x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A concrete oasis in the middle of the Saudi Arabia desert

Gary Meenaghan visits the Reem International Circuit and discovers how it has expanded the sport in the kingdom and reports on their indulgent bid to secure Formula One racing.

The PorscheGT3 cars thunder around the Reem International Circuit.
The PorscheGT3 cars thunder around the Reem International Circuit.

The drive from downtown Riyadh to the Reem International Circuit involves traversing an asphalt snake that slithers through cratered, sunburned plains, over monumental kilometre-deep wadis, and into scorched, staggering, multicoloured sand dunes.

The landscape could not be more in contrast to the neon dust bowl that marks the Saudi Arabian capital; it is little wonder the residents of the city come here to escape.

Coursing the concrete serpent, the only signs of life are the roadside columns of variegated camels - black, white, beige, grey, brown - and the dirty, discarded refuse that indicates a Bedouin encampment has recently departed.

After an hour or so driving in such spectacular, unearthly surroundings, a splash of colour can appear so surreal and out of place that a rub of the eyes may be required for more than simply ridding your retinas of whirling grit.

And so it was this week when those who eluded Riyadh's tumultuous weekend traffic by travelling the road marked "Makkah" and alighting at Reem, found themselves staring at a vividly coloured Red Bull transporter.

The truck - more often observed in the paddock at Formula One grands prix than in a car park in the middle of a Gulf desert - belongs to Prince Abdulaziz Al Faisal, a 28-year-old racing driver whose father, Prince Turki, is the former director general of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency. His uncle, Bandar, owns part of the land on which Reem is built.

Abdulaziz Al Faisal is his country's first Red Bull-backed athlete and is quickly becoming the poster child of the Kingdom's rudimentary motorsports scene.

He competes in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East, which visits Reem as well as Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. He won the inaugural championship in 2010, finished runner-up last year and leads the 2012 season.

Born in Riyadh, Al Faisal learnt to drive when he was nine years old; his father allowing him behind the wheel of a grey Nissan Patrol, which he drove around in the sand on his uncle's farm. In 2005, after graduating from the Formula BMW school in Bahrain, he returned home with a plan: to build Saudi's first racetrack.

"At the time, I had a [BMW] M5 and we would go on the streets and race; it was crazy," Al Faisal told The National this week. "So I came to my father and said I want to do something on the farm - a small circuit for just me, my friends and a couple of car enthusiasts. He told me, 'I am not going to invest in anything, but we have the space and the land, so if you have the money, go do it'."

Al Faisal's uncle heard of his nephew's intentions and said he was willing to invest, so together the two partners employed Raed Abuzinadah, a family friend who describes himself as "a race driver who happens to also be an architect".

"My eyes were in tears when I was given the site," said Abuzinadah, who had never before designed a racing circuit. "I didn't know where to start because it was such an unbelievable variation of sand dunes.

"I built a tent and lived here for two years. At night, it would get so dark I couldn't even see my hands, but I would just walk around outside, trying to feelwhere the main building should be. I would talk to it, saying 'You think you are a tough job, huh? Well, I'm still going to build you'."

The completed circuit, with a track loosely based on Germany's illustrious Nurburgring, officially opened on March 5, 2008. Since then, much of the circuit owners' focus has been on generating and maintaining interest, but last year a series of meetings were held to discuss how to keep moving local motorsport forward.

With the government not focused on the increased tourism that comes with hosting a grand prix, bringing F1 to Saudi was not feasible. That left one glaring option and, predictably, the result of the discussions proved as inevitable as sunburn in the desert.

"We identified the target: within 10 years, we want to put a Saudi driver into Formula One," said Abuzinadah, who after designing the track was appointed Reem's general manager.

Every emerging country that has ever hosted a grand prix has the same ambition. The UAE already has a long-term project in place, while countries such as Korea, China and Bahrain know the success of their annual race is directly linked to whether they can offer fans a local hero. So far, none of them have come close. The difference with Saudi is they have incredible amounts of money and are not afraid to spend it to realise their goals.

There is a story, told by Reem insiders, that epitomises the circuit owners' willingness to spread their wealth. Shortly after the circuit's inauguration, officials decided they wanted to create a buzz.

Rather than embarking on a widespread marketing campaign, they instead bought 10 Lamborghinis, had them modified in Germany and then gave them to locals who had shown an interest in motorsports. The 10 beneficiaries raced at Reem and so was born the Lamborghini Superleggera Trofe.

The country's plan to reach F1 is equally as indulgent. In 2009, intent on creating a single-seater pathway, Reem's owners - six investors now share ownership - brought the Formula BMW school from Bahrain and agreed to sponsor 20 children through the year-long season. It is estimated a season in Formula BMW could cost anywhere between €150,000 (Dh725,000) and €300,000 per driver.

"If you are between the ages of 14 and 16, you have a free ride in a Formula BMW championship. Fully covered; zero payment," Abuzinadah said. "If you finish in the top three, you get a free ride at the next level, which is Formula 2000. And now, the winner of the Formula 2000 will get a free ride next year in either World Series by Renault or F3, both of which would introduce him to proper international competition."

One of this year's Formula 2000 drivers is Prince Mohammed Al Saud, a 19-year-old nephew of King Abdullah. Next season, he hopes to experience new tracks and new drivers around the world. A season in World Series by Renault costs €200,000.

"It is hard for people to start racing in Saudi because motorsports is a new thing here, but it is developing really fast and, in the future, it will grow really big in this country," Prince Mohammed said.

"We have always watched it on TV, but it has proved hard to convince people there is a right way to drive fast and it is not on the street. That is why this track has proved so important; I have really learnt so much from this place."

The lobby of the main building at first appears much like the foyer of any other circuit in the world - photographs of drivers, plush seats, signed memorabilia - but under closer inspection, Saudi Arabia's proud culture becomes apparent.

The luxurious sitting area is "for ladies only" and instead of F1 yearbooks, copies of the Holy Quran are in place. A sign on the wall reads: "Abbayas and Head Covers are Required".

Through the lobby to the left is the administration office, where, in a small enclave at the rear, a young man in a sponsor-laden green race suit can at times be found kneeling on a prayer mat.

"It is very important that everything here fits the culture, otherwise it will not be accepted," Bilal Kurjieh, the circuit's deputy general manager, said. "But the way we see it, there is no reason why the Saudi Arabian culture and the culture of racing can't coexist."

Testament to Kurjieh's words can be located on the first floor where a separate prayer room is located adjacent to a private lounge displaying the original Albilad-Williams FW07 that Alan Jones drove to the Formula One world championship in 1980.

At times, it is possible to forget Reem is located in one of the most conservative country in the world. A Dutch driver was reminded the hard way this week when, as he sat bare-chested and speaking on the telephone, an Arab man in a racing suit walked past and castigated him. "You are in Saudi Arabia, not Holland," the man said. "Put some clothes on."

However, if evidence was required that Reem and racing is growing in acceptance by the local population, Thursday's Saudi Racing Festival provided it. More than 12,000 people negotiated the concrete serpent so that, by the time Al Faisal secured his second win of the season in the GT3 Cup Challenge, the red, sun-bleached grandstand had reached its capacity. Walter Lechner, the founder and organiser of the three-year-old series, called the attendance "the best we have ever had".

Nobody is naive enough, however, to believe the swollen crowds is solely for a love of racing. The reason for the throngs, as everybody seems to appreciate, is that Riyadh offers its youthful residents little other means of passing the time.

"Interest is growing, for sure," Abuzinadah said. "You are in a country that is 60 per cent youth; they have money and they can afford things. But you mustn't forget they don't come because of motorsports - they come primarily because there is nothing else to do. There's a lot of missing elements here in terms of clean, honest, innocent entertainment."

Al Faisal agreed. "We really have nothing else: we don't have cinemas, we don't have nightclubs, so for us we have the choice of either going to the desert and riding on our bikes in the dunes or coming here to watch a race," he said.

When Reem held its inaugural Porsche event in 2010, it is said more than half the spectators who turned out were female. On Thursday - the first day of the Saudi Arabian weekend - the upper level of Reem's main building was filled with women: some wore burkas, others wore baseball caps, but they all adorned the traditional full-length black abaya. In a country where women can be arrested for driving, such interest in a car race is startling.

"To me, it is not so much about them wanting to drive; we are putting on a show," said Al Faisal, whose Facebook fan page shows several female well-wishers. "They don't need to race cars to come and enjoy it. That is what it is all about; it's a getaway from Riyadh.

"People who have never been to Saudi have this perception that everything is closed and women are repressed, but is not like that. If you look at the workforce, women are involved across the board; there are female staff here and Riyadh has the world's biggest all-female university."

It helps too that Reem offers a relaxed atmosphere in a closed environment. One female spectator, cautiously approached by The National, said she was attending a race for the first time and showing support to a male friend, who was taking part. "I have had a very enjoyable day," she said, having posed for photographs next to the car of Faisal bin Laden. "Would I come back again? Yes."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae