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Wed 13 Jun 2007 04:48 PM

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'It's not the Gumball!'

Remember, it's not a race... Shahzad Sheikh borrows a Corvette Z06 and hits the road in the first Arab Run.

Over two thousand horsepower spread across two lanes. To the right a yellow Murcielago, and inches away from the left fender of my Corvette Zo6, cruised car number '01' - the Bugatti Veyron. You know the stats: 1000bhp+, 16 cylinders, 10 radiators, over a million dollars and 400kph. Although right now it was barely doing 100kph.

Dubai's road surfaces are not alien to being driven upon by rare exotica, but the sight and sound of this trio would have had any bystanding car fan pointing and quivering, mouth agape but unable to utter an expletive worthy of even moderate crassness. Fractions of a second later he would have imploded completely as the exotica just kept coming.

More Lambos, a gaggle of Ferraris, a pack of Porsches, an assortment of over-powered Mercs and BMWs and even a Rolls Royce Phantom were amongst the mobilisation of mighty motors. Sixty cars in total, all extraordinary and all brought together, despite monumental odds, by two visionary car blokes and one idea - the Arab Run.

Inspired by infamous cross-continent thrashes like the Gumball 3000 and the Cannonball Run, Qaiss Isa and Azhar Butt, both from North West London, laid the seedlings for a similar event in the Middle East over a year ago. Though, as they are constantly reminding everyone and anyone, this is not a race or a road rally, but a ‘sports car lifestyle event'.

‘Over a year ago, we were brainstorming about what businesses we could conjure up that involved cars,' explains Butt. ‘I had been here three times, and every time I'd came the cars just seem to get more and more amazing,' reveals Isa. ‘And yet there was no event here in which all the cars got together. The Bugatti driver is a friend and encouraged me to initiate this.' Isa came here six months before the event to set up the logistics. Now the Arab Run has become a full-time commitment, as well as an obsession for Isa.

Despite the obvious comparisons, both are keen to point out that the Arab Run is not the ‘Middle East Gumball' and that it is unique in character and execution. ‘There are a lot of good things in the Gumball formula, but there also elements of it that wouldn't be appropriate in this region,' admits Butt.

No kidding! A glamorous pan-continental race disguised as a timed road rally, littered with supercars and pranks, the Gumball is an excuse to drive from one scandalous party to the next, with equally outrageous highspeed antics on the roads, that have on this year's event resulted in the fatality of an innocent motorist in Macedonia.

‘Dubai is the most western of all Middle Eastern cities, but even here there wouldn't be any tolerance to Gumball-style antics. We wanted to take the good bits of such an event but, respecting the cultures and values of this region, present an event that really is "Arab" in character', insists Butt.

They delayed the actual start of their Friday run until after 1.30pm to allow for those wishing to complete Friday prayers. But it did mean that on a hot day in late April at the Endurance City near Bab Al Shams outside Dubai, those that arrived early in the morning spent a good many hours just standing around, chatting cars, but not doing very much driving.

They certainly had plenty to look at, as throughout the morning the collection of cars grew from our Velocity Yellow Corvette Z06 borrowed from GM's press fleet, to a good number of pricey rides, bolstered by chief sponsors Exotic Car dragging out half its customer base, most of its stock and hiring all the show girls that Arab Run organisers hadn't already booked, to bring a real touch of glamour to the proceedings.

The late kick-off meant plenty of pent-up adrenalin. For many this was actually a rare occasion to get their weekend warriors out on the road. Truth be told I could have thought of much better ways in which to be employing the 505bhp Z06. It isn't often I get the opportunity to borrow the ‘Supercar Killer', and here it was standing around simmering in the sun with wannabe pinups posing around it.


Once on the road in cars that can warp distances with ease, we arrived far too soon in Dubai, for a would-be parade on the Jumeirah beach road. Sure enough there were stories circulating about cars drifting past motorcycle cops and drivers getting stopped and cautioned. Understandably the organisers wanted to play down any problems, ‘We heard that a Porsche was stopped and dealt with by the police, but everything went smoothly otherwise', claims Isa.

‘The Emirates Motor Sports Federation (EMSF) had organised control over the Jumeirah Beach Road in coordination with the police,' explains Butt. ‘Being a Friday we wanted the people of Dubai to see the event.' All very well, but it wasn't exactly closed roads and spectators lining the sidewalks, in fact that part of the event hadn't been publicised.

The EMSF had also arranged for the cars to hit the track after the main races on the last national race day of the season at the Dubai Autodrome. This had been widely advertised and resulted in one of the biggest crowds ever to have gathered at the Autodrome on a race day. Isa and Butt are convinced it was the Arab Run that drew the throng - well it was either that or the car boot sale. Those that had trekked out to the circuit on this baking afternoon, were certainly in for a treat with a strong line-up of exotica joined by a couple of Cobras and even a rare Ginetta roadster.

The organisers had arranged for two track sessions, but only a few laps into the first session it became clear some of the participants hadn't been paying attention during the driver briefing, it was the red mist not the marshals setting the rules. Sure enough the second session was red flagged after a participant overtook the pace car. ‘I had to eject that car from the event altogether. You had a rush of blood, but I can't afford another rush of blood, I told him' reveals Butt.

From here the Arab Run ran to Fujairah for dinner. Clearly concerns over responsible behaviour had spread. ‘It is obviously a long journey, its getting dark, and it required coordination between three emirates - Dubai, Sharjah and Fujairah. Working with EMSF we actually organised a police escort on the way out from the Autodrome to Fujairah all the way. We drove within the limits, but they had actually cordoned off the traffic for us.'

Wouldn't it have been better to do the run to Fujairah in the morning, then the parade through Dubai and finally a track finale at the Autodrome for this single day event?

‘We set out saying that this was a pilot event. We had to compromise a little with the itinerary just to ensure that the event would actually happen,' explains Butt. ‘Fujairah for example wanted to know precisely when and where the convoy would be, we had to clear it with them beforehand.'

The organisers admit that it was vital to pull off this inaugural event successfully, smoothly and without incident in a manner that left everyone happy and the authorities convinced that such a cruise could be coordinated safely.

Butt says: ‘The participants thought it was fantastic, some had their concerns about driving on the Autodrome etc and the kilometres they'd put on their cars. Signing off at the Peppermint Club back in Dubai was the perfect end to it, with one of the best DJ's playing well into the early hours.'

‘As they were leaving many confirmed that they'd be on the next event,' even some who were initially sceptical, reveals Isa. ‘The authorities also loved it, and we have a definite green light for the next event. Having pulled this off without incident, we can start to be a bit bolder with future plans.'

‘We have it confirmed that there were no accidents during our event, there were no police charges against any of the participants, no breakdowns, no mishaps, the one unfortunate incident that did happen, did so after our event had ended,' adds Butt referring to rumours of a Ferrari that had crashed.

The next Arab Run is planned for as early as November, with a more ambitious Run planned for Spring 2008. The organisers are justifiably proud of having jumped through the many bureaucratic hoops to have pulled off this ‘high risk venture' in the Emirates, but also admit to a steep learning curve. Buoyed by the success of this mini-event, they are promising much bigger and better to come - can't wait!