Just deserts: racing in the Middle East

UAE Tour stage 4
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Middle East races have been a part of cycling’s landscape for 19 years. Procycling looks back at their history and place in the sport.

This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 265, February 2020.

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Only die-hard cycling nerds will remember Ivan Quaranta. A larger-than-life Italian sprinter at a time when shares in larger-than-life Italian sprinters were soaring in value, he made headlines when he outsprinted Mario Cipollini, then at his peak, in stage 1 of the 1999 Giro d’Italia. Quaranta picked up two stages a year at his national tour between 1999 and 2001, but the rest of his career was a steady diminuendo of results and status through second division Italian teams, and his last recorded finish was second in stage 6b of the 2008 Tour of Morocco, riding for Amore e Vita.

But there’s more to Quaranta’s career than six Giro stage wins and a brief spell of notoriety as the new Cipollini (before the old Cipollini reasserted himself) – the Italian sprinter has a unique place in cycling history. On January 21 2002, Quaranta won stage 1 of the very first Tour of Qatar, outsprinting Luciano Pagliarini and Jean-Patrick Nazon in Doha. At the time, races outside Europe were not the norm – the Tour Down Under had just held its third edition and was largely seen as a training race; the Tour de Langkawi was comparatively prominent, with a small handful of big teams competing; the Tour of California was still some years away. But the first hints of cycling’s gradual growth into a true worldwide sport were being dropped, even if two decades later we’re still waiting for any sense of coherence in the whole thing.

Over the next 14 years, the Tour of Qatar established itself as a high-quality, if visually uninspiring training race at the perfect time of year for the classics riders. The event ran until 2016, but its legacy was clear – the Worlds were held in the country in 2016, and it spawned and inspired a series of races which still hold a solid grip on the month of February. The Tour of Oman, a more climber-friendly and scenic affair, started up in 2010 and is still running; the Tours of Abu Dhabi and Dubai flourished briefly before amalgamating into the WorldTour-level UAE Tour which runs for the second year in 2020. The Tour of Saudi Arabia will hold its first edition this year. And the Middle East now funds two WorldTour teams, Bahrain-McLaren and UAE Emirates.

On paper, the region looks like a cycling heartland. Big races, two WorldTour teams from the Arabic countries – that’s two more World-Teams than Italy. Of course, it lacks two of the most important things for a real cycling heartland – fans and interesting roads. The question is, does cycling care that the region’s real compensation for not being able to offer either of those things is to throw large amounts of money at it? And that’s without mentioning the elephant in the room. Though western European nations are not without their geopolitical flaws, some of the Amnesty International human rights reports on Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia make for very uncomfortable reading.

Splits in the peloton near the finish of stage 4 of Tour of Qatar

Crosswinds were common in the racing at the Tour of Qatar (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The 2001 Tour de France was not a vintage edition. Lance Armstrong was at his peak – clearly better than his closest rival Jan Ullrich. The only real suspense of the race was provided by the stubborn presence of Frenchman François Simon, who gained 33 minutes in a break in the Vosges, in the yellow jersey. The defining image of the race at the time was the infamous ‘look’ that Armstrong turned around and gave Ullrich before accelerating away to win the Alpe d’Huez stage.

That same day, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, happened to be in France and was stuck in a traffic jam caused by the Tour caravan. Struck by the excitement, atmosphere, colour and crowds, he was reported to have said, “I want that in my own country.” It didn’t take long. The Emir had a Belgian photographer, who wangled a contact for Eddy Merckx; Merckx got in touch with the Tour’s boss Jean-Marie Leblanc. Six months later, the inaugural race took place, organised by ASO in a country which at the time had just 1,230km of roads. 

It wasn’t Qatar’s first big sporting event – the Qatar Open tennis tournament had been running since 1993, and the Qatar Open golf tournament since 1998. But the development of the Tour of Qatar was another step, via the 2006 Asian Games, to turning the tiny, almost featureless country into a sporting powerhouse. (The Olympic bid is currently dormant, after failures to win in the 2016 and 2020 bidding processes, but the FIFA World Cup takes place there at the end of 2022.)

Most editions of the Tour of Qatar counted six stages. Every now and again the organisers threw in a team time trial or prologue, but mainly the race consisted of flat stages on straight roads through the desert. The race rarely changed. However, Qatar changed around it. By 2002, Doha was already growing rapidly, with a population approaching half a million, many of them migrant workers. The skyline of the city altered every year, and the huge, architecturally diverse and ambitious buildings along the long curve of the Corniche road which hugged the bay provided a dramatic and ever-changing backdrop for the race’s finishes.

It was a good advert for Doha and Qatar. Ahmed Al-Hemaidi, a member of the race’s organising committee, explained that the Tour of Qatar had a purpose. “Cycling is not a big sport here, but we know it is popular in Europe,” he told Cycle Sport magazine in 2006. “The race has helped raise the profile of our country. When people think of this region they may think of our neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but with events like this they will learn the name of Qatar.”

Any queasiness about wider political issues was put in the background as the race grew. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre had taken place only months before the first edition, and the race also weathered brief controversies such as the presence of the Danish CSC team in 2006, the same time as a Danish newspaper had inflamed tensions in the Middle East by depicting a series of cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Hemaidi’s viewpoint was consistent with any criticisms or political tensions before or since: “This situation has nothing to do with cycling.”

The race grew and the cycling calendar adapted around it. There was now a coherent structure to the start of the season: Australia in January, the Middle East in February, and back to Europe in March, which more or less remains to this day. As television coverage grew, fans started paying more attention.

The Tour of Qatar gained a great deal of lustre in the mid-2000s when it became Tom Boonen’s favoured early-season hit-out. The Belgian won 22 stages in total, including four in 2006 and 2007, plus four GC titles. Boonen wasn’t just there for the victories, though every stage winner was presented with a gold trophy in the shape of a boat and by the end, he had an armada. He said that the training benefit of the race was huge – with no corners, uphills or downhills, there were no opportunities to coast, and he claimed that his heart rate never went as high in any other race. Mark Cavendish was another fan – he won nine stages and two GC titles. And considering the Tour of Qatar has as little variety of terrain as any event in the world, the racing itself could be brilliant. The sprint stages were bland, but when the wind blew across the road, the helicopter shots showed the peloton exploding and forming echelons. Year after year, Boonen’s Quick Step team blew the race to pieces, and they won eight out of the 15 editions.

But if a bike race takes places in a desert and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? The other reality of the Tour of Qatar was miles and miles of straight, featureless roads. It’s a misunderstanding to say that deserts are empty, because they are full of culture and nature of the most hardy and fascinating kind. But you can’t see it from the helicopter TV shots, so it doesn’t translate. Few fans beyond a few expats came to watch the race on the roadside, while the organisers got around the lack of atmosphere by piping in crowd sounds to the finish line. The Tour of Qatar looked like a bike race and sounded like a bike race, but crowds and fans are what give the sport its colour, atmosphere and emotion. Take those three things away from races, and you’re not left with much. It didn’t feel like a bike race.


The Tour of Oman featured more climbs than other Middle Eastern races (Image credit: Getty Images)

Even with the demise of the Tour of Qatar, Middle Eastern racing is, on the surface, thriving, though it still can’t draw a crowd. In Doha and Dubai, despite them being flat and spacious, cycling is not a popular mode of transport (not helped by summer temperatures which regularly reach deep into the 40s). But the races continue, because they are an influential part of each country’s image. The rulers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar have been looking for some time at a future when the oil wells have run dry or become uneconomical, and tourism and finance keep money flowing into the region.

And cycling doesn’t ask enough questions about what else these races achieve. You don’t have to dig very far to find very valid criticisms of Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, or the UAE, or Oman. Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have amazing architecture and the sporting venues are lavish. But consider the environmental impact of things like air-conditioned stadia, or Dubai’s indoor skiing area. And consider who actually built many of these structures. Qatar has been promising for years to do something about the ‘kafala’ system under which labourers are employed, but even in 2019, Amnesty reported that migrant labourers were being exploited and remained unpaid. The German WDR broadcaster reported that according to the Nepalese government, 1,426 Nepalese workers alone died in Qatar between 2009 and 2019. Women’s rights are extremely limited in Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

You can imagine the official viewpoint regarding these criticisms might be: ‘This situation has nothing to do with cycling.’ But the races, along with the Bahrain and UAE teams, enjoy a high level of government support and involvement. The Saudi Arabia Tour is particularly contentious – the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi caused international outrage in 2018.

Cycling is by its nature intimately tied to the geography of the region in which it takes place. The geographical is political, so cycling cannot take place in a politics-free bubble. The question is: does an entertaining early-season block of racing, and the torrents of money flowing into the sport when other sources have run dry, mean we can turn away when faced with these issues?

Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor. 

Procycling magazine: the best writing and photography from inside the world’s toughest sport. Pick up your copy in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or pick up a Procycling subscription.

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