Sulayem takes the lead in Dubai.
Middle East champion Mohammed Ben Sulayem took an immediate lead in the Dubai International Rally by setting the fastest time on opening super special spectator stage in his Ford Focus World Rally Car.
Sulayem was three seconds quicker than this year's British Championship runner-up, Justin Dale, making his Middle East debut in a Group N Subaru Impreza.
Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi and UAE-based Lebanese driver Michel Saleh were joint third fastest in the Shindagha super stage.
The Dubai International brings down the curtain this weekend on the 2002 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, with two regional titles to be decided in an event which promises a number of intriguing contests on its way to the finish on Friday evening.
The event began with a super special spectator stage at Shindagha ahead of two legs of competitive desert stages over the next two days.
Among 34 entries from ten countries, Qatar's Misfer Al Marri is the man under most pressure in Dubai as he tries to clinch the Middle East Group N crown by shrugging off the challenge of the UAE's Khalid Al Qassimi who hopes home advantage can take him to the title.
Lebanon's Ziad Kharanou is the only driver who can prevent UAE-based Ron Oakeley from securing the Middle East Super 1600 championship, although 1992 Group N champion Oakeley must avoid mechanical disasters to be safe.
And while Mohammed Ben Sulayem has already wrapped up the overall drivers' title in his Ford Focus World Rally Car, he can afford no mistakes or setbacks as he chases his 15th victory in the Dubai International Rally.
The winning driver will take his car onto the finish ramp at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 5.20pm on Friday, rounding off a Middle East Championship trail which began in Qatar in February, moving on to Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Cyprus en-route to Dubai.
Sulayem scored victories in Qatar, Bahrain, Syria and Jordan to extend his run of Middle East Championship titles, and in Dubai, as for most of the season to date, his biggest challenger is fellow-UAE driver Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, and not Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Bakhashab.
Bakhashab had been expected to make a powerful bid for the Middle East crown, but suffered a series of mechanical failures in his Toyota Corolla WRC. He has so far been unable to find a WRC replacement, and officially withdrew from the Dubai Rally yesterday, saying that he expects to start the 2003 championship in a Peugeot, or a Ford.
While brother Khalid in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 aims to wipe out Al Marri's four-point Group N lead, Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi is set to secure second place overall in the championship behind Sulayem. Sheikh Abdullah has driven intelligently in his first season in a World Rally Car, and may be ready to increase the pace, and put pressure on Sulayem, this weekend.
Carrying the flag for Jordan will be two-times national champion Faris Bustami, driving a Group A Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 which has given him two wins on home territory this year, along with Asem Aref, Tala Al Shawa, Abir Batikhi, Mohamad Juma and lady driver Nancy Al Majali.
Partnered by Nadia Shnoudah, Al Majali is one of five lady competitors in the event. Julie Oakeley co-drives for husband Ron, and there are two other husband-and-wife combinations, Bahrain's Abdul Rahman and Esther Ghuloom, and Britain's Howard and Ruth Paterson.
The Saudi challenge in Dubai is headed by Ahmed Al Sabban in a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7, and reinforced by a trio of Toyota Ravs driven by Majed Al Ghamdi, Sultan Hamdi and Amr Shass.
Making his Dubai Rally and Middle East Championship debut is Justin Dale, the 2002 Super 1600 British rally champion who also finished runner-up in this year's overall British title race, and drives a Group N Subaru Impreza entered by Protrak World Motorsport Management.
Protrak have signed up Dale to spearhead a double assault on next season's World and Middle East Rally Championships. Dale and his regular British co-driver, Andrew Bargery, are joined in the Dubai Rally line-up by a second Subaru driven by the company's owner, Craig Johnson.
Underlining the international flavour of the event are Cypriot Menelaos Melissas who finished a fine fourth in Dubai last year, Syrian Ramez Al Fara in a Group A Seat Ibiza and Italian Agostino Ontano in Group A Mazda 323.