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01 October 2023

rebranding the desert challenge

By Gary Meenaghan
Deep in the bowels of the Emirates Palace, down the lavish golden escalators and past the signs for next week's Abu Dhabi Economic Forum, Ahmed Hussein is laying out his plan for the future of the UAE capital.

The deputy director-general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) is explaining his plans for motorsports in the Middle East.

Everybody sat in the Emirates Palace is well aware the city will host the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – an event which, on November 1, says Hussain "will take Abu Dhabi into various new markets across the globe". But the reason motoring delegates, media and FIA representatives have gathered today is to hear about the capital's newest autosports announcement.

The UAE Desert Challenge, an annual event that has been shared between Dubai and its oil-rich neighbour for the past 18 years, will be rebranded and marketed as the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

FIA Vice-President Mohammed ben Sulayem will continue to be the chief co-ordinator, however, the five-day race, due to a hectic schedule, will move from its traditional late autumn position on the calendar to an early spring slot.

Such is the steam-train speed the operation is moving at, the inaugural Challenge will start in little over three weeks on March 22.

"This marks a new era for motorsports in this city," says Hussein softly from behind a lectern. "Next month we will see the Desert Challenge staged entirely in the emirate for the first time.

"We have a lot of confidence in this event internationally, especially in the Middle East, and with the race being broadcast to a global audience, we have a great opportunity to let people see the diversity of Abu Dhabi."

The rebranding of the race, which will likely see motorbike, quad-bike, four-wheel and truck competitors battle it out across the inhospitable Empty Quarter, comes four months after Ben Sulayem admitted, in Dubai, the possibility of postponing the race until 2010.

However, speaking at the announcement, the president of the Emirates' Automobile and Touring Club explains his decision to risk losing the brand he has spent the best part of two decades helping to build. "If we had waited until 2010, we would have lost the championship. Because if you drop out [of the calendar], it is very hard to get back in," he proclaims pragmatically.

"The name change is not a big thing. Last year and the year before, we had 97 per cent of the event in Abu Dhabi anyway.

"People still know the Desert Challenge, and Abu Dhabi, as the capital, has a part in that. It is better than having some oil company as title sponsor. I'm sorry, but the Shell Desert Challenge or something? No way."

Ben Sulayem, who won 14 Middle East Rally Championships in a long, illustrious career, says "nobody is immune" from the current financial downturn.

But he is confident that, with the ADTA on board, the event can grow to benefit the entire country.

"Yes there is a crisis, nobody is immune to it, but we have to support our event. Our goal is to make our home, the UAE, the capital of motorsports in Asia, not just the Middle East," says Ben Sulayem.

"We cannot ignore the current situation. But if that means tightening our belts for the next two years – who isn't? Everybody is."

Hussein, though, while acknowledging the current economic climate, is thinking not of future pruning, but rather future projects.

Two years ago, the ADTA launched an initiative that saw it become title sponsors of the BP-Ford World Rally Team. Since then, the emirate's tourism board has been courting the World Rally Championship (WRC) with the intention of hosting its own edition – a result that would undoubtedly prove the country's petrolhead pedigree.

With the hosting of the Desert Challenge, Hussein says, Abu Dhabi will "once again prove [it is] capable of hosting important, world class sporting events."

He continues: "This is an extension of what we have been doing for the past 24 months with BP-Ford: Supporting the whole model of motorsport in general.

"We stepped into the WRC world and we had a great welcome from the people. We now have good relationships with people from the WRC and the FIA so our chances are strong."

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan hosted the first WRC event in an Arab country for 32 years last April and it was deemed a resounding success. But with the new rotation policy adopted by the FIA, the Dead Sea race is missing this season.

Hussein, who attended Rally Jordan, is confident Abu Dhabi can join its Middle East neighbour on the rally calendar.

"We get a lot of people visiting us from the motorsport industry and they are impressed by the infrastructure we can provide," he says.

"We have a sequence of programmes planned and, while they are not to be revealed right at this moment, I think we will see the WRC in Abu Dhabi soon. Within two or three years we will hear some good news."