World champion rally driver Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi has excelled in a sport few Emiratis have even tried. He tells Al Shindagah why he felt he had to take a different route in life…
His choice of career is anything but typical and it’s even more unusual given the fact that he’s Emirati. But Sheik Khalid is not your average person. Never one to take the easy option, he is one of the only and the most well known professional rally car champion in the UAE.
The 39-year-old’s achievements are all the more impressive given the fact that he comes from a high profile family and was expected to follow a more conservative route.
He has never neglected his responsibilities as a member of the ruling Al Qassimi family in Sharjah and in Abu Dhabi where he grew up, yet he has become one of the top world rally champions in the Middle East. Currently a member of the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, which is under the remit of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), he’s also a mentor to the ADTA-backed Abu Dhabi Junior Rally Team – Team Abu Dhabi, which helps young Emirati drivers to develop their skills in the hope of participating in the sport at a professional level.
So just what is it that has made him so successful when all odds were against him? “I have never wanted to be like everyone else,” says Sheikh Khalid matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of my brother, or anyone for that matter. I just wanted to be myself and I’ve always wanted to do something that made me proud no matter how difficult it was.”
It’s an admirable attitude. But attitude is not enough to make a world-class rally driver. Ambition, talent, dedication and a professional attitude have all played a part in getting him to where he is today he says.
Sheikh Khalid was just 13, when his brother Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, eight years his senior, first introduced him to karting. He took to it immediately and later moved on to rally car racing. But while Sheikh Abdullah tired of the sport, Sheikh Khalid became more and more interested, continuing with it while at secondary school and spending much of his time at the race track when he was in college in Washington DC and Texas.
By then rally driving was taking up much of his time and it didn’t matter where in the world he was, whether at school or on vacation – in the US, France or the UK – the Sheikh would always make a point of finding out what races were happening.
After he graduated with a degree in business he began to work with his family, but he was far from content. “After I graduated I began to work in the family business and later for the government, but I knew I wanted to do something more,” he explains. “I’m not the type of person who can just sit at a desk all day. I need to be out there; trying different things.”
And so, much to the amazement of his family, Sheikh Khalid, who by now was in his mid 20s took the unusual step of becoming become a full time professional rally driver. It was a brave step and even he admits he wasn’t sure if he would be able to pull it off. So after some deliberation, he decided to participate in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC), as well as the United Arab Emirates Championships, to see how he got on. “I thought the best thing would be to try to be completely dedicated [to rally car racing] – to live the life of a rally car racer for a while,” he explains. “That would way I would give myself a fair chance and know pretty quickly whether I was able for it.”
And much to everyone’s surprise – including, he admits his own, he took to the sport full time like a duck to water, winning race after race in his early years of turning professional. Soon he was being championed as the leading rally car racer, not only in the UAE, but in the Middle East.
“Everyone, including the media were talking about me,” he says proudly. “No one from this region was doing anything similar. What’s more, most people start their professional career gradually, but by the end of my first year, I had won both titles and was at the very top of the sport here.”
But, always one to push the boat out, Sheik Khalid, was determined to go one step further and make a name for himself on the international circuit.
He secured a number of high profile sponsorship deals in 2003. Then in 2004, he funded himself to participate in a world class rally event held at the Acropolis in Greece. The event was just the beginning of his participation in the sport at an international level. Now he had a taste for rally racing at a global level and he wanted to continue.
He had also attracted the attention of ADAT. “ I had a lot of meetings with ADAT at the time because they wanted to build awareness about the world championships here in the UAE,” he explains.
Then, after a year-and-a-half of discussions, Sheikh Khalid signed a five year-contract with Ford who had agreed to come on board as a sponsor and the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team was formed. “I was the first Arab in history to be a full factory driver,” he says with a grin.”That was a big achievement.”
Since then he has been busier than ever. He competed in the Acropolis Rally of Greece in June of this year and he has numerous other races lined up for 2011, in locations such as Finland, Germany, Australia, France, Spain and the UK. But of course it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the determined rally racer. Now in his fifth year as a driver with the Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, Sheikh Khalid has had a number of lows as well as highs in his career so far. He points out that although it may seem glamorous, in fact it can be a dangerous profession. He’s been involved in some serious accidents for example. In December 2003, he broke two vertebrae in the final round of the Middle East rally championship in Dubai.
And yet he wouldn’t change his profession for the world and is as passionate about racing now as he was when first began. “The best moments of my life have been in this challenge,” he says with passion. “I also appreciate the fact that people know my name now in connection with the sport. It’s a great feeling.” Giving back to the community is also important to Sheikh Khalid and he is enthusiastic about helping to develop the talents of young Emiratis, keen to follow in his footsteps. “There are plenty of good drivers here in the UAE. I meet talented young men all the time, but I also have to see that spark in them – they need to have fire in their bellies in order to meet future challenges,” he says.
But although he inspires others to get involved in motor sports, he is also vehement in his condemnation of speeding and reckless behaviour on the roads which puts other’s lives in risk. In fact he recently worked with the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) to endorse their road safety campaign and points out that the qualities needed for being a professional driver are far from reckless. Both mental and physical agility as well as self-control are required.
“It’s not like a Sunday drive – you are the only one in the car and you really need to focus to get it right,” he explains. “It’s something he always reminds aspiring young drivers who hope to turn professional.
However he’s very positive about the future for motor sports in the UAE and believes Abu Dhabi will eventually become the international centre for motor sports worldwide. Certainly the ADTA’s investment in the sport will play a key role in the positioning of the capital as a global motor sports hub, increasing the UAE’s exposure abroad and sustaining awareness of its world class sporting facilities.
“We [The UAE] started from nothing and now we have the basics needed to become an international base for motor sports. We also have good talent here… For sure, one day we will get there,” he break into that winning smile, as he has done on countless occasions after a race, each time serving as an unofficial ambassador for his country – a country of which he is proud.
It’s no wonder his family in turn are proud of his achievements... “They always tell me when they’ve seen me on TV and I’m grateful that they support me,” says Sheikh Khalid.” They say I’m raising the profile of the emirates and that they’re glad I’m doing it. It makes me happy too. Racing is what drives me in life – it keeps me going.”