Kolkata: The election of Mohammed Ben Sulayem as the first non-European president of FIA International Automobile Federation (FIA), the world governing body of motorsport, in it’s 117-year history is surely a watershed moment in the history of the sport.
There was always a realistic possibility that the motor rallying legend of the UAE, who had served as the as FIA vice-president between 2013-2017, would eventually take over the hot seat one day. He didn’t contest against Jean Todt when the veteran French administrator was contesting for his third term in 2017, but his annoinment comes at a time when the Middle East has positioned itself as a hub for Formula One events and motorsport in no uncertain terms.
There are now three F1 events thriving in the region in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and the just launched Saudi Arabian Grand Prix - while Qatar will join the field from 2023.
A 14-time Middle East rally champion, Bin Sulayem had been camping in Paris for the past week or so in campaigning and scored a resounding victory when he gained 61.62% of the votes cast compared to 36.62% for his sole rival Britain’s Graham Stoker. The mandate for Ben Sulayem, a champion for diversity and inclusiveness as the planks for his election, finally replaces Todt - the 75-year-old former Ferrari boss who has completed three four-year mandates.
Elected for a four-year term, he appointed Carmelo Sanz de Barros as President of the Senate, Robert Reid as Deputy President for Sport and Tim Shearman as Deputy President for Mobility.
“I am very honoured to have been elected FIA President at the conclusion of the Annual General Assembly in Paris today. I thank all the Member Clubs for their esteem and trust. I congratulate Graham for his campaign and his engagement to the Federation. I wish to express my infinite gratitude in the name of the FIA and that of its Members to Jean Todt for all that has been achieved over the past 12 years. I am committed to pursuing the important work and make motor sport and mobility take further steps forward,” Ben Sulayem said in a statement.
An articulate speaker who wears many a hat in UAE sports administration - with him currently being the Secretary General of UAE National Olympic Committee - also has a wry sense of humour. In an interview with RaceFans last week, the Dubai resident said that he has no plans to relocate the FIA offices to Dubai should he win the elections. “I love Paris,” he said, adding: “I have a private jet and will commute.”
He has vowed to modernise the FIA and make it more transparent and in his manifesto, he promised an outside audit of the governance and an evaluation of their finances plus budget reports and transparency over their finances.
Who is Mohammed Ben Sulayem?
The 60-year-old Ben Sulayem is a 14-time Middle East rally champion and a campaigner in World Rally Championship (WRC), including with works Toyota drives. He was elected to the FIA World Motor Sport Council from 2008-13 and also served a term as a sport vice-president.
After retiring from active motorsport he turned to club administration, presiding over the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE since 2005, and is also the Emirati representative for FIVA, the classic car governing body.
He campaigned under the banner ‘FIA for Members’, saying he is “Focused on delivering what the members want and need.” The main pledges contained within his manifesto are to: “We set out to be a member-led team, and this manifesto is based on the actual, real needs as expressed by our members,” he said. “This is the members’ manifesto for the future of the FIA, and it is our commitment to implement it if elected.”
His main challenge will now be to deliver on the promises.