The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is growing each year, yet the number of Emiratis competing appears to be dwindling. The event's most prominent figures, including its only ever-present competitor, help explain the reasons behind the trend and what the future may hold. Gary Meenaghan reports.
Emirati driver Yahya Al Helei still chasing stars at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Record books suggest children born in the west Kenyan district of Nandi and forced to run up to 20km each day to attend school unwittingly develop into long-distance athletes of world-class potential. Similarly, such is the sun-and-swim lifestyle of residents of Australia's Gold Coast, as the region produces more international surfers than anywhere else on the planet.
Apply such logic to a country built on and around vast desert sands and the UAE should produce a population accomplished at adeptly navigating harsh, inhospitable terrain.
Middle Eastern annals are filled with tales of Bedouin camps and desert-dwellers, Arabs who prospered in capricious conditions courtesy of falcons and camels, and their own ability to read the hand of Mother Nature.
Nowadays, however, with the Emirates becoming more downtown than dune-town, it is only natural the local population's abilities are shifting. Life these days is more about negotiating five-lane highways than ever-changing sandbanks. In that regard, Yahya Al Helei is a throwback to a bygone era.
The 53-year-old Emirati was born in Dubai and, with an amiable countenance and patriotic passion, is the only person to compete in every iteration of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge since its inception in 1991. He is referred to by event organisers as "the face of local participation" and thrives on his skill at reading the dunes, proving his worth by beating some of the world's finest endurance drivers in an inferior vehicle.
In his 22 previous entries, Al Helei has several finishes on the podium or top 10, while triumphing in multiple production classes, including the T2 category for road-spec cars.
Yet it is his tale of the 1995 UAE Desert Challenge, where he finished 18th, that captures the imagination – and the spirit of the five-day event – most powerfully.
Competing in the experimental bikes category, Al Helei suffered clutch failure after only 15km, resulting in his bike regularly stopping for up to an hour at a time. He was spotted by a fellow competitor at one stage huddling beneath a solitary bush as he sought shelter from the afternoon sun. As the problem continued throughout the day, the amateur rider was left with the task of finishing the second leg in the dead of night.
"My bike had stopped working properly and it was beginning to get dark," he recalled this week. "I had no option but to get direction from the stars and let them lead me back to the bivouac.
"On my way, I came across a camel farm and they took me in and gave me camel milk before showing me the road and sending me off. I drove for another 100km before reaching the bivouac. I remember it like it was yesterday."
Such stories encapsulate the adventurous aspect of a UAE race rich with history. When the promotional material for the 1996 event was released, Al Helei had been branded "The Starman", a name he laughs joyfully at now.
Yet while Al Helei appears to wear an almost permanent smile, his face becomes as straight as an axle when conversation turns to his compatriots' dwindling participation. The inaugural Desert Challenge was won by Mohammed Mattar, who defended his title successfully the following year, but no Emirati has emulated the feat since.
The entry list for the 1991 event is unavailable. However, it is understood to have featured around 30 cars, with the majority of drivers being from the UAE. Since the event joined the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies in 1993, the entry list has grown exponentially. This year's event features 146 competitors (88 drivers and 58 riders), but only 21 are Emiratis.
"It is going down," Al Helei said of Emirati participation. "There must be more people than what we have and it would be good if there was more, because we have a big problem in this country with too many people having accidents and dying from playing on the public roads. It's better they get educated and race in the desert, instead.
"It is not as easy as it used to be, though. Now there are no sponsorships available and, in this sport, you need sponsors. It is very hard without."
Khalid Al Falasi, an Emirati rider with minor sponsors and family support, said it costs between €100,000 and €120,000 (Dh479,000-Dh575,000) for an international competitor to contest the Desert Challenge. UAE-based participants are open to discounted rates, but it is, he says, "still very expensive".
The influx of international riders dilutes the chances for Emirati achievement, said Mohammed ben Sulayem, the race founder and president of the UAE's Automobile and Touring Club.
"Motorsport has changed a lot since 1991. We cannot grow the sport and not bring the international champions and the feedback I get from Yahya and other locals is they are thankful for bringing the cross country here," he said. "Motorsport is healthy in the UAE, but everybody agrees that we need new blood. To sustain any sport, you need a local hero."
Al Falasi of Dubai is convinced a pool of youthful talent is being nurtured courtesy of his country's growing foothold in international motorsport.
"Each year, I see the generation is slowly changing" he said. "Now we have the Formula One, the 24-Hour race, the Speedcars … so the young Emiratis growing up, they look at motorsports as a profession and one day we will have many very quick riders.
"But it will take time."
Naturally, Al Helei is a pivotal figure in promoting the event to the younger generation. The only man to contest every Desert Challenge has been joined in the field once again this week by his son.
Mansour, 21, was born a few months after his father's first UAE endurance race. Understandably, dune-bashing is in his blood. He will be competing for a third time after riding shotgun with his father in 2010, finishing fourth in his own car in 2011 and being forced to retire last year after mechanical issues.
While Yahya is a full-time endurance driver complete with sponsors and a public-relations team behind him, Mansour is in his second year of a business management degree and drives only as a hobby.
As a duo they could represent the UAE of old and new. When asked whether, like his father, he can read the stars to get home at night, Mansour replied: "No, but I don't need to. I have a GPS and a navigator."
Kahya Al Helei won't race Wednesday
Lying ninth overnight and leading the T2 production class that he was attempting to win for the third year in a row, Yahya Al Helei did not start Tuesday’s stage after co-driver Abdul-Haleem Zayed was taken to Medina Zayed Hospital following the second stage complaining of chest pain. Al Helei will not race in Wednesday’s penultimate stage because of Zayed’s condition.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE