Abu Dhabi Grand Prix champion Max Verstappen is not the only one defending his title on Yas Island this week.
A few kilometres north at the Yas Acres Golf Club, pop star Akon was perfecting his approach shot at the 12th hole as part of the Steve Harvey Golf Classic.
Named after the comedian and television host and organised by Melt Middle East — an events and consulting company — the friendly tournament is part of a week of star-studded events including a gala dinner at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Friday followed by the big race at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.
Some of those invited to play were Emmy Award-nominated actor Anthony Anderson, comedian D L Hughley, model Chanel Ayan, fashion designer Lesa Milan and boxer Badou Jack.
Speaking to The National, the tournament’s inaugural winner Akon says the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is the reason why he returned to the emirate.
A regular visitor to the event, both as a celebrity guest and performer, he says the race has grown to become an important networking opportunity for established and budding entrepreneurs.
“Abu Dhabi is a great place for various forms of conventions as it brings together people from all over the world to create opportunities for each other,” he says.
“And sport is a great platform to have some of this communication and exchange ideas. Great work can come of these things and I make sure, whenever I return here, to meet people and nurture these contacts.”
While price tags to the F1 Grand Prix lounges are expensive globally — prices at The Luna Lounge at Yas Marina Circuit start at Dh7,000, for example — Akon says it is a worthwhile investment, providing you come prepared.
“Listen, if you want to have fun then the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will definitely give you that,” Akon says.
“But as an entrepreneur it is also a place to make important connections so you do need to come prepared if you make that investment.
"You can meet people who will provide a value to your business that you may not give yourself.
“And there will also be people who can provide you with ideas you never thought off to place your business in a new position. So you need to come to these events with an open mind and a spirit of collaboration."
As for Anderson, star of hit television sitcom Black-ish, he says exposure to a new culture is what brought him to Abu Dhabi.
“Our perceptions of the Middle East, particularly in the states, is what the media force feeds us. They form our thoughts for us before we even get the chance to set foot on the soil to experience this ourselves,” he says.
“The world is a big place and it will be arrogant of us to think otherwise. We have to learn to live with everybody and to do that from different walks of life because that is how we grow as individuals.”
This is a lesson Anderson learnt from travelling with his mother, Doris Bowman, across Europe as part of an upcoming travel series.
Out next year, Anthony Anderson and Mom: European Vacation, finds the feisty duo taking on various parts of the continent, including Italy and Spain.
If the show does well, Anderson hopes a follow-up in the Middle East can take place, with Abu Dhabi as the first destination.
“The city is a perfect melting pot of all cultures,” he says. “My mom has exposed so much of life to me as a kid growing up and I am just glad to do the same.”
Feeling at ease in Abu Dhabi
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone can also provide some surprising insights.
According to US comedian D L Hughley — who along with Harvey is part of the celebrated comedy group The Kings of Comedy — his first visit to Abu Dhabi has been an eye-opener.
“This has so far been an experience I have been changed by,” he says.
“And listen, I am not here being hyperbolic because this is the first time I have been somewhere as a black American where I felt like I was just not being merely tolerated and suspected,” he says.
“It took me a while to put my finger on this, but it's an interesting and beautiful feeling just to be in a place and not feeling encumbered by what anyone thinks of me and what I think of them.”