DUBAI // Mohammed ben Sulayem, the 14-time Middle East Rally Championship (Merc) winner, has expressed his disappointment that the UAE flag will be notably absent when the Qatar International Rally gets underway on Friday.
He warned that his countrymen's absence could prove a direct threat to the future of motorsport in the region.
The Qatar race marks the opening of the 28th Merc season and ben Sulayem, a vice-president of the FIA, world motorsport governing body, travelled to Doha to mark the occasion.
However, on arrival, the president of the country's Automobile and Touring Club was informed no UAE drivers are registered to compete leaving him feeling "surprised and disappointed".
"It's the first time I can ever remember this happening, and it shocked and upset me," ben Sulayem, who secured nine victories in Qatar between 1988 and 2002, said.
"The Qatar Rally was one of the events which gave birth to motor sport in this part of the world.
"Rallying was the start of motor sport in this part of the world back in the 1970s. For 25 years or more there was nothing else. It has been the pillar of motor sport here for so long. It's part of our culture, and we have to protect it."
The Merc first took place in 1978, increasing interest in motorsports to the Arab world. Nowadays, Jordan features as a round of the World Rally Championship, while Abu Dhabi annually hosts the Desert Challenge and a Formula One grand prix, but global interest in rallying is decreasing.
"Motorsport has developed tremendously in recent years. We now have a vast range of events, from Formula One down, and rallying has fallen behind," ben Sulayem said. "But rallying is where it all began and the Middle East Championship has played such an important part in growing the sport's popularity.
"It needs and deserves the support of rally drivers from the UAE, and across the region. It's a fantastic championship with a great history and is something that today's drivers should embrace, and do what they can to attract the next generation of rally drivers in the Middle East."