Enjoying life in the fast lane

Private equity director Saif al Assad has travelled the world and returned home. When not working you will find him flying around Yas Marina Circuit.

Abu Dhabi, 5th March 2010.  Saif Al Assad who owns a racing team, at the Yas Hotel.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)  Editor's Note;  Saif could not stand the daylight brightness.  He is always squinting every time I take the shot.

I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. In fact, my parents moved here from Iraq more than 30 years ago. During Iraq's war with Iran, in 1979, they were looking for a safe place to live, and they saw great potential in Abu Dhabi. They are both architects, and studied at Baghdad University, where they met. My mother worked for a bunch of oil companies here in the capital, and my father went into business with my uncle. They founded an architecture firm called Dewan Architects and Engineers, which is now the largest firm in the Middle East.

Growing up, we were very lucky. The economy was experiencing rapid growth, and my parents were very generous. I have a younger sister, who is now 16, and a younger brother, who is 25. I'm 29 years old. My parents always made sure we received the best possible education, and we've all been given the tools to become successful. It wasn't a case of throwing cash at us; it was about giving us everything we needed, and feeding our passions. For example, my father funded my go-karting in high school.

I first started motorsports when I was 12 years old. It cost up to US$30,000 (Dh110,090) per year back then, and the more competitive it got, the more expensive the equipment became. I started with standard go-karts, and I ended with a much more sophisticated car - it went up to 100mph and had six gears. It was a pretty serious machine. The racing scene wasn't developed in the UAE back then, so I had to go to Canada and the US to compete.

In 1997 I began my studies at Cambridge. Of course, it wasn't cheap, but my parents tried to give me everything. For tuition and living costs, they paid around $50,000 per year. I studied engineering, looking to tie it in with my passion for racing. I then did my master's in aerospace engineering, which I completed in 2002. But I never stopped racing. Throughout university my parents continued to fund this passion. I took my first steps out of amateur racing onto the semi-professional circuit in 2001 and 2002.

I eventually got up to Formula 3, and I was the first Arab to compete at this high level. It was tough going to school and doing all of that. I didn't have much of a social life, but I'm glad I did it, because it was important to me. It cost up to $1 million per year - for the car, equipment, staff and travelling. It was at that stage my dad cried "uncle". He wouldn't fund me any longer. So I had to make a decision - do I drop everything and focus on my racing career, and try to find sponsorship?

I never had to make that decision, because a bad crash made it for me. I hurt my hip and had to undergo physiotherapy. There was also psychological damage, so I wasn't keen on getting back in the car right away. But that was a blessing, because it allowed me to focus on my studies. A lot of my friends were looking at the finance world or investment banking, rather than engineering. And that influenced me, in the sense that these are potentially lucrative careers.

I took a job in Boston with Monitor Group in 2003. I was a strategy consultant, advising multinational firms on various initiatives, such as growth strategies, marketing and acquisitions. I had planned on doing it for just a year, but I did it for four. I had complete financial independence from my parents, and I also married my wife at this point. We were young, in our mid-twenties, but doing well financially. From 2004 to 2007 I transferred to London and continued working with Monitor Group.

I bought our first flat in London for $1.3 million, for which I took out a mortgage. Then, in late 2007 I moved into the world of private equity, working with an affiliate called Monitor Clipper Partners. I stayed with them for a year. I made great money, and more importantly, the bonuses took a step up. At the end of the year you had a very nice cheque in your name. These were boom years in the economy, so we all benefited in a very big way.

A lot of our friends spent their bonuses and their money, but we were more careful. We did buy a Porsche and a Range Rover. We lived well. But we weren't living like rock stars. I put my investments in hard assets, such as my flat in London. I didn't feel comfortable with the stock market, because I knew it was a highly fickle place. You could win big, but you could also lose big. Life was great in London, but I had grown up in Abu Dhabi. My parents and friends were there. So my wife and I decided to move to the UAE for personal reasons, in 2008.

I transitioned to a firm called Blackstone, another private equity outfit. My boss and I are tasked with establishing this firm in the Middle East. It hasn't officially launched yet, and we're working on that. I sold the house in London in 2009 at a great profit, despite the downturn. We sold it for about $2 million. But how can I put my savings to work? I'm not sure yet. The property market is as unpredictable as the stock market. I'll likely invest in the London property market again.

There's a land scarcity in the UK; there will always be more demand than supply. When I moved back here, I found a nicely developed racing scene. I had a Porsche 911 Turbo, and I took it to the Dubai Autodrome. I had a great time, and the next thing I knew I was trying out a race car my friend had, and started setting very competitive times. At this point there was no racetrack in Abu Dhabi. I thought - this is my one indulgence, so I'll indulge in it.

I decided to start a race team with two friends, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Race Team. It was founded in January 2009, but until Yas Marina Circuit opened, in November 2009, we raced out of Dubai. We are now the first and only circuit racing team focused purely on the capital. We're competing in the regional GT Championships, against Porches, Corvettes, Dodge Vipers and other models. It's one of the highest levels of motorsport in the region.

We're leading the team championships and getting great results. We do the managing and the driving. Our sponsors - which include Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Finance House, Taqa, Atioles, ESR Group and Mepa Insurance - funded the whole thing. We put almost nothing in financially. It cost about $1.8m to get started, mostly for maintenance and support services, such as mechanics, transportation and parts.

The cost of the cars is only a small component. None of the teams ever win money for these races. Our sponsors receive exposure, and we race for the glory. My philosophy with money is to be careful and invest wisely. If you are going to invest, invest in what you understand, not what people tell you to buy. Meanwhile, spend money on what you enjoy. Life is too short. * As told to Jeffrey Todd