Dunes galore! Dakar 2022 heads back to sandy Saudi Arabia

Paris (AFP) –


The 2022 Dakar Rally will feature more sand dunes as the epic car and moto stage race heads back to Saudi Arabia for the third time with organisers playing down accusations of sportswashing by the Gulf kingdom.

The Rally will depart from Ha'il in the north on January 2 and finish in the western coastal city of Jeddah on January 14, after a rest day in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

Launched in 1979 between Paris and the Senegalese capital Dakar, the celebrated endurance challenge moved to the kingdom for the first time in 2020 after a decade in South America.

That sparked angry reaction from human rights organisations amid accusations of "sportswashing" -- using sport to divert attention away from not only domestic rights issues but also Riyadh's involvement in Yemen's six-year war which has left tens of thousands dead and displaced millions, with more than 80 percent of the 29 million people depending on aid to survive.

A host of other sports have, like the Dakar, shelved any such concerns, with high-profile football, cycling, Formula E and boxing events all having been staged in the country, with even Formula One to come in December.

Saudi officials argue that such events come within the remit of the country's "Vision 2030" to increase its openness.

"I want to believe in their openness," Dakar director David Castera told AFP. "At least now there are Westerners, tourist visas, there are women who compete in the Dakar, women who drive.

"We are maybe at the start of a change. It's a start, it may never be enough. We want things to go faster but there had to be something.

"Saudi Arabia has been inspired by its neighbours, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar. They came to the party very late, but are going much faster to have this same development by multiplying international sporting events."

- Off-road navigation -

Turning to the 2022 route, Castera said: "We're going to explore places we haven't completely explored, putting the emphasis on sand and dunes."

The 12 stages, heading south-easterly from the start, take in the testing Empty Quarter, the vast Rub' al-Khali desert in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

"The weeding-out process will come down to the crews' ability to tackle the dunes and off-road navigation," Dakar organisers said.

French driver Stephane Peterhansel, a Dakar winner for a 14th time this year, and his rivals will face two days exclusively in the dunes, a potential title decider.

"If we go looking for sand, that's good news," said Peterhansel.

The 44th edition sees a new class joining the collection of cars, bikes, quads, trucks, buggies and SSVs, with the launch of a "T1-E category" reserved for low-carbon emission prototypes. The end of the combustion engine era is planned for 2030 for cars.

For the fourth straight time, the Dakar Rally will take place in one country only. The 2019 edition in Peru was the first not to leave national borders since the inaugural 1978 race.

"In the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic we are unfortunately still forced to focus on Saudi Arabia," said Castera.

"It's no big deal because there is everything we need... but I think from next year there will be another country," he added, citing "Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman... and why not, one day, all those countries together?"