Wednesday, 1 December 2010

PESTEL Trends – Arabian Auto-Culture – The Need Re-Direct the Car Culture Drift.

The world over, history has proven that powerful cars and young men can often create an ever increasingly dangerous public environment. Given that the car acts as such a potent facilitator for physical & spiritual freedom, and acts as perhaps the most publicly apparent status symbol, it is little surprise that youth and cars make for a potentially hazardous mix.

This has been the case from 1950s America and its quarter-mile drags encapsulated by the Hot-Rod & Muscle-Car culture, for 1960s Britain and tuned Ford 'Pops' and Mini's, for 1970s Germany and 1980s Mexico with tuned VWs, and for 1990s Japan with big RWD coupe performance models which led to the 2000 craze for 'drifting'.

'Drifting' is the colloquial term for 'power-slide over-steer' and it has been a trend that has migrated from suburban Japan to across the world in the last 20 years, popularised by the availability of affordable powerful used cars and coverage via high-visibility public and private media platforms.

A plethora of 1990s-2000s sports-coupes and performance saloons became available – typified by the Mitsubishi Starion / GTO (its named derived from former Pontiac and the pre-cursing original Ferrari), the Toyota 3000GT / Supra / Soarer, the Nissan 200SX /350Z, the Honda Prelude. This trend generated the iconic Subaru Impreza & Mitsubishi Evo - the rallying achievements of which set the tone for drifting and stunt-driving – followed by the 'FWD' 'Hot 4s' such as Honda's Integra and Type-R series.

As stated, popularisation was generated by initially coverage by mainstream broadcasters of side-show events at official motor-sport, with the trend trickling down amongst dare-devil youngsters (and the not-so-young) which was self-promoted via typically camera-phones and video-phones, the scenes of which were and are uploaded to primarily and other similar social-media sites.

Aided by video-console games such as Grand Theft Auto and a raft of driving games, the first decade of the 2000s has seen a massive growth in this youth-culture phenomenon, it being a natural result from 20 and 30 somethings previously high disposable income levels, the parallel game-related virtual world and ever greater need for status. Thus the amalgum created a turbo-charged car-culture.

Yet it of course also comes with high social and economic costs. Costs which national governments and regional police forces obviously identify as detrimental to the overall public good. Of course, well policed, ably governed city-centres, suburbs and environs typically limit the ability of potentially dangerous, adrenalin-charged drivers (and 'egg-on' passengers) to do as they please.

But even in such controlled areas - as typically seen in Japan, the UK and across Northern Europe - the two obviously opposed agendas of youth and police often leads to a type of 'hide & seek' eventuality that creates an unfortunate climate of ever greater risk-taking. This picture especially seen across the cities and towns of more provincial areas where arguably the car serves a greater ability for enjoyment, and that all important 'momentary escape' from the all too real 'hum-drum' of dis-satisfied young lives.

Today the Drifting trend is virtually global, from the archetypical night-scapes of neon-lit Tokyo Prefectures that give a road-grid for Japanese rich-kids, to the day-time adventures of newly motorised yet essentially poor twenty-somethings in Sao Paulo; using minimally-powered but crucially RWD cars.
[NB Given the inescapable fact that most affordable small cars are FWD, there has also been wide-spread use these].

Yet it is across the Middle-East that both types of rich and not so rich 'Aspirant Hero Drifter' are seen. Side by side within the ever-developing cities and geographically spanning quite remote regions separated by vast tracts of desert and very different regional economic fortunes. These of course linked by desert roads and the automobile.

From Abu Dhabi in the UAE, to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Aden in the Yeman, the availability of cheap oil, the socialized male 'entitlement' to the car and the high rate of infrastructure build (which provides new roads and the 'room to play' on de-congested highways) when combined means that in many cases (as with the west) the car has been re-utilised as part personal toy from its previous role as practical family tool. This runs across the social spectrum, but of course is most evident within the indigenous young male population who tend to enjoy high levels of personal income plus no or limited personal responsibilities.

So the activity has become a niche aspect of an already ingrained Arabic vehicle culture. One which spans a broad diversity from supercars to humble hatchbacks, from 'desert adventure' 4WDs to antiquated haulage trucks. Indeed, without wanting to appear blasphemous - vehicles have become almost physical icons with powerful significance. Sheikh Hamah bin Hamdan Al Nahyan demonstrates this with his giant-scale classic Dodge Powerwagon (eight times original size and acts as a house on wheels), his globe motorhome (one millionth the size of the earth), and his 200 item car collection that is open free to the public. As is evident, the car has almost as much cultural significance as the Camel or the Falcon.

So unsurprisingly, it has become an inward and outward expression. In the same vein as has been the case for the US with previously the 1950s James Dean types driving stripped pre-WW2 Ford coupes in the Mid-West, or the filmic inspired 'Blaxpoitation' Caddy's and Lincolns in 1970s Harlem, or the long history of Latino association with 'low-rider' Chevy Impalas and similar throughout Southern Californian and Florida.

This desire for 'tribal' self-expression comes in many forms: aesthetic and dynamic and has been a major aspect as how car culture has developed within all global regions.

Thus Arabia effectively mirrors and endeavours to develop what is seen on the US west coast scene. That as a 'start-point' the endemic Arab vs American differences, almost spurring on the Arabic youth in a competitive manner. Many go to extremes with vehicle development to metaphorically 'out-gun' the West, being bigger, better or braver; and so arguably go driving extremes to compete not just locally amongst peers, but also internationally upon the more virtual world stage enabled by youtube etc. Most extreme-driving participants will argue that they are in control of theie vehicle, and indeed 99% of the time this is the case given the high level of driving skills nurtured. But this of course leaves the 1% room for error.

Indeed 'drifting' per se has been adapted to what is know as the 'Saudi Drift' which comprises essentially of stunt-style show-boating on broad straight-roads in near deserted periphery districts.

As for the socially concerning act of stunt driving and traditional 'drifting', it has become a popular escapade amongst all Arab classes, indigenous and immigrant; from the flagrantly mega-rich with say a 'top-end' Porsche GT, Mercedes SLR or Aston Martin, to the 'mere' wealthy in BMW M5 series, to the middle classes in Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords, and even amongst those at the bottom of the ladder (who are typically male immigrants who financially club together to buy a car for both work transport and motorised weekend and holy-day fun).

[NB obviously powerful front engined, rear wheel drive models are better 'facilitators' whilst mid-engined Porsche's and Ferraris offer greater 'challenge' to participants, but also more dangerous social consequences given the inability to 'play' a mid-engined car so easily].

The ruling elites and police forces have watched this socialized male 'outlet' grow over the years, but no doubt find themselves caught between a rock and a hard-place, given that they must recognise both the social role this phenomenon offers as a 'socio-cultural glue' set against the high potential for personal and community tragedy.

Importantly, general car-culture and the popularity for Drifting is perhaps more prolific in the Arab world given its historic and endemic reverence regards 'manliness' and the innate hierarchical nature of the societal framework. And as such, thus encapsulates a broader age-range of the male demographic. Moreover, as seen in the west, the emergence of increasingly emancipated young women within a freer social scene offers both a new dimension to the all-male car culture, but also assists the 'drive' toward greater showing off and so propensity for danger.

So undoubtedly questions surround this pursuit of auto-entertainment, one which which has both its left and right feet respectively planted in sociological and economic roots. These are the roots that the governing classes are trying to husband by creating new branches which when ideally managed promote regional development, social integration and reduce the potential for social harm.

Moving the wealthy street-racers (who act as social leaders) from the suburbs and onto officially authorised and typically government-grant developed [F1 and GT class level) race-tracks has been a major effort over the last 5 years or so. Tracks such as Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina, Bahrain's International Circuit, Jeddah Race Way and the Losail Circuit in Qatar have been either specifically built or are being upgraded to not only encourage world-class motor-sport events that highlight a nation's standing, but also draw in amateur race events and public track-day events. These theoretically critically offer the track owners a smaller though more stable 'year-round' income stream, and offer a safe yet competitive environment for wealthy locals to play at being motoring heroes.

Furthermore, the development of these locations into broader entertainment parks, spanning music concerts, festivals and complete entertainment complexes - such as Ferrari World on Yas Island - add yet greater commercialisation opportunities, which also add to the social fabric of the city or state.

As seen perhaps most evidently at Yas Marina, beyond the obvious income-stream of Ferrari World type projects, a vitally engrained design remit when building these kind of infrastructure projects is to integrate within the architecture both the innate Arabic spirit and the desire to create globally iconographic silhouettes. To demonstrate that the Gulf respects its history and yet should be regarded as thoroughly modern

This ambition to promote historic and modern* 'Arabic Culture', aswell as demonstrating the Middle- East as the new 'Global Cultural Hub', has obviously been part of the regional development agenda for some years. Hence the new construction work – in the midst of the construction slowdown – that sees new satellite locations for The Louvre in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and for the The Guggenheim also in Abu Dhabi, on Saadiyat Island. Internationally, Islamic Art has come to the for recently with exhibitions and auctions, such as the recent Sotheby's event, which primarily showcased contemporary works ranging from early 20th century European influenced Arabic works to late modern works.

Thus, clearly the 'east-meets-west' globalisation effect is regaining strength after the tensions of the last decade, with satellite museum and gallery projects helping to re-establish those inter-cultural links that have historically grown and waned.

[NB Here the news that Pearson Publishing's iconic 'Penguin Classics' brand will be serving the Mid-East market renowned western titles whilst also re-publishing classic Islamic texts is culturally and geo-politically a very welcome development].

Although there has been a strong vocalisation of opposition to such global commercialisation of museums and a galleries – typically by groups of curators and academics – such important cross-fertilization should be applauded since it both transmits-out and absorbs-in differing influences at artistic, popular and public levels. This especially important to the young who will have either studied in Europe or the US, or had wished they had been able to. Whilst the Mid-East is far far more informed about western ways than most outside the region would believe, this 2-way bridging of higher-brow cultures is important. Why shouldn't an American can read 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam', whilst a Bahraini reads Byron?

The Royal families and ruling elites of the Middle-East no doubt well recognise the importance of cultural development on local, global and ideally 'glocal' levels.

Hence the key will be to identify how the Arab culture can evolve within the context of previously dominant European and American cultures, yet also alongside those new cultural forces emerging from China,India, Brazil and elsewhere.

Thus having as broad a 'picture-scope' as possible will be key in the ongoing economic develop of the Gulf, as its seeks to continues to expand beyond reliance on oil & gas, yet also has learned from the property bubble that both helped and hindered its diversification plans.

As seen in Qatar, “Education, Education, Education” is seen as a prime pillar for future capability and expansion, the work of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned combined with public funding attracting big-name institutions from the US. Yet as has been seen, the apparent educational capacity has yet to filled, with the question of the ratio between local and foreign students seemingly unfixed and perhaps intendedly flexible.

Yet finding a way to deepen the presence of, and ideally marry, the arts, the sciences and use commerce as an enabler will be key. Using the academic realm to leap-frog other nations' R&D and industry sector capabilities where possible. The Qatari Royals know that will be the starter motor for the newly build economic engine.

And it is perhaps in the ambitions and hands of the 'internationally minded' young that progress will be made, ideally aiding the creation of investment possibilities within the automotive sector and its affiliate sectors, including the potential for technology-transfer. Even though automotive is thought to sit relatively low on the development agenda – surpassed by what is viewed as higher-value pharmaceutical, eco-energy, telco and the like – it is a value-generative force that should be harnessed. Especially so given the auto-obsession of the Arabic youth.

The regional web-logs devoted to local car-culture and drifting are peppered with English-based conversation between informed and educated members of the Arab youth, which highlight that the participants of this craze are anything but the 'brainless and bored' contributors of many global car-culture web forums. There is recognition amongst portions of the higher-brow young that the activity deservedly has a bad name given the irresponsibility that it both draws towards it, and indeed draws out of participants. Hence even the young see the need for improved control, but a control that does not eradicate the adrelin rush, or fragment the 'tribal bond building'.

What is noticeable is the desire for the youth of the Arabian countries to develop their own forms of self-expression, themselves noting that car-culture effectively started in the US - as have most modern trends – but also noting how it was Japan that evolved its own car culture to reflect its own identity – such as the Samurai Warrior tradition. These now global trends in turn being both absorbed and adapted (ie the 'Saudi Drft'), with what seems an intense desire to 'self-create' in their chosen fields. In short an identity led evolution of 'nation-layered' car culture.

This then is good news since it demonstrates that there exists a willingness by the though-leaders of young car-obsessed Arabians that this sphere has evolutional potential. To move beyond what are essentially imported car-crazes seen at the social level, and the imported (motor-sport) business models at the economic level.

The islamic world has in the past had grand ambitions regards regards the automobile, but in reality little has emerged as permanently to date. This ranges from Malaysia's previous ambition for its domestic Proton to become the archetype high volume 'Global Islamic Car', to at the other extreme of niche manufacture, the UK based Persian entrepreneur Arash Farhad developing high-end supercars. In the GCC, an intendedly grown core competence for aluminium smelting has generated spin-off sectors such as alloy-wheel casting and fabrication, yet these items are in turn exported for high-quality finishing elsewhere. This probably part of a trade-pact agreement amongst Arab states or Asia, given possible high labour content, yet it does also highlight the need to walk-up the value chain.

Thence, just as the GCC wishes to bridge international cultures, so it must build a staircase between its present low-value manufacturing and service capabilities and its high-value aspirations. To do so its member states must continue to investigate, adopt and possibly adapt a commercial framework drawn from past experiences both to its East and to its West.

It was hoped some years ago that the partially Middle-Eastern owned Aston Martin Lagonda could have constructed its new 'Rapide' 4-door coupe in the region. But from CEO's (Ulrich Bez's) perspective, the commercial obstacles and risk involved proved (rightly) too much of an idealistically-driven gamble.Too much of a risk to the company itself, then facing the real need for an additional model income stream, and of course its profit-sharing responsibility toward its shareholders.

Yet that flailed ambition would provide insight and future guidance, and so should be deeply investigated as a case study, the conclusion and recommendations of which to be used as a building block in creating that much needed 'developmental staircase'.

In short, the time seems right to halt the 'automotive cultural drift' witnessed at both social and economic levels, and to identify exactly how the car and the context of its use, can instead be used as a dual purpose 'perpetual motion vehicle' - something that sits equidistant between its new infrastructure projects and its renewed artistic heart.

As the sands of time shift, so should focus on the GCC's automotive world.