Dakar and Drones in Saudi - Could the rally be pulled off in 2020?

Image: Franck Fife
Image: Franck Fife

The Dakar has been cancelled before, due to military issues. Could it happen again in 2020?The world’s most challenging and adventurous motorsport event could face increasing issues with its 2020 venue. 

After a decade of hugely successful Dakars in South America, the world’s most famous off-road race will see the 2020 edition hosted in Saudi Arabia. 

There is little doubt that the massive expanse of Saudi desert will provide competitors with all the required off-road racing challenges they desire. But there are peripheral political issues which are increasingly making this first Saudi Dakar appear a potentially complicated venture. 

Do you think the 2020 Dakar Rally can be pulled off in Saudi Arabia next year without any major challenges? Email us.

Dakar Saudi

                                                Image: AFP / Franck Fife

The Dakar is not an event unfamiliar with geopolitical issues.

After 29 years in Africa, it moved to South America in 2009. Terrorist threats in Mauritania cancelled the 2008 event, as it was about to start. 

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been considered a very secure country. A place where teams, drivers and support personnel will not be under any threat. But that guarantee of security could be disrupted. Involvement with Yemen’s civil war has finally elicited a counterstrike into Saudi territory.

An audacious drone attack by Houthi rebels disrupted Saudi Arabia’s previous oil infrastructure on Saturday. Houthis have promised this coordinated drone strike on Saudi territory won’t be the last. 

Dakar Saudi

                                                 Image: AFP / Franck Fife

A Dakar with flight restrictions?

This scenario has significantly altered the security issue around Saudi’s first Dakar.

Media coverage is a crucial aspect of the Dakar and the most impressive footage is captured from the air. Helicopters have always been the lifeblood of any Dakar: enabling emergency response to injured competitors and capturing awesome footage of the race. 

If Saudi airspace becomes a contested environment, with heightened security due to possible Houthi drone incursions, this could restrict Dakar helicopter crews. They could possibly only be allowed to fly as emergency response teams, forcing them to sacrifice their media footage flights. 

Drones have revolutionised media coverage, with a much lower barrier to entry and vastly simplified logistics. Beyond helicopter mounted cameras there are specialist media professionals who cover the Dakar and now rely on drones to capture a multitude of perspectives on the race, enriching the overall audience offering. 

Dakar Saudi

                                                Image: AFP / Franck Fife

The question is whether Saudi authorities might start dramatically limiting any drone flying in their airspace, after the recent Houthi attack. Saudi Arabia is keen to use its hosting of the Dakar to reveal a country which has built new tourist infrastructure and wishes to entice visitors.

Media coverages is an important part of that goal, but how will it be balanced in a time of increased military risk? For organisers of the Dakar, who are have dealt with disruptive military threats to their event before, the spectre drone attack adds an unexpected and unwelcome security escalation. 

With only a few months before the 2020 Dakar is supposed to start in Jeddah, tensions are rising. It is worth remembering that the Dakar was cancelled virtually on the start ramp back in 2008, a day before it was due to start. Could that happen again, in 2020? 

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