At the age of 17, Khalid bin Shaiban had his first racing kart. The problem was, there was nowhere to drive it. The year was 1993 and the UAE had not a single karting circuit.
“We couldn’t really drive it on the roads, either,” Bin Shaiban says. “We had to be careful were we took it.”
As he sits in his office plotting just about every aspect of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is hard to imagine just how far he, and motorsport in the UAE, have come in the ensuing 20 years.
Sunday marks the fifth grand prix Bin Shaiban has overseen as a national steward. One of the four stewards at each grand prix must come from the host country.
“As national steward this is my fifth year at F1, which really is the best and biggest form of motor racing,” he says. “It takes a tremendous amount of details in the organisation.
“From the drivers to the teams, as a whole, to managing the race itself, from the marshals to main race control, it really involves many people at different levels of exposure.”
As well as being one of most high-profile figures in the UAE’s fledgling motorsport industry, Bin Shaiban also holds the office of director general of the General Secretariat of the Executive Council, vice chairman of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM) and the deputy chairman of the Board of Directors of Al Ain Sportplex.
He previously held several managerial positions at Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) for seven years.
“Since the grand prix started five years ago here in Abu Dhabi we’ve seen tremendous interest from all nationalities across the UAE towards all motorsport, from karting to circuit racing.”
His love of racing comes through in his words. Not surprisingly, karting, often the stepping stone to other racing categories, has a special place in Bin Shaiban’s affection.
The future of Emirati racing, he says, will be built on its success.
“We’ve seen karting grow,” Bin Shaiban points out. “We used to have a grid of 10 racers, and now we have 60 to 70 competitors for each race, it’s amazing how much the motorsport industry, especially in karting, has grown in the last five years.
“We’ve had different facilities open more recently in different emirates. We have karting circuits open in Abu Dhabi, like Al Forsan and the temporary circuit at Yas Marina, plus we have established circuits like Al Ain raceway which covers the eastern region.”
Beyond karting, Bin Shaiban is proud that motor racing in general, and not just Formula One, is starting to flourish across the nation.
He highlights the achievements of Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi in rallying, and Khaled Al Qubaisi, who became the first Emirati to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but says special attention and training should also be given to drivers at a very young age.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s big race, Bin Shaiban says the make-up of the crowd is an indication of how popular the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has become.
“You’ll see the F1 race here brings exposure to people from all around the world,” he says. “Everyone who has a passion for the motorsport, and not just F1, will come here to see the event.”
Bin Shaiban also says that the UAE’s geographical location, not to mention its demographic, means the crowds at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix tend to be some of the most diverse and colourful seen at any circuit throughout out the season.
“I think Abu Dhabi as a destination links the East and the West, and of course in the UAE we have 200 nationalities which also adds more to the sport, it’s not just about the nationals here in the UAE,” says the Abu Dhabi resident. “In each form of racing, too, it’s not only the Emiratis taking part, we have diverse nationalities on each grid which is really helping advance motorsport, and every one who takes part in the UAE.”
For race day, Bin Shaiban says he may allow himself the pleasure of mingling with the crowds briefly, but business comes first.
“Safety is paramount, it is the most important thing for me,” he says. “We must make sure everything runs smoothly.”
As he prepares for the latest “biggest” day in UAE motorsport, Bin Shaiban thinks back to the very first race.
“Being here for the fifth year, you can see that the organisation is becoming very smooth compared to the first year when everyone was really experiencing it for the first time,” he says. “I’m really proud of how the motorsport industry has grown in the last five years in the UAE.”
Indeed. And for the 17-year-old karter in him, over the last 20, too.
Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE