While most of the sporting headlines concerning the Middle East circle around the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, for over a decade, the region has transformed itself into a major player in international motorsports. Most notably, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are all now key features of the Formula One calendar.
Last year, in what has mostly been a lap of honor type of race in recent seasons, the race in Abu Dhabi crowned a new champion, with Max Verstappen winning the Grand Prix and his maiden Drivers’ World Championship. Not only is the region hosting major events, but the sports themselves are gaining traction, too, ensuring that exotic destinations on sporting calendars aren’t merely for overseas fans.
Of course, Formula One isn’t the Middle East’s only stake in the world of motorsport or the world of sport at large. With money being pumped into venues, hosting rights deals, and grassroots competitions, the region has certainly muscled its way into the upper echelons of motorsport.
A flurry of motorsports in the Middle East
There’s far more to the Middle East’s motorsports scene than Formula One – even if the premier racing event is its most valuable import in this sector. Still, there’s certainly a great deal of hyper generated around the Middle East Rally Championship each year. First held in 1984, the tournament takes place across the nations of the Middle East. While the UAE’s Mohammed bin Sulayem once reigned supreme, Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah now rules the record books, most recently racing in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
Bahrain, relatively small as it is, has crafted itself into a home for motorsports. Famed for bringing Formula One to the region, it has also hosted several other events since the mid-00s. These include the GP2 Series, Desert 400, Formula 2, and endurance runs like the Gulf 12 Hours. Over in Kuwait, you’ll find the annual Kuwait International Rally and can visit Kuwait Motor Town. Pop over to Iran, and the Shiraz Rally has earned its place in the Middle East Rally Championship, with the races themselves taking place in Persepolis.
Along with the impending FIFA World Cup, Qatar has also made a name for itself in motorcycle racing. At Losail, Qatar hosts the debut race of each MotoGP campaign, as well as Moto2 and Moto3 events. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have a hefty motorsport presence. The Diriyah ePrix in Formula E and the off-road racing series Extreme E take place in The Kingdom, while the UAE has Dubai 24 Hour, F4 UAE Championship, TCR Middle East Touring Car Series, the UAE Sportbike Championship, and Dubai Motor City.
Such a massive range of motorsports events has truly bolstered the region’s standing on international circuits, but the influx has also promoted the sports among locals, too. Now, the most popular sports in the Arabic world feature the likes of Formula One alongside horse racing, camel racing, boxing, and cricket. The interest in the sport has coincided with the growing popularity of sports betting in this region, and as a result, the number of bookmakers offering odds on these markets has also increased. With betting options greater than ever, there are dedicated sites that review betting platforms and list the best based on a number of factors. Motorsports had little imprint just a couple of decades ago. Now, fans in the region can bet on events that come from the global stage as well as some of the more local and regional competitions.
The rise of motorsports in the Middle East
The Middle East has overseen absurdly rapid development over the last few decades as the riches from natural resources have been put to modernizing regional hubs. If one state had to be pointed to as the pioneer or catalyst for such an influx of motorsports, though, it’d have to be Bahrain. First held in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix in Formula One broke new ground, and by 2008, experts were talking about the Middle East and its pivotal role in the future of the motorsports industry.
Rally racing has picked up a lot of steam over the years in the region, with many of today’s top competitors from the Middle East citing desert rallies as their gateway into the sport. In the past, there has been a divide between the talents of the countries getting top-class grassroots development and funding to push further, but there appears to be a more concerted effort to build now, particularly in Bahrain. Now, the nation’s motorsport calendar puts a heavy emphasis on grassroots competition as well as drag racing.
Since Bahrain entered the Formula One scene, both the UAE and, most recently, Saudi Arabia have joined the fold. The three combine to bookend the 2022 schedule, with Bahrain opening and Abu Dhabi closing. This won’t be all, though, as Qatar looks to become the region’s fourth regular host on the Formula One calendar. The Qatar GP was quickly shuffled into the 2021 deck, will miss 2022, but will then rejoin in 2023 on a new ten-year deal, with the race taking place at night.
Beyond the realms of Formula One racing, the Middle East has developed and is now cultivating a bubbling motorsports scene, filled with passionate fans and increasingly prominent talent.