Travel diary: why Saudi Arabia is betting on motorsport in a country where women just started driving in 2018

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Motorcycle riders pose together in Jeddah.  Behind is the King Abdullah Stadium (REUTERS / Hamad I Mohammed)
Motorcycle riders pose together in Jeddah. Behind is the King Abdullah Stadium (REUTERS / Hamad I Mohammed)

In 2018 Saudi Arabia had a historic change in which it allowed women to get their driving license. That turning point was accompanied by the arrival of the Dakar rally in 2020, the toughest race in the world, in a five year contract and that would be around $ 70 million. In the streets of Jeddah, where this Saturday will be the symbolic start, there is no party atmosphere and motor racing is not yet contagious in this country, which in 2021 also debuted on the Formula 1 calendar in that city.

But the economic complications in South America and climatic problems, particularly in Chile and Bolivia, caused this Middle Eastern giant to break in with its dollars from oil and gas and its economic offer was impossible to resist for the company that is in charge of the Dakar Rally, Amaury Sport Organization (ASO). In this way, this giant from the Middle East was left with one of the events of excellence in motor sport.

This region points to the so-called “sports tourism”, where they seek to encourage visits from foreigners with first-rate events. It is a policy aimed at boosting the economy in the long term beyond its energy resources. It is a causality that F1 runs in Bahrain, which paved the way in 2004, and then Abu Dhabi was incorporated, which has the definition of the championship and this year Qatar joined (it is already the classic MotoGP opening), which in 2022 will have its 2022 World Cup, and Saudi Arabia, with a street circuit in Jeddah that is now the epicenter of the Dakar as the race will begin and end in this city.

At Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport there is a Formula 1 showcar with the aerodynamic details of 2022 (Infobae)
At Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport there is a Formula 1 showcar with the aerodynamic details of 2022 (Infobae)

So strong is the impact of F1 that the local airport has a showcar (scale model 1 to 1) in the style of the new 2022 cars, although it does not attract more attention to visitors than the Saudis beyond the The place is completely tuned with billboards of the Maxima riders, which will race here again on March 27 in what will be the second date of the season in an urban setting that was built in a year. In short, in 112 days they will have had two Grand Prix.

It is a town where new buildings abound and there is a real estate boom. On the outskirts of the urban area are innumerable constructions of buildings. Cleaning is frequent, there is a lot of security, although it does not seem that the Police have much to worry about, with exceptions that this medium could witness such as the case of a man who crossed the wrong road with his young son on an avenue and was warned by an officer who cut off traffic and indicated that he walked through an unspecified place. Although the cars were coming at high speed, the distance between them allowed them to stop without a collision.

In the middle of winter, according to their calendar, the temperature does not drop below 28 degrees. During the day the sun beats down very hard and there is a helpful breeze and at night it refreshes in the best style of a March / April in Argentina. In the midst of the pandemic there is a strict protocol to circulate and enter any place where it is required to have an app that has custom tracking.

Postcard of Jeddah on a highway that leads to the city center (Infobae)
Postcard of Jeddah on a highway that leads to the city center (Infobae)

The Dakar Rally weather is not noticeable in the streets of the city, which is just emerging when arriving at the Rey Abdullah sports complex, which has a football stadium and another roof that is for basketball and volleyball, a place that housed the press room and verifications. administrative for drivers and teams. The service park is in the parking lot of the property that has enough space to house almost 1,000 vehicles, 430 that run and the rest are for the assistance of the teams, those who follow the competition’s caravan and if necessary help before some mechanical inconvenience to its competitors, except on the day called “Marathon Stage”, where only pilots and their navigators (in the case of cars and trucks) can get their hands on their machines.

The ability of women to drive was a historic change. “I like it, it was a great novelty. I don’t have a car, but hopefully one day I can drive one “, says Jurriz, who works in the press room and speaks clear English. “I’m learning about motorsports, I don’t know much, but it’s interesting to have these events”he adds. “This is positive for women and hopefully there will be more changes”, indicates his partner Shumie. Both young women accepted the dialogue, but clarified that due to labor issues they could not talk too much.

  Shumie and Jurriz in the press room (Infobae)
Shumie and Jurriz in the press room (Infobae)

They and everyone with whom it was possible to interact are respectful, of few words, but pleasant. They tend to thank you for everything and when you have any questions, they agree without problem and even offer to help if someone does not understand something or is lost. They are some of the 35.8 million inhabitants of a country governed by an absolute monarchy under King Salmán bin Abdulaziz. According to data from the World Bank in 2020, the GDP per capita was 46,742 dollars.

As a reference in the 2020 edition there was an economic impact of $ 20 million for the visit of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. While that does not move the needle of the economy today in this country, they know that over the years and decades it may be an important source.

Jeddah was the first venue to host the 2022 Dakar Rally in this Middle Eastern giant that will have eight other cities where the caravan of 430 vehicles will pass. The media also follow the journey of more than 8,000 kilometers and there will be more stories to tell in this travel diary.

The waterfront of Jeddah.  Nearby is the street circuit where F1 raced (Courtesy Roberto Berasategui)
The waterfront of Jeddah. Nearby is the street circuit where F1 raced (Courtesy Roberto Berasategui)

KEEP READING

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Kevin Benavides, the Argentine Dakar Rally champion who is on another trail in history: “Changing the brand was a decision with a lot of eggs”
Who are the Argentines who will seek glory in the 2022 Dakar Rally

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