Sporting passions in MENA – Motorsport

In the first of a series of blog posts, Diligencia explores the links between the world of international sport and the MENA region.

In 1977 Frank Williams, then owner of a fledgling Formula 1 racing team, took the unusual step at that time of travelling to Saudi Arabia in search of sponsorship.  He returned home with agreement to run his cars with sponsorship from Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines), Albilad and the Dallah group in exchange for much-needed funds.  This decision kicked off what is now a long tradition of Middle Eastern involvement in motorsport, to the point where the region now hosts some of the most high-profile races and teams in the world.

On the strength of his Saudi relationships and with growing success on the track, Williams was introduced to Mansour Ojjeh, whose TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde) organisation also went on to sponsor Williams for several seasons before switching to McLaren.  Williams continued to find sponsorship from the Gulf states and opened a research facility in Qatar in 2009.  Ojjeh’s involvement with McLaren continues to this day, with TAG Group currently owning 25% of McLaren Group. Since 2007, the owners of McLaren Group have also included Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company BSCC the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which still holds 50% of the company.

Bahrain’s interest in F-1 was already well-known as hosts since 2004 of the Bahrain Grand Prix held at the purpose-built Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir. Construction of the circuit (which is 100% owned by Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company) was a national objective initiated by the Crown Prince, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in 2002. Since inception Bahrain’s principal flag carrier, Gulf Air (also owned by Mumtalakat Holding Company via Gulf Air Holding Company) has sponsored the event.

Interest and involvement in motorsport has developed elsewhere in the region too; in 2004, Qatar became home to a MotoGP event held annually at the Losail International Circuit and the Yas Marina Circuit has since 2009 hosted the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with State-owned Etihad Airways in the role of title sponsor. Real estate company Aldar Properties PJSC, constructed the Yas Marina Circuit as part of its US$40bn leisure, shopping, and entertainment development project Yas Island which will again attract huge crowds later this month.

With access to huge global audiences, it is likely Gulf states will continue to invest in motorsport as a way of projecting national brands, investment and tourism opportunities onto the world stage.  In the same way, we will doubtless see more relationships forged with MENA-based companies, just as Frank Williams did exactly forty years ago.

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