made of five individuals who have a great deal of experience within the UAE's car scene, along with evidently huge levels of passion for anything to do with motoring. One was Damien Reid, who has seemingly endless levels of energy and enthusiasm for motorsport and is a respected journalist. Joining him was Gaurav Dhar, who many will know from various petrolhead gatherings in the UAE, as he owns an old hot rod affectionately called The Red Baron. Dhar is viewed by many as an expert on classic cars and he works tirelessly to promote car events in the region. Also on the stage was Mohammed Al Falasi, rapidly becoming something of a local hero, not only because of his disarmingly friendly nature but also his otherworldly abilities when it comes to driving sideways. He's our very own drifting king.
Completing the line-up was Ahmed Sharif of the Emirates Motorsport Federation, who works closely with government to promote not only motorsports, but road safety as well, and Mohzin Raza from the Modified Cars Club, whose car you may have seen at various shows. It's a Nissan Skyline with airbrushed paintwork that makes the bodywork look as if it's been constructed from dozens of riveted metal plates. All in all, I think you will agree, a nicely mixed bunch.
Reid kicked off proceedings by relating to the crowd of almost 100 attendees about what it was like here when he first arrived from Australia several years ago. "Every car on the road was seemingly brand new," he recalled, before going on to remark about how there is now a much more diverse collection of vehicles on the roads, something that is obviously pleasing to him and others. "I remember the first time I saw a classic here - it was a stunning Jaguar XK120 - and I remember thinking that it was totally unique for the region. Nobody drove old cars and yet here was this beautiful thing. Now there's a growing appreciation for classic cars, they're becoming easier to own and there's an improving network of specialists here who are able to restore and maintain these wonderful machines."
This sparked discussion among the panel about classic car collectors in the region, many of whom keep their fabulous cars to themselves. Opinion was divided as to whether or not this was a good thing, but in general there seemed to be an agreement that it was a shame we don't see more of them on the roads. Ahmed Sharif made a good point when he mentioned that some wealthy car collectors, who sometimes have hundreds of classics in their collections, view them in the same way they view their collections of art - they are for private enjoyment by their friends and families and it's not for any of us to dictate how or when they use their cars. Fair enough but, selfishly speaking, it's incredible to see owners out driving old Ferraris, Mercs and other vintage cars, rather than secreting them in some private museum.
Sharif went on to describe his involvement with promoting road safety - always a hot topic for those living in the UAE. He was one of the people responsible for an initiative where the police might end up following you around for a while and, if they deem you to be an exemplary safe driver, they will pull you over. Instead of issuing you with a fine and some nasty black points on your licence, they may hand you an envelope containing Dh1,000. "We've done it in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah," he remarked, adding that every possible avenue is constantly evaluated when it comes to keeping people safe on the roads. "Years ago, nobody wore seat belts, and that really has changed. Now we're targeting drivers who use their mobile phones, those who don't use proper child seats, those with dangerous cars. There's been a real shift in law enforcement on the roads, and people's habits are slowly, but surely, changing for the better."
The mention of dangerous cars neatly diverted the panel to modifications, which is obviously Raza's area of expertise. His own car must cause palpitations when it comes to re-registering it every year - I mean, what colour is it exactly? But modifications are a big part of car culture here, just as they are in the United States. There, most luxury car owners - particularly in massive cities such as New York or Los Angeles - change at least the wheels even before they take delivery of said cars. It's really unusual to see a Bentley, Lambo or even a Rolls-Royce, that hasn't been personalised in some way, and it's getting that way here, too.
"Modified cars aren't in themselves dangerous," quipped Raza. "The main problem we have here is the supply of illegal, counterfeit spares and parts, which are often lethal when fitted to a car. The UAE's government is fighting hard against this, and more often than not, when the police impound a car, it's because it's unsafe. They're not out to simply confiscate cars with noisy exhaust pipes."
The subject of dangerous driving was also discussed, and it was agreed that other countries in the GCC have a much greater problem than the UAE in this regard. We were shown a video that contained footage filmed in Saudi Arabia, with truly dangerous stunts being performed on public roads by drivers who evidently have a great deal of skill, but which is not properly channelled. Drifting champ, Al Falasi, had something to say about this.
"It takes a huge amount of skill to drive like that," he said, "but it should be carried out on private roads, not when the public is in very real danger. That is why there are growing numbers of events here, where people can hone their skills, whether they're already experts or complete beginners, in safety. The costs involved are surprisingly small, and we're doing all we can to give enthusiasts the opportunity to do what they enjoy, but in an organised, legal and safe environment. The people you see who get their cars on two wheels and drive them like that on public roads, they now have the facilities here to do that without ending up in prison. In Saudi and in Qatar, this is a problem, and some drivers have been executed after causing deaths."
Al Falasi makes no bones about how much fun it is to drive a powerful car sideways. "It isn't the fastest way to get around a track, but it's definitely the most fun, and we can teach people how to do it properly."
After an hour or so, the panel opened itself up to questions from the floor, and these came in thick and fast. Ghita Mejdi, the PR manager for Ferrari in the region, asked what was being done in regard to organised classic car shows in the emirate. "There is a collector here who has a Ferrari 250 GTO," she said, "and it's never seen. Perhaps, if there was a concours d'elegance here, where cars like that could be seen and judged in the proper surroundings, owners would feel more at ease about showing their cars."
After some debate as to whether said GTO is actually a real one, she pulled rank and said she knows for a fact that it is. And who's going to argue with that? But Dhar hinted that moves were afoot to get events like that off the ground. "I work extremely hard, every day, talking to owners of incredible cars, trying to get them involved in the scene, and I do all of this without charging anyone anything. And all I can say is that we're not too far from being able to show some results from that hard work."
Interesting stuff, and highly encouraging to note that the car culture here should soon embrace all the different aspects that are seen elsewhere. Other comments and questions related to speed bumps, badly surfaced roads, dirty petrol, etc, and Sharif said that his organisation, the Emirates Motorsport Federation, has a continual and open dialogue with different government bodies, and that it was only too glad to address these sorts of concerns on behalf of road users.
The overriding impression from this highly interactive evening was that the UAE is a car lover's paradise. Motorsport does need a shot in the arm - with the woeful lack of media coverage, sponsors are few and far between, which has an adverse affect on the sport. But again, that's an issue that's being tackled. What is beyond question, however, is that we are indeed a nation of car lovers. We have world-class roads, sporting facilities, low fuel and insurance costs, and cars of every conceivable category sharing the same space. For a nation as young as this one, the past 41 years have been incredibly kind to us. The car really is king here, isn't it? And long may its reign continue.