New Horizons: How the Middle East is making its mark in motorsport

It is no secret that the Middle East is a growing market for motorsport. With considerable investment in infrastructure, advanced technology solutions and strong fan engagement, circuits in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are fast becoming important fixtures on many international calendars.

Before 2004, the Middle East had no permanent motorsport circuits. Today, 17 years later, venues in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar host a series of motorsport events, including Formula One, MotoGP, Formula E and endurance racing.

Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) became the first Middle Eastern circuit to stage a Formula One race in 2004 and has since become a staple of the global motorsport series’ calendar. The venue has since cemented its place as one of the Middle East’s motorsport havens by hosting a wide range of national and international events, including the World Endurance Championship (WEC), Formula 2, the Porsche Sprint Challenge Middle East and the Gulf 12 Hours.

“When we started out, we didn’t want to just build a track and have a race,” says Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, chief executive of BIC. “We really wanted to invest in the sport long term. The history of motorsport in Bahrain does go back, but we’ve never had a venue, we’ve never had a racetrack.

“So that was a continuation in 2004 when we started putting Bahrain on the map. And then, by hosting a big event like Formula One, that served that purpose, but it was always about more, about how we were going to continue that and grow that story.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit joined the Formula One calendar five years after Bahrain’s debut.

The venue has since become known as the home of the series’ season finale, which is traditionally a day-night race that takes place in late November or early December.

“This has definitely played clear role in the development of the sport across the region,” says Ali Al Beshr, the circuit operations director at Yas Marina Circuit, when asked about the impact of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “We are widely regarded as a home of F1 in the MENA region.”

Yas Marina Circuit was also able to reaffirm its hosting credentials in 2020 despite the fact that a number of Formula One races were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The venue staged the final round in mid-December as the championship brought the curtain down on an interrupted season.

“The fact that we’ve been able to deliver a Grand Prix, although there were no spectators, was huge,” Al Beshr says.

“With the pandemic, as you can imagine, it was difficult for us because we had to lose a lot of the spectators. But I think we did deliver a fantastic event where Formula One were able to broadcast to a lot of people.”

In the midst of the pandemic, Yas Marina was able to host a Formula One race

As Al Beshr points out, hosting a Formula One world championship event in the midst of a global pandemic is no easy task. However, Yas Marina Circuit was able to do so by working with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government and ensuring strict Covid-19 protocols were in place.

“The pandemic was present, and it was very challenging,” says Al Beshr.

“Thankfully, through a combination of the hard work and the huge effort from key entities, including our local government entities, as well as the other stakeholders involved in delivering such a huge event, we’ve been able to overcome all these challenges.

“I was one of the people who had to quarantine for 14 days just to make sure that we were not going to pass any infection to international personnel.

“The main priority was for everyone to be safe. That’s why we had to put everyone, including myself, in quarantine before we interacted with any of the internationals.”

As the venue prepares to welcome spectators back for 2021, Yas Marina Circuit has also been making track changes aimed at improving overtaking following consultation with fans.

“We engaged with the fans just to understand their requirements,” Al Beshr explains. “I believe one of the reasons why we have this track upgrade was because of the feedback we’ve received from the fans.

“So, we are now changing our track layout based on the feedback we have received from the fans, and hopefully this year we are going to have a new exciting configuration where fans will be engaged.”

Joining BIC and Yas Marina on Formula One’s global calendar this year was a brand new street circuit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Motorsport is currently undergoing rapid growth in the kingdom, as Extreme E and Formula E also race there. However, the presence of a new Formula One race, which took place on 5th December, is part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, which aims to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop tourism. Formula E’s Diriyah E-Prix and Extreme E’s Desert X Prix also fit into this strategy.

Formula One raced in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 2021 on a purpose-built street circuit

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is set to sit on the calendar for at least ten years, until 2031. So far, the Grand Prix has seen a strong start in terms of broadcast figures, with UK pay-TV channel Sky Sports F1 reaching a peak audience of 2.66 million for its coverage of a dramatic inaugural edition in which title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton collided.

“The [Formula One] Grand Prix has also allowed us to start working on the development of a new motorsport strategy for Saudi Arabia,” explains Martin Whitaker, chief executive of Saudi Motorsport, the state-owned commercial entity which acts as the local promoter for the country’s growing motorsports event portfolio.

“The Saudi Motorsport Company is a spin-off from SAMF, which is the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation. So, now we will look at Saudi Arabia from a motorsport perspective, we will look at the commercial and the operational side of the sport and manage development.”

Saudi Arabia is a unique market for international motorsport as the kingdom has a very young population. In fact, 75 per cent of the population is under 35. Since Formula One switched ownership to US media giant Liberty Media in 2017, the series has worked on engaging younger audiences in a variety of ways, such as improving its digital strategy. Saudi Arabia is therefore a key market for Formula One to race in. 

“We want the race to be a differentiator, not just for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but for Formula One,” says Whitaker. 

To that end, Saudi Motorsport has forged partnerships that target younger demographics. For the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the organisation secured a deal with communications provider STC to digitalise the fan experience. 

“One of the first things we've done is secure a title partnership with a communications provider, STC,” adds Whitaker. “That was very important to us. 

“We want to really improve the communication that we have with young people. Working with STC, we’re making sure the smartphone is a key component in producing that journey going to a Formula One race. 

“So, you sit on your sofa at home, and you can book everything you want, whether it's your tickets, or whether it's what you're going to do in the fan zone and the fan villages, or where you're going to eat in the restaurants. 

“All of that is designed at making sure that we engage much more with the youth market and interest them.”

We want the race to be a differentiator, not just for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but for Formula One.

Outside of hosting flagship events like a Formula One Grand Prix, a challenge for circuits everywhere is ensuring that their venues remain busy throughout the year.

Al Khalifa, for one, points out that BIC “didn’t want to be a venue that just had Formula One”.

BIC also stepped in for Barcelona at the beginning of the 2021 Formula One season to host pre-season testing, followed by the first race of the season.

Aside from that, the venue keeps busy throughout the year to ensure that the small island of Bahrain is having a big impact in motorsport.

“We talked about grassroots and drag racing being important, so we build those into our calendar first,” says Al Khalifa.

“And then the rest of the team have to plug in and find stuff.

“The last two, three years, we’ve been sold out in our season from October, November to about March every day. We’ve had over 300 events, 260 events in 2019. 

“In 2020, which people said was a pandemic year, we had 148 events. January, February, March was really busy, and then at the end of the year in November, we had two Formula One races, Formula 2 testing and other events.”

“From November to this March, we’ve had four Formula One events in four months. So commercially, we have to keep this track busy. We’ve got 146 employees and they need to keep busy.”

BIC also hosts WEC and a wide range of other championships to ensure the circuit is used year-round

In the summer, when temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius, BIC also makes sure its facilities are being used, even if it’s not on track.

“It’s 40 degrees outside, so we’re not going to bring a race car here,” says Al Khalifa. “However, we have facilities, we have suites where we do our gaming events, our comic cons, IGN, anything that utilises the infrastructure of a Formula One track and all the fibre optics that we have underneath the track.”

Given the appetite to make use of the venue year-round, it is no surprise that BIC has been eager to return to hosting international motorsport events during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. But Al Khalifa stresses that a priority has been making sure operations run safely and that there is minimised risk to those travelling to the circuit.

Whilst visiting Bahrain, Formula One personnel had to take Covid-19 tests once every five days, and vaccinations were offered to those who wanted it.

“We showed that we could come back and support Formula One and the FIA [International Automobile Federation],” Al Khalifa says. 

“Credit has to be given to Formula One and the FIA. They were the first global sport to go around the world during this pandemic in 2020, so we wanted to ensure that all the Covid testing was done right.”

Al Khalifa also notes that the fact Bahrain has shown itself to be capable of hosting events during the pandemic hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader motorsport community.

“We didn’t know where this was going, so we tried to do as much as possible,” he says, when discussing the protocols that were in place. 

“Because of that, because we hosted two Formula One rounds in November, we have been getting a lot of demand. Any place that can’t race is calling us saying, ‘can I have a round here?’ So there is the demand, it’s not like we don’t have anything to do.”

BIC was also one of the first Formula One venues to welcome back a limited number of spectators to the venue in early 2021, but tickets were only sold to fans who had been vaccinated or had recovered from Covid-19.

“Bahrain is one of the highest countries that is vaccinating and I think has the second highest number of fully vaccinated people in the world,” says Al Khalifa. “Because of that, you say, ‘OK, am I going to live in this box of waiting for everything to change? Or am I going to say we need to move forward?’”

BIC put strict Covid-19 protocol in place to ensure the Formula One race was able to run as normal

Likewise, in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom managed to mitigate Covid-19 to host a safe race, which fans were able to attend after strict regulations and protocols meant cases were kept low throughout the pandemic. 

“Like everybody else, we've had Covid-19 regulations, national and international restrictions that we've had to adhere to,” says Whitaker. 

“I don't think we found it particularly difficult to do that. I think we've only had a handful of cases with all our staff during the period when we were building this race, which I think is encouraging and shows that we're probably doing something right, in the sense that we've been adhering to the medical direction. 

“I think it's also made people realise that Saudi Arabia is not a difficult place to travel to. In actual fact, I would suggest that travelling in and out of Saudi Arabia during the pandemic has actually been easier than most other countries.”

The Middle East clearly played its part in motorsport getting back up and running in the wake of the pandemic, but its influence looks set to increase further over the coming years. That will, of course, bring greater international scrutiny. Ahead of the inaugural Grands Prix in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for example, concerns were expressed once again about both states' human rights record amid accusations of ’sportswashing', with fans, the media and some drivers questioning Formula One’s decision to race there.

A lot of the traditional thoughts that people have in Saudi from five to ten years ago have actually changed radically.

According to Whitaker, however, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix can be a force for change.

“Let's not avoid the elephant in the room,” he says. “We want this race to change people's perceptions about what Saudi Arabia is all about.

“We want people to see that there's a strong culture here, there's immense pride by the people, hospitality is at the forefront of everything they do.

“We're not going to push it down people's throats. But we want people to come here and understand that this is a vibrant society. For example, 40 per cent of our staff are women, I think we tend to overlook that.

“A lot of the traditional thoughts that people have in Saudi from five to ten years ago have actually changed radically.”

Looking forward, Yas Marina Circuit is eager to continue modernising and play its own part in motorsport’s growth in the Middle East.

“We look to how we can evolve and the important thing for us is to continue to find ways in which our products offering can be improved,” says Al Beshr.

“As I mentioned earlier, the government are investing to upgrade our tracks, just because of the fact that we are taking fan feedback seriously. So that’s a huge investment that they put in place which gives you an indication of how serious we are about taking in the fans’ feedback.

“Similarly, we are exploring all the options and discussing with our local ASN to see what other additional areas that we can evolve in motorsport, i.e. motorcycle racing, as well as track racing, drift championships and so on.

“We have all these infrastructures in place that is all ready to be used.”

This feature was originally published in BlackBook Motorsport’s special report on venue operations, titled Places for Races, in September 2021. Access the report here.


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