Dakar Saudi Arabia project manager Yousef Abdu explains what the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation‘s hosting of the event in 2020 means for the Kingdom.

For the first time in 13 years, the Dakar Rally is returning east this January as the iconic race arrives in the Middle East for the first time. The traditional Paris to Dakar route was abandoned in 2007 because of security concerns in Mauritania but after more than a decade in South America, the 2020 Dakar Rally will be hosted in Saudi Arabia after a deal was struck with long-time race organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).

The Kingdom is looking to build on a growing domestic interest in motorsport, which has seen the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF) – headed by HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Faisal Al Saud – welcome the Diriyah E-Prix, the Race of Champions in Riyadh, the Saudi GT and the Saud Racing Festival. Saudi Arabia also hosts the annual Ha’il International Rally, as well as Rally Qassim.

Dakar Saudi Arabia will begin in Jeddah on January 5, 2020 and finish in Qiddiya on January 17, passing through Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Project and its ambitious new $500 billion NEOM region, which is aiming to be a regional tourism and business hub. Yousef Abdu, project manager for Dakar Saudi Arabia at the SAMF, believes it is another great opportunity to shine the sporting spotlight on the Kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is home to some of the most unique and diverse desert terrains in the world, and is a perfect platform for Dakar, the most challenging race in the world, to test the endurance of its participants,” Abdu tells Sport Industry Insider.  

“Dakar Saudi Arabia is an event that won’t just celebrate motorsport, it is an invitation to the world to come and experience Saudi Arabia through an adventure like never before. It is Saudi Arabia opening its doors and welcoming the world to see and experience our breathtaking scenery, local hospitality, and rapid development.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on a journey of modernity and openness; the greatest race on Earth unites perfectly with Vision 2030, which places sport as one of the main pillars that modern Saudi Arabian society will be built upon.”

Sport has been placed at the heart of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic agenda and the Kingdom’s 2020 sporting calendar is shaping up to be as interesting as 2019, which was a seminal year for Saudi Arabia. The introduction of a streamlined online tourist visa process has also been designed to encourage visitors, and Abdu feels that Dakar Saudi Arabia will be an exhibition of many of the country’s most appealing sites.

“Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 will be an adventure like never before. We are excited to welcome the world to the Kingdom to see and experience the stunning landscape of our deserts, as well as the history and heritage that can be seen throughout the race route, and the hospitality of the people of Saudi Arabia.

“Hosting major sporting events, such as the Dakar Rally, Formula-E and the Italian Super Cup, is a major step towards introducing the people of Saudi Arabia to a globalised world, and in turn welcoming the world to a modern, open, and receptive Saudi Arabia.

Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 will take in some of the Kingdom’s most dramatic scenery.

The Gulf has been well represented in the Dakar Rally in recent times with Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah winning in 2019, 2015 and 2011, while there will be homegrown representation this time in the form of Yazeed AlRajhi, a Saudi professional driver for whom there are high expectations at Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020. For the SAMF, the race is a chance to both cultivate and cement Saudi interest in motorsport with the aim of uncovering local talent in the future.

“Motorsport is the second most popular sport in Saudi Arabia in terms of audience,” Abdu says. “While the history of motorsport is relatively new in the Kingdom, the sport has managed to capture the attention of Saudi youth.

“We have seen many young drivers participating in local and regional races. And as we bring more international motorsport events such as the Dakar Rally to Saudi Arabia, such following and interest is bound to only increase.”

Driving in Saudi Arabia has been the subject of much worldwide discussion over the past 18 months after the country finally lifted its ban on female drivers in June 2018. That significant social development quickly became a sporting one too with Aseel Al Hamad becoming the first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation.

Aseel Al Hamad Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020
Aseel Al Hamad of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation.

“We have also had female pro-amateurs participate in local rallies, and home-grown female drivers are very welcome to participate in Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020.”

“Naturally, along with the lifting of the driving ban, women have been welcomed to be part of the motorsport scene in the Kingdom,” Abdu explains. “Last year at the inaugural Diriyah E-Prix, we saw Aseel mark the occasion by driving around the racetrack, which was a fantastic moment.

With the notable increase in the number of motorsport events in Saudi Arabia, it is natural to question what comes next. An inaugural Formula One Grand Prix in the Kingdom has been mooted by some but Abdu insists perfecting the current portfolio of events is the main priority at present.

“We are pleased to have a multi-year, long term contract with ASO to host the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia and bring this global motorsport event to Asia. The third Diriyah E-Prix will take place in Riyadh in 2020 and our own Ha’il International Rally continues to evolve each year.

“Of course we eventually want to bring more motorsport events to the country and we will keep the world updated when this happens.”