Scrof ponders the stereotype of the UAE's car culture, and whether it reflects reality
I haven’t mentioned it much on the site
(ahem), but I was over in the UAE last week. Visiting a country renowned for its car culture had me salivating with anticipation beforehand. I was certain, of course, that I’d step out of the airport and find the pick-up/drop-off zone full to bursting with overblown modified supercars, air-dam-laden SUVs and white Rolls-Royces. I’d emerge from the grey British winter to a world of sun, colour, noise, insane horsepower and dubious (Dubaious?) taste, and revel in every last pink vinyl wrap, gold alloy wheel and carbon fibre bonnet ornament.
Empty superhighways are now heavily policed
Of course, as you’ve probably guessed from this over-elaborate and exaggerated description of my preconceived ideas, it wasn’t quite like that. Rather than the sea of supercars, I emerged from the airport to find a sea of bland Japanese saloons.
Contrary to popular belief, bland Japanese saloons in fact make up a significant proportion of the cars on the roads of the UAE. They’re followed closely by marginally less bland Japanese SUVs. In fact, during my three-day stay in the UAE, the only time I saw any serious prestige car activity was on Friday night – their equivalent of our Saturday – when some smarter cars did emerge – among my spots were a pair of Ferraris, a Rolls and a C5 Audi S6. These were still not the vast throngs of high-end machinery that I'd expected, though.
It seems, therefore, that the live fast, play hard lifestyle of fast car ownership that’s oft-touted in the UK media and by television programmes like Channel 4’s Millionaire Boy Racers has been somewhat overblown. In fact, Dubai’s supercar content felt to me to be no higher, proportionately, than you might find were you to spend an evening walking around the West End. The reason is simple: ‘stealth wealth’ is the name of the game over in the UAE these days. Showing off is simply no longer cool.
'Stealth wealth' is now the name of the game
That’s also a reason the ‘anything goes’ driving culture that’s also often talked about is, nowadays, virtually non-existent. Another is that the UAE’s authorities have clamped down heavily on such behaviour. Where the vast, empty stretches of highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi once played host to impromptu street races, insane speeds and terrifying crashes, now there are speed cameras stationed at close intervals. The offence of racing gets you a fine of 2,000AED (around £330) and a 30-day confiscation of your car. And regular police patrols ensure these rules are rigorously enforced. This is not quite the libertarian playground it once was, then – so of course, there’s less reason to own the fast cars that once ruled the roost.
You’d think that motorsport would have seen a rise in popularity in recent years as a result, and you’d be right. New complexes such as the Dubai Autodrome and Yas Island have sprung up to cater for the die-hard enthusiasts who’ve had to take their racing elsewhere. Events like the Dubai 24H do the same. But it’s clear that these car-based sports haven’t permeated the public consciousness here anywhere near as much as they have elsewhere – the grandstands at the Autodrome for the 24-hour race were virtually deserted when I visited, and while the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix boasted proudly of a sell-out crowd, the circuit’s capacity is only 50,000 – by contrast, race day at Silverstone pulls in around 120,000 fans.
'Take it to the track', say the police
So what conclusions can we draw from this, then? Well, for one thing, the UAE no longer deserves its reputation for being home to an excess of wealthy, reckless playboys with brashly-modified cars. It’s a calmer place these days, as far as its car culture is concerned. Showing off is on the way out, and anyone who does still enjoy driving fast is clearly being urged to take it to the track. But whether the thrill of driving for driving’s sake will appeal as much as the old days of highway racing and posing remains to be seen. The attitude to cars and driving here - like many other aspects of life here - is ever-changing, and what form it will take in the long run is anyone’s guess.