PH Blog: Dubai or not Dubai?

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
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
'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
'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.  


Comments (72) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Dr Imran T 15 Jan 2013

    Interesting, I was there last year and saw a fair few super cars. That said, the vehicle of choice seems to be big pick ups or the like. I know they like to play in the sand dunes a lot.

  • minorflex 15 Jan 2013

    Having visited last month I can say there was much screaming of V8 and V10 engines come nightfall!

  • El Capitano 15 Jan 2013

    Yup, I now live in Dubai. Come night the city is full of the sounds of supercars.

    Depends where you go I guess, any one of the malls has lines of exotica parked up outside throughout the day, and nice hotels/restaurants/hotels also have a handful of supercars in their car parks.

    I'd like to see some more classics though, or rarer cars. 458's seem to be everywhere. Saw a 360 from my balcony the other day which was nice, and a nice ford GT.

  • dxbtiger 15 Jan 2013

    I have been here for 15 years total, including constantly since May 2007 and I disagree with the 'changing culture' tone of this article.

    For the guys playing in the super/hyper car arena the laws of the land simply don't apply, they are all related to someone that can wave a magic wand over any infringements, supposing they can't do it themselves.

    They still chop and change their vehicles with alarming regularity, vying to be the 'first' to have the newest/latest/fastest/most expensive. Then modify them with very questionable results!

    Where the police are cracking down is the likes of me, I couldn't re-register my Mustang with it's Borla cat backs, had to revert to OEM exhaust.

    Whilst telling me that my car had failed Tasjeel (our equivalent to MOT) there was a swb Nissan Patrol with a twin turboed lump in it on straight through pipes being tested, part of the test is revving to establish noise. It sounded ridculous but sailed through the test. Out here that is called having 'Wasta' - influence.

    There has been a number of such 4x4's seized over the last few months that have been modified to run on jet fuel, for free, by local garages that use them as a working billboard for their services. They take part in drag races on the outer highways in the early hours of the morning.

    It is not unknown to be held up by a rolling road block on these roads so they can conduct the races, last one I saw was a 599 GTO going up against a Carrera GT.

    Yes they make a noise about clamping down but it really all boils down to who you are rather than what you are doing.

    The place is openly corrupt, that's their right and everyone knows it.

    That is not a complaint, an observation, it is the way it is here.

    I still love the place, offers me a quality of life I could only dream about in England.

  • Dr Imran T 15 Jan 2013

    ^^ I saw many 458's as well. There seemed to be a lot of very nice super-cars parked outside the swanky hotels. Depends where you go I guess.

    Really pleasant place Dubai and Abu Dhabi - Yas Marina is a superb facility smile

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