There are a number of performance car and off-road enthusiasts in the United Arab Emirates. Multiple rally champion Mohammed bin Sulayem regularly graces world television screens with his exotic collection of Ferraris, Porsches, Bentleys and Mercedes road vehicles, but he now has a rival for global attention in Yayha Bil-Hilli - the self-confessed 'King of the Desert'.
Yayha lives within earshot of the world famous Godolphin racing stables at Nad Al Shiba on the outskirts of Dubai and is now running a company called Bil-Hilli Motors, specialising in exotic vehicles for off-road use. His first creation was an immaculate six-wheel Range Rover, but the latest project has been a unique Hummer vehicle, for which the likeable Arab has already been offered in the region of US$600,000. The Hummer was originally built in 1999.
"I spend most of my spare time in the desert and wanted a vehicle which could master the very worst conditions," confessed Bil-Hilli. "The Range Rover is a great vehicle, but nothing performs like a Hummer in shifting sand. In my opinion it is the world's greatest off-road vehicle. That's why it's popular with the Armed Forces for use in the desert. I honestly think that I have the finest Hummer in the world. I've heard stories about a couple of fantastic Hummers in America, but I've yet to see one..."
Yayha wanted the vehicle to stand out and acquired the registration number 6666, for the bright red all-wheel drive creation. "Number plates in the UAE are as popular as they are around the world," says Yayha. "If you are really important then you have a single number or a very low number, like the ruling Maktoum family. I saw this 6666 number and thought that's the one for me!" Bil-Hilli's rumoured to have paid a huge amount for the privilege.
Yayha freely admits that he gets a buzz from his latest creation: "I love leaving the car outside a Shopping Mall in Dubai. People just cannot keep their eyes off it."
The Hummer is powered by a near-standard, 380hp, diesel-turbo 6.5-litre V8 engine and power is delivered to the driving wheels by a factory semi-automatic transmission system, albeit fitted with Yayha's very own gear ratios.
"The Hummer is good for a maximum speed of 160 km/h and automatically switches into two-wheel drive above 30 km/h. I wanted it for heavy-duty use. The engine is very torquey and I like to climb dunes, hills, drive through flooded river crossings, wadis and use it as a desert rescue vehicle. It will never get stuck. It's the best!"
The Hummer is also fitted with massive American-designed 37 x 15 inch tyres, Bil-Hilli's very own heavy-duty suspension revisions to cope with the extended ride height and ground clearance and a turbo boost control should he require a little more power than normal.
Hummer 6666 is equipped with a catalogue of unique extras, some of which have been cloned from technical ideas devised by competing teams in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. Defending World Champion and former Formula One racer Jean-Louis Schlesser is one of the leading technical faces in the all-terrain rallying arena and he was one of the first to devise a clever tyre deflation system for his range of Renault-engined Buggies and Kangoos for desert racing. The French Mitsubishi team followed suit and Yayha Bil-Hilli - not to be outdone - has modified the factory-fitted tyre deflation system on his Hummer. A dashboard mounted switch automatically inflates and deflates the tyres should the vehicle fall foul of treacherous 'live' sand or boggy conditions, thus saving the driver the ignominy of several minutes with a shovel and wheel boards.
"Some of the sands in the UAE are very tricky," admits Bil-Hilli. "You have to read the contours of the land, have a feel for the terrain, otherwise it is easy to come unstuck. The deflation system is my precaution against getting stuck in the dunes. But I don't need it!"
Satellite navigation has become an inherent part of world cross-country motorsport in the last few years and Bil-Hilli's Hummer is fitted with the very latest navigation equipment. A short drive away from the bustling conurbations of Dubai and Abu Dhabi lie miles and miles of shifting dunes and desolate sand flats and Bil-Hilli and his friends spend many a night camped out under the stars, eating traditional Arabic Mezzas and reliving the life of the Bedouin - an existence which many of their forefathers lived before the discovery of oil and the rapid commercial development of the region in the latter part of the 20th Century.
The interior of the Hummer is fitted with sumptuous leather upholstery, walnut veneer dash trim and a host of purpose-built storage areas. The roof has been modified by Yayha himself, restyled and fitted with an expansive roof rack, sporty lamps and satellite transponder and he has fitted his very own bull-bar to the front, in addition to black colour-coded trim, an uprated winch and additional driving lamps.
"Hummers are very noisy vehicles in standard form," he admits. "That wasn't good enough for me, especially now that there are so many major roads in the UAE. I have fully soundproofed the interior with rubber seals and noise-absorbing trim. Beforehand there were vibrations and it was deafening above 100 km/h. Now it drives on the road like a normal car and is very comfortable."
But Yayha's motoring pedigree is not confined just to exotic off-road vehicles. He now has a contract to campaign a Chevrolet Tahoe in this year's UAE Desert Challenge, the final round of the FIA World Cup, having finished a staggering second overall last year behind World Champion Schlesser.
"Maybe I can go one better this year," jokes Bil-Hilli. "The Chevrolet is competitive, but it would be nice to line up at the start in the Hummer!"
The self-confessed 'King of the Desert' is also embarking upon an ambitious plan to contest the 2003 Paris-Dakar Rally....