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Arabian knights - Iconic Dakar Rally moves to Saudi Arabia: What does this mean for the world's toughest race?

2019-04-17 14:33

Ferdi de Vos

Nasser Al Attiyah stage 3 winner

Image: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Glyn Hall: Next year can be a tough challenge.

"After thirty years of discovering the beauty of Africa and a decade of adventure exploring the spectacular landscape of South America, a new chapter in the history of Dakar will be written as the world's biggest rally makes its Middle East debut in Saudi Arabia."

So read the statement from the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) announcing that the iconic rally-raid will leave South America to start a new era in the Middle East from 2020 after signing a five-year deal with Saudi Arabia.

This means the knights of the Dakar will now exchange the monster dunes and fine sand of the Atacama – the second-oldest desert after the Namib – for the fifth largest desert in the world, and the largest in Asia. They will also leave the high plateaus of the Andes for the Ar-Rub'al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world.


The world’s most famous rally raid was run in South America since 2009, a move brought about by terrorist threats in Mauritania that forced the cancellation of the 2008 event – the last in Africa.

The event enjoyed huge popularity in South America but this year’s Dakar was the first to run entirely within one country – Peru – after neighbours Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia failed to find agreement with the ASO. This forced the organisation to negotiate with countries in Southern Africa and the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, keen to attract international sporting events to the country, winning through – with next year’s rally starting from Riyadh in January.

Nasser Al Attiyah stage 3 winner

Part of a bigger plan

To secure the Dakar was a goal of Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, chairman of the Islamic kingdom's General Sports Authority, as part of Riyadh's Vision 2030 blueprint aimed at creating a "strong, thriving and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all" by diversifying the economy.

"The vision and guidance of our leaders have made our dreams and ambitions limitless and have set the sports scene in the kingdom on a remarkable success route," he said. 

"In hosting the Dakar Rally we aim to produce an unbelievable and unforgettable experience for drivers as they discover the beauty of Saudi nature and a unique spectacle for motorsport fans not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the region and around the world," he said.

However, the decision has not been well received in all circles, and David Castera, who was appointed Dakar rally director in March, described the relocation to Saudi Arabia as "a voyage into the unknown".

Nasser Al Attiyah dakar

Into the unknown

Castera said: "By going to Saudi Arabia, it is of course that aspect that fascinates me. I am convinced that such a feeling will be shared by all the riders, drivers and co-pilots. As the director of the event it is a massive challenge to be faced with a blank page with limitless possibilities.

"It is a real pleasure to have to create a race in such monumental geography and proper one to the most daring routes. There is a great variety to choose from. The sport, the navigation, surpassing oneself, will obviously be magnified in these territories made for rally raids."

On the possibility of the Dakar going to Saudi Arabia, this year’s winner Nasser Al-Attiyah from the Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa team told Motorsport.com he was very happy to have the Dakar in his region.

"We love South America, the people there, the incredible countries they have, but we have to respect the decisions of the organisers. Like when we changed from Africa to South America, we were not happy, we wanted to continue (in Africa) but we quickly adapted to South America,” he said.

While there are question marks around how Saudi Arabia will handle the arrival of hundreds of foreigners, as well as female competitors, team members, organisers and journalists, Al-Attiyah believes the region will deliver by putting "sport above politics".

The challenges

Glyn Hall, team manager of Toyota Gazoo Racing, the team that won this year’s Dakar, believes a race in Saudi Arabia will bring its own unique challenges: 

"The terrain will be good, with a mix of hard gravel and sand with big dunes, but logistics and close support will be much harder in the Saudi desert," he said. "The logistics to go to Saudi may well be easier and Nasser (Al-Attiyah) thinks our Hilux will work well in the conditions.

“However, the night temperatures will be much lower than in South America, so we will have to consider this for the team and the mechanics. We also may have to consider the specifications of our assistance vehicles, as the terrain could be harder for them.”

He also mentioned that while the race may be more like the old Dakar events in Africa, there will be many other things to consider, including the culture of the people outside of the cities.   

"On the positive side, the race could now attract more competitors as its location to Europe and South Africa is better, and television broadcasts should also be better as it will now be same-day broadcasts," he said.

More detail on the upcoming odyssey, with competitors having to surmount the challenges of the Dakar for 13 Arabian nights, will be revealed by the ASO on 25 April in Al-Qiddiya, near Riyadh.

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