In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’ we speak to Paul Berger, the former UAE karting king and current CEO of Arena Middle East and Asia – the go-to company for temporary sporting structures in the Gulf and beyond.
Here, Berger – who also opened Dubai Autodrome in 2003 – discusses his 25 years involved in sport in the region.
Sport was an important part of my life growing up.
I played anything and everything really. Football, hockey, rugby, tennis. I remember playing in the Rosslyn Park rugby sevens tournament when I was at school and the team that won it had this incredibly fast winger called David Trick. He ended up going on to play for Bath and England. Tim Henman went to my school too – but he was a few years after my time! Although saying that, his tennis coach there was the same guy I had back in the day. No Wimbledon for me though.
I brought the cast of Baywatch to Dubai. And Take That.
Motorsport was my forte when I moved to the UAE and I arranged some big karting events here. At the first Dubai Shopping Festival in 1996, we hosted a 24-hour race and invited some of the stars of Baywatch to participate. Pamela Anderson wasn’t here but Yasmine Bleeth and Angie Harmon turned up, it was a fun event. We filmed a documentary about Hollywood coming to race in Dubai and they played it on Emirates flights.
We had quite a lot of famous faces come and participate in karting over the years – Gary Barlow and Howard Donald from Take That used to love visiting and Alfonso Ribeiro from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a very keen racing driver – he still is to this day.
Susie Wolff honed her skills in our races.
Not just at our races, of course, but she used to come to Dubai regularly. At that time she was still Susie Stoddard but even as a teenager it was clear she was exceptionally talented. Obviously she went on to do incredible things, becoming the first female driver in Formula One. Now she’s managing a team in Formula E and has done so much for women with the FIA. I’m happy to think that we perhaps played a small role in her journey.
The Middle East’s motorsport facilities have improved beyond recognition.
I set up the first indoor karting track in the UAE in 1995 on the Sheikh Zayed Road – I think it’s a car showroom now. Back then, your options were either go-karting or rallying in the desert. There was nothing else. Not here, not in Bahrain, not in Qatar. Yas Marina Circuit was a long way from being conceived. We started to arrange races – 24-hour twin-engine races – on the streets of Dubai. Actually racing around the streets of Deira. We raced by the fish market, by the British Embassy. It was brilliant. We had about 20 of these events over six years and also took it to Abu Dhabi, to Bahrain, to Oman. It was a Middle East ProKart series with up to 50 teams participating. They were televised, they were well-sponsored. It wasn’t just a race; we used to create this party, this atmosphere, so we’d have fashion shows down there, we’d have merchandise – it was a good day out.
We had international teams compete, companies would put in teams, all-female teams. The whole karting community used to come and race. I guess I was kind of the UAE’s Mr. Karting in those days! We ran the events under the auspices of the Automobile and Touring Club – Mohammed Ben Sulayem was always there and he’s a great friend still today. Honestly, I still have Emiratis who come up to me and say, ‘We miss you, Paul. Why don’t you do another race?’ It really brought people together.
The Dubai Autodrome had three different sites before opening.
But eventually we settled on the current location. The Autodrome was my idea, my baby, which I convinced Union Properties to develop. The first site we were offered was where Silicon Oasis now stands and then it moved down along the Emirates Road to where Global Village is. Eventually we settled where it is today next to Arabian Ranches. We designed the main track and the karting track, and came up with the business plan. It was a very proud day when we opened. There was a big gala dinner and Ayrton Senna’s sister Viviane came over with Juan Pablo Montoya.
Grassroots motorsport in the region should be bigger.
I feel disappointed when I see the Dubai Autodrome track now – there is not much activity up there. When you build all these facilities – in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar – you hope that it will inspire people to get into motorsport but I don’t think it has been as effective as we’d hoped when we opened. They’ve all been developed for a particular event but there is not enough going on when those events leave town. Grassroots motorsport is still here, but I haven’t seen the massive change we had hoped to see to be honest.
I brought Emirates into Formula One.
After leaving Dubai Autodrome I set up my own sports marketing agency. There are plenty of motorsport experts in the Middle East now but there weren’t back then and it was an exciting time, with the launch of the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Bahrain Grand Prix. I travelled around the world following F1 and did a lot of business at the races. I took Emirates into Formula One for the very first time in 2006, when they sponsored McLaren. I also took FedEx and AON into Formula One.
Sport is still a central part of my business life.
I went down a different path when I moved to Arena but sport is integral to our business – we design, develop and build the most iconic sports events around the world and have done so for many years. Sport makes up around 75 percent of our business. We’ve built Wimbledon for 30 years, The Open golf for 30 years, the Ryder Cup for 30 years. In the Middle East, we’ve done the Formula One in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, the Dubai Marathon, the Dubai Sevens. I feel very fortunate that, as a big sports fan, I can be actively involved in world-class sporting events.
Quality venues make quality events.
When you bring a big international sporting event to a venue or city, there will always be a requirement for temporary infrastructure. Ensuring those are of the highest quality is such an important part of the overall aesthetic of an event. It’s got to look good, it has got to fit into the landscape. Of course, it has to be structurally sound too. You might think a tent is a tent, but it’s how you build that tent and what you make that tent look like on the inside. We play an important role in making these events the spectacles that people so enjoy.