From 2008 to 2014, I worked as a motoring journalist in Dubai. What started as a chance opportunity turned into an extended stay with various ups and downs, and it was a fascinating look into a fascinating place. Here’s a very small window into what it was like.
1: Yes, there are a lot of supercars
Dubai is not all supercars; not everyone is a millionaire, and regular people need cars too. But there is a lot of wealth, and lots of people looking for the latest, greatest thing. I saw more Bugattis, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and the like in my six years in the United Arab Emirates than I have in the nine years since. And it wasn’t enough for some to just have something cool and expensive; exclusivity (and being seen to be exclusive) was very much the aspiration. To quote just one example, in my first week in the country, chilling one evening at the Marina end of town, I saw not one, but two Mercedes-McLaren SLR 722s just cruising to be seen. In the same evening. Only 150 exist in the world.
2: Yes, I got to drive a lot of them
I spent three of my six years in Dubai working for the Middle East edition of Evo magazine, and while there was a broader spectrum of focus than the UK edition (readers also wanted to know about the latest Toyota Yaris), there were plenty of epic cars to drive. During my time there I spent quality time in just about everything from every major performance car manufacturer, both on road and on track. I even got to take my race licence exam, so I could learn to drive stuff at the limit and really understand the details of the fastest and most exciting machines. It was, as you can probably appreciate, brilliant fun.
3: I hardly broke any of them
In six years of testing cars full-time, I consider myself pretty fortunate that I can count any incidents on one hand. I dinged the front of a McLaren 12C while doing high-speed testing on a closed road; I came around a corner to find that one of the support staff had parked a pickup on the outside of the bed. A frantic emergency stop concluded slightly after a kerb at the side of the road, resulting in minor damage to the front splitter.
Then there was the time I lost control of a racing Maserati at north of 100mph on the Dubai Autodrome. A full 360 spin remarkably resulted in no contact with anything, but wrecked a new set of very expensive racing slicks. It all happened right in front of the managing director of Maserati Middle East and I’ve never been so embarrassed.
Lastly, while at Car Middle East early on my Dubai stint, we had a Mitsubishi Evo X on test, loaned to us by a local dealer. The car has a Gravel setting on its drivetrain, so we took it to a local patch of gravelly desert and got some spectacular sideways shots for the magazine. It was only after cleaning the car to return it that we realised we’d completely shot-blasted the car, which required a full respray and new alloys. Oops.
4: Fuel is cheap
Or at least, it was when I was there. Towards the end of my time in Dubai I owned a mk7 Golf GTI, and to fill it up was the equivalent of £20. Still, that was nothing compared to nearby Saudi Arabia; during a particularly epic adventure, we had three McLarens and a huge Ford Expedition support car, and filled all of them up for £35. Total. Sure, the fuel quality was terrible and the McLarens soon broke down, but hey. £35.
5: You’ll see cars from all over the world
The car market is truly eclectic, with models from Europe, the US and China sharing the roads. A visit to a Ford showroom would see European models like the Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo sharing space with giant American SUVs like the Expedition and the Flex. Nissan sold cars as diverse as the GT-R, Patrol and 370Z down to the humble, base-spec Tiida. While the UK is only now starting to see Chinese brands like BYD turn up, they’ve been selling in the Middle East for yonks; BYD, Great Wall and the like sold affordable pick-up trucks by the boatload.
6: The standard of driving can be spectacularly bad…
We’ve all tutted and complained about the standard of driving in the UK, but the UAE – and to be honest, the wider region too – was something else. And the problems were diverse. Seatbelt use was very low, due to a general attitude that fate would decide one’s safety, and it was out of your hands so why even make the effort? Many people had very powerful cars and would drive them very quickly and aggressively in a manner that would get you on the national news in the UK. Tailgating and rapid headlight flashing were an everyday occurrence.
But conversely, some people barely knew how to drive and would do suicidally slow speeds and/or ludicrous manoeuvres. Think 30mph in the middle lane of a motorway, or a four-lane last-minute switch towards an off-ramp. Such was the makeup of the UAE population (some 80 per cent expats) that the range of driving backgrounds was vast. Many countries have decidedly lower standards for passing a driving test than the UK, so the result in Dubai was a large number of drivers that would have had their licence swiftly revoked over here, or wouldn’t have passed their test in the first place.
7: …But also spectacularly good
The Middle East has a long history of rallying as its de-facto motorsport, and has produced some excellent drivers. Current FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem was 14-time Middle East rally champion before he started getting bad press on the world stage, and since proper racing circuits were built and grew in popularity, several UAE-based drivers have gone on to achieve considerable success internationally. Ed Jones, who I raced in karts* while I lived in the region, went on to get a podium at the Indy 500.
With two world-class racetracks – Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi – and plenty of local racing series, the UAE has poured money and effort into finding new talent, and the results are starting to show. Most recently, sisters Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi have been winning races in the F1 Academy series.
*Ed was monstrously fast and I never got anywhere near him
8: Some of the roads are incredible
City driving in Dubai is a chore, with grid layout streets between sprawling highways and speed cameras galore. But venture out of town and there are some outstanding, deserted driving roads with perfect-quality tarmac. Many times, while working for Evo Middle East magazine, we'd take the latest sports cars to Jebel Hafeet in Abu Dhabi, or the mountain roads towards the emirate of Fujairah, and have an absolute blast. Since I left, the new mountain road at Jebel Jais has provided yet another epic mountain stretch for driving enthusiasts to enjoy.
9: You don’t need roads to have a good time
Off-roading driving is huge in the Middle East, and in Dubai (and the wider UAE), people will venture into the rocks or the sand dunes in just about anything they think they can get away with. There are plenty of massive dunes that are open to everyone, and on any given day you’ll see Petrols, Land Cruisers and Wranglers surfing golden waves and kicking up plumes of sand behind them.
From time to time you’ll also see oddball choices – at least twice I saw Bentley Continental GTs, air suspension jacked up to the max, sliding around the dunes. There’s an art to driving in the sand – if you’re not experienced at it, bring a spade and expect to do some digging out… Rock crawling is popular too, with dried-up riverbeds and valleys, called wadis, playing host to all manner of 4x4s.
10: Not everyone is as passionate about independent journalism as others
There were some great motoring writers in the UAE while I was there. But there were also a large number of media regulars who were merely there to soak up corporate hospitality and blag themselves a jolly to drive cars. Some of the magazines that ended up on newsstands could barely be called that, with little to no thought about the reader experience – press releases would go to print unchanged, and reviews would be relentlessly sycophantic because positive coverage would mean more advertising money coming in. Sales numbers would be massaged to far beyond reality with no real independent way of verifying them.
It was deflating to work late nights trying to make a quality product, only for a bunch of chancers to slap something together in a manner that made half-arsed seem like Pulitzer Prize-winning material, and yet still get invited to all the top events. It was the kind of nonsense that gives the whole industry a bad name and justifies the internet comments that every motoring journalist is in the pay of the manufacturers. We’re not… but a small few basically are. And it’s little surprise to me that just about all of the car magazines that existed while I worked in Dubai have since closed down.