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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Liwa Festival: high ambitions

Last weekend saw a drag race at the Liwa Festival - with highly modified cars aiming to zoom to the top of the highest dune in the UAE.
The imposing Moreeb Dune loomed over a gathering of campers and their tents as they milled about the sand in the early morning. The desert area near Liwa, amid the rolling dunes of the Empty Quarter, had an eerie calm and quiet about it, but the people gathered here knew that was about to change drastically. Along with the usual assortment of 4x4 vehicles and quad bikes at the camping site was a collection of strange and awkward looking vehicles, most on trailers and kitted out with huge tyres and engines that stick out of the bonnet, too big to fit in the car. All were designed for one purpose: to be the fastest up the Moreeb Dune.

The Liwa Festival hill climb, hosted by Abu Dhabi Motors Club last weekend, featured competitions for both bikes and 4x4 cars; in the car class, 20 vehicles were entered, and top honours included a new Toyota FJ Cruiser. Tourists, including some from Europe and Australia, camped on the sides of the Moreeb Dune in anticipation of the event, and to observe one the region's most bizarre sport. Several other activities were also available, and tourists and lovers of the sport were able to rent buggies and attempt to climb the 50°-gradient hill, which, at more than 300m, is the highest dune in the UAE. Mostly, they were just there to observe these giant tanks on oversized wheels and get a taste of one of the most popular hobbies in the region.

Sarea al Hajeri, Qatar's No 1 drag racer this year, surprised his peers when he arrived at the festival with a lighter car and engine than what he normally builds at his garage, Top RPM. Al Hajeri has won the hill climb festival for the past two years, and his new car was built with another victory in mind. Based on a Nissan Patrol, the extensively modified vehicle has a six-cylinder, turbocharged engine that produces more than 1,200hp.

At 190,000 Qatari Rials (Dh191,711), the engine isn't cheap; especially considering it will be used for just seconds at a time. But under the sponsorship of Sheikh Khalid al Thani, the son of the Amir of Qatar, al Hajeri can afford this newly recognised expensive sport. But he was in a tough situation here - the Qatari drove eight hours from Doha to Abu Dhabi to participate, and a lack of sleep and an unfamiliarity with the terrain in the Emirates would mean making his one shot up the dune even more difficult.

It's not just tourists who fly in to see this event. Steve Petty, a 41-year-old mechanic, flew in to Abu Dhabi from Atlanta, Georgia, where he works at a shop called Proline Race Engines. He built a six-cylinder engine with 1,500hp for a client in Abu Dhabi, who gladly paid more than $100,000 (Dh367,350) for it. Petty flew out to support the car and his client at its launch. In financial terms, this sport probably has the fastest depreciation on car asset value. "You only get to run it about 10 seconds up the hill, and that's it. A very short lifespan," said Petty.

The American didn't know what to expect when his Arab clients approached him through the internet and car magazine reviews. After looking at videos uploaded on YouTube, he found that this part of the world was more similar to his own than he thought. "We actually do [hill climbing] out west in the United States, close to Vegas. They don't have the trucks, but they have the bikes and buggies," he said.

"Emiratis are one of our top customers in the Gulf; we do five or six things for them a year." Petty's engine was bound for Rashed al Qubaisi, whose day job is the deputy drag racing manager for the Yas Marina Circuit. He was happy that Abu Dhabi has been hosting this event and has been rounding up participants from all over the GCC. In his view, the more participants and more competition makes for a more heated tournament.

"I like this sport; it's in my blood," al Qubaisi said. He started drag racing on tarmac 10 years ago, and began watching videos online of cars racing up the dunes when he was studying finance at the University of Queensland in Australia. He took mechanic courses in addition to his curriculum to learn more about the way cars are built, until he set up his own garage. In addition to building his own cars, al Qubaisi also builds cars for his clients.

Going to the desert means that he doesn't have to compromise his love of speed with putting others in danger. "I like it because its controlled and safe, rather than endangering people's lives on public roads," he said. The Emirati from Abu Dhabi began racing with other youths he got to know at garages, and was one of 20 people who set up their race organisation, Power Team. "We were just a few people who would always compete with each other, then we thought to join forces," he said. The members of Power Team are no longer just acquaintances, says al Qubaisi, but have grown into a family. They have spend countless weekends together motor biking or fishing on his 600hp speed boat, and they often take trips abroad together. But their focus is the racing; his team finished in second place at the Awafi Festival 2010 at Ras al Khaimah last month. "Once you win, you always want to win," says al Qubaisi.

Walid al Ali, the 31 year old Emirati national from Dubai who has been racing since the end of the 1990s, was present at the event. His familiarity with the desert terrain has brought him much success. Each place that he competes - the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman - is unique in its own way, he says. He had four giant 4x4s at the Liwa Festival, valued at Dh2 million and sponsored by Saeed bin Suroor, who took over the race team five years ago. With two cars loaded with six-cylinder, turbocharged engines and two others with nitrous oxide-equipped eight-cylinder motors, he felt he had a good chance to win the hill climb here at Liwa.

"All the participants have reached the same level of experience with the engines, the force required, and the body of the car. It all depends on the tuner of the car, and tawfeeq rab al allamin (the will of God)" he says. The event gathered roughly about 1,000 spectators and lovers of the sport. Jassim Ali Humaid, a 23-year-old Emirati national from Madinat Zayed, a suburb on the outskirts of Liwa, had gathered his friends on a mini caravan and camped around the dune for the past week. They had packed all their necessities, food, basic items, to ensure they will enjoy the festival, although they do visit the Dune on the weekends, as it is within proximity.

"Those cars, are just for speed," he says, pointing to the behemoths. "They have no practical use." Moreeb means scary in Arabic, he says. The dangers of the sport and the huge expenses mean that not every average person can take on this hobby. The Dune has also managed to bring people together. "We've made friends from Qatar and Saudi, who come to watch the races at Moreeb Dune every year."

In the end, al Hajeri won his third Festival in a row, with a record-breaking time of 9.020 seconds.

Published: February 20, 2010 04:00 AM

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