Simon E Azzam, the suavely spoken CEO of Union Properties, has more than just a business interest in the Gulf region’s automobile industry – he has familial ties to it also.
Azzam’s two sons, Ramez and Rami, are both heavily involved in motor sports with Rami winning the inaugural Rotax Max Karting Championship in February and Ramez competing in this year’s Formula Renault Championship.
However, while the two brothers fly around circuits from Manama to Magny-Cours, their father works studiously from his base in Dubai planning how best to capitalise on a burgeoning and potentially lucrative motor sports market.
Azzam’s company owns the Dubai Autodrome, holds the exclusive rights to F1 theme parks worldwide, and, ahead of this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, has signed a three-year deal to be title sponsor of the ongoing Motor Sports Business Forum.
In the words of Azzam, Union Properties is “in this part of the world, the pioneer of the motor sports industry”.
Union Properties’ prize project is the sprawling 38 million square foot MotorCity development. Located in Dubailand, it is billed as the world’s first city based entirely on the theme of motor sports.
Within its confines, plans are under way to build “F1-X”, the world’s first Formula One theme park, a pair of residential communities that will comprise 3,200 apartments and 450 villas, and an Auto Mall, which Azzam promises will be a one-stop shop for car-hunters.
“The Auto Mall is like a shopping centre of car showrooms,” he says. “But it’s so much more than that because it also has places where you can register the car and test-drive it on the track. It basically encompasses the whole driving experience: look, test, buy, register and drive home.”
One feature Azzam is quick to rule out however is celebrity-endorsed buildings. A German real estate company recently revealed three signature developments to be constructed in Business Bay.
Germany’s sporting icons of yesteryear, Boris Becker, Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher, have each given their names to buildings in the hope that their success in their respective sports can lead to success in an increasingly saturated market – corporate real estate.
With the projects not due for completion until 2009, the checkered flag is a long way from waving, but Azzam still insists MotorCity is years ahead of such projects.
“Signature names are becoming a trend,” he says confidently. “We looked at that a long time ago and decided it was not the route we wanted to proceed with.
We, as real estate developers, know what we need to do and that is why we are building the Formula One theme park. It brings in the motor sports industry and mixes it with the entertainment industry. We prefer to look at the bigger picture rather than building towers.”
F1-X will be developed across five million square foot and will include an F1 museum, F1-themed roller coasters, grid experiences and simulators, themed hotels and restaurants.
Azzam hopes to use MotorCity as a vehicle to increase interest in motor sports in the Middle East, as well as provide Dubai with a possible Grand Prix circuit.
“The track [at the Autodrome] has been designed to accept an F1 race; it is certified Grade One so it could accommodate a Grand Prix. In the future, why not? But, for now, it’s still early stages.
“The motor sports industry has not been looked at in this part of the world very seriously,” he says. Other than rally, motor sports is not very popular in this region.
But now with the availability of tracks and the unbelievable popularity of the sport worldwide, it means it can no longer be overlooked. It is a rich industry that we need to be tapping into.”
Rich indeed. When you consider Formula One – undoubtedly motor sports’ primary draw – generates global revenues of $3.9 billion (Dh14.32bn) each season and is watched on television by more than 350 million people, it becomes far clearer why Abu Dhabi is building Yas Island.
The UAE capital’s major motor sports project will not only see Abu Dhabi join Bahrain on the Grand Prix calendar next year, but will also be able to boast of the world’s first Ferrari theme park.
Few would be surprised if Azzam was wary of the threat, but instead he refutes any suggestion that the Yas Island project could be competition for MotorCity.
“Not at all,” he says. “I see it as complementary. Opportunities are there to be explored and I expect motor sports in the region to expand in an exponential manner.
“What we want is to have tracks all over the Gulf. If we only have one track, then we can’t expand in the way that we should. “We can’t offer regional races on different tracks and attract drivers to the region.
That means that our drivers won’t improve as they should,” he says.
And improving the calibre of Arab drivers is the main goal of everybody involved in motor sports in the region – although perhaps a little more for Azzam.
Would it not be appropriate if the first Arab F1 driver was the son of one of the pioneers behind the Middle East motor sports industry?
F1 In Schools
Simon E Azzam is keen to stress the role of motor sports in society. The CEO of Union Properties says through taking to the racetrack, young drivers can let out their need for speed under the watchful eye of race experts, making the streets safer.
“Education is a major part of the motor sports industry as driving on a track takes the pressure and the aggression out of a young guy,” says Azzam. “They learn the dangers of driving at a high speed in a safe environment and become more careful, more aware and, essentially, better drivers.”
Union Properties revealed its latest educational initiative last week with the F1 in Schools project, a multi-disciplinary challenge in which teams of students between the ages of 11 and 18 are asked to design, test, manufacture and race miniature CO2-powered balsa wood F1 cars.
Dh14.3bn: Global revenue Formula One generates each season
350m: Television audience for a Formula One Grand Prix