Formula One in the Middle East (Part 2)

Talk of establishing Formula One in the Middle East has been going on for decades.

The first major event was in Dubai in December 1981 when British businessman Martin Hone organised a Grand Prix on a makeshift 1.6-mile track around the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Five events were held and considerable appearance money lured out an impressive array of VIPs. There was talk at the time of the track being extended but the Dubai GP never materialised. The Arab world became more interested in rallying with the highly-successful Middle Eastern Rally Championship.

In 1995 there was a brief flurry of excitement in the region when it was announced that there were plans for a race to be held in Qatar. A year later Abu Dhabi announced that it had similar plans. Neither materialised there either.

By 1997 there was talk of a race in the war-shattered Lebanese capital Beirut in an effort to restore the international image which the city had enjoyed in the 1950s when it was one of the most glamorous spots in the Mediterranean. In August 1998 Lebanese businessman Georges Boutegy announced that he has signed a draft agreement with Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone to hold a Grand Prix in Beirut for 2003 and that Formula One’s Race Director Charlie Whiting had been to the Lebanon to inspect a proposed track.

The plan announced at the time was for a track to run through a part of the city that has been destroyed in the fighting, but being rebuilt by a company owned by the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Al-Hariri. This led to a dispute when another businessman, Khaled Altaki, announced that he was going to build a new circuit close to the sea outside the city.

Al-Hariri was replaced as Prime Minister and the new government announced that it was making major cutbacks. The Beirut GP has not been heard of since. During his state visit to Beirut just a few weeks later Prince Albert of Monaco announced that his principality would be willing to help organise an event. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1999, however, Ecclestone visited both Dubai and Cairo to discuss races with the local authorities. The Egyptians were keen to discuss a Grand Prix in the desert, as a way of rebuilding the country’s tourist industry which had been virtually destroyed in November 1997 when Islamic extremists massacred 58 international tourists in Luxor. Dubai was also keen to promote tourist trade, using tourism as a means of replacing lost revenue as oil reserves dwindled.

In the end Bahrain beat them all.

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