Whilst I've been to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on numerous occasions over the last 12 years or so since Supercars last competed in this part of the world, it's been a while since I've actually spent any real time in the United Arab Emirates at more than just a race track.
Hence, whilst I am here for racing (in the Asian Le Mans Series), I've taken the opportunity of some time between consecutive race weekends to absorb a little of the car scene in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The rate of change over the 40 odd years that I've been coming here has been remarkable of course, and it's fascinating to observe.
One thing that hasn't changed though, is that the majority of cars are white. And that's no surprise given the heat for much of the year. There are some crazy ‘instagram' wraps as you'd expect on some of the exotica and I can't imagine why a good proportion of these are matt black! Maximum strain on the air-con, for sure.
You'd think that every car here would be an SUV, and there are plenty of them, but actually there are masses of run of the mill four-door saloons of the Hyundai Elantra genre. Moreover, there's nothing like the proportion of small/medium sized SUVs that we see in the Australian market. These saloons are purely tools, vital conveyances for getting around and are almost all bog standard specification.
Most SUVs here are big. With petrol at the equivalent of a dollar-a-litre, why wouldn't you go big? Plus the roads and parking lots are mostly designed to cope with them. And the stand out SUV in terms of numbers is the Nissan Patrol.
I asked a local guru why there is such a preponderance of Patrols and his answer was short and sweet; air-conditioning. The Patrol has a reputation as having the best air-con system available. I can certainly bear witness to it's strength from previous visits. On a 40 degree day, the Patrol's ability to reduce the interior temperature to a manageable level within a minute or two is stunning.
Furthermore, the Patrol performs well in the dunes, although, as in Mosman or Toorak, most of the SUVs look as though they don't venture off the tarmac too often.
The other stand out SUV on the road is the AMG G63. You'd think that the entire production of this model is being sold in the UAE. They're everywhere and plenty of them have had an additional spend on bling as well. Brabus appears to be the go-to modification company with some very leery interiors in particular.
Conversely, it's quite startling to see a fair few Teslas on the road. Whilst not as prevalent as on the streets of every Australian state capital, there are plenty of them here. That surprised me given the price of fuel, and electricity is not specially cheap in the UAE.
I had the opportunity to drive the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee over the last day or two. I was interested to try it as the old model did, for a while, sell very well in Australia. The new one is visually an improvement and looks fresh and well proportioned. Unfortunately it only took a few minutes behind the wheel to realise that the level of perceived quality is still way off the Japanese and Korean competition. The touch points are key to initial impressions of any car, and the Grand Cherokee fails this test. That might be fine in the USA, but it won't cut it in Australia in my opinion.
The engine sounds thrashed as soon as it's extended much and doesn't convey a sense of quality. It does have an impressive array of screens and displays and maintains enough proper switches to keep a dinosaur like me happy, but the overall impression isn't on the same level as the Hyundai Palisade, for instance.
The 140km/h speed limit here on the highways feels far more of a natural gait for a good car to me than 110km/h back home. Of course, this sort of speed does need better lane discipline than the average motorist in Queensland seems to be capable of demonstrating. It's not perfect here in the UAE but it's closer to a New South Wales standard than QLD. And keeping trucks out of the outside lanes is an excellent idea that is enforced here as well as most European countries.
Whatever you drive over here, one thing is for sure – this place isn't designed for pedestrians. A car is a vital tool for almost everyone. Don't hunt for too many pavements, or cycle paths! It's an out and out car culture here and there's no outward sign of looking to save much energy. I'll leave others to decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.
In the meantime, the UAE has two superb race tracks with the Dubai Autodrome and the Yas Marina circuit. I'll be touching on the fun that can be had at the former in a later column. Suffice to say that there's a ready made excuse for a stopover for every car enthusiast on the way to or from Europe.
I find it fun to experience driving in different countries, sometimes alarming, but always interesting. The UAE and the other Gulf states might end up as the last bastions of petrol powered excess at some point in the future, so come here and make the most of it!