It is just four years since Formula E, Formula One's environmentally friendly younger brother, took to the streets of Beijing for its inaugural season. The series has come a long way since then. This weekend, the Formula E machine has made its way for the first time to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with the opening race of the new season held today at Ad Diriyah, in the shadow of the At-Turaif Unesco world heritage site. Antonio Felix da Costa, driving for BMW i Andretti Motorsport, was the winner, ahead of defending champion Jean-Eric Vergne. But the event was about much more than the placings. It offered a perfect illustration of the future Gulf nations are mapping out – embracing cutting-edge technology and reaching out to the wider world, while maintaining a deep respect for the past.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's National Transformation Programme, Saudi Arabia is modernising rapidly. Formula E is as much a part of that as September's World Boxing Super Series bout at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah. At the same time, the kingdom affirmed its commitment to maintaining the traditions of its heritage and culture. When not following the action on the 2.5km course on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh, race-goers have been invited to visit the nearby remains at At-Turaif, founded in the 15th century as the first capital of the Saudi dynasty.
Among many other sights worth seeing this weekend is Formula E's rookie test, held tomorrow. Underscoring Saudi Arabia's recent reforms, at least five women will be put through their paces, among them Amna Al Qubaisi, the UAE's first female racing driver. With big-name manufacturers including Audi, Jaguar, Nissan and BMW on the grid and teams fielded by environmentalists such as Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio, the combination of high-tech engineering and social change is thrilling.
In Saudi Arabia, a nation whose identity is inextricably linked with fossil fuels, it is clear that the end of the era of the internal combustion engine is approaching swiftly, silently and in exciting new ways – and that Gulf nations are ready to meet the challenge.