Nissan product manager in Abu Dhabi by weekday, rally champion by weekend

By day Emil Khneisser is group training and product manager at Abu Dhabi’s Nissan dealer Al Masaood Automobiles. But when he clocks off, the Lebanese feeds his passion for cars in a different way – by being a rally driver.

“For me a career is a means to be able to practice my expensive hobbies,” he says. “I’m quite happy in my job but I aim for success in my personal life, not my career.”

Mr Khneisser’s weekends start when he logs off at 2pm on Thursdays. “It’s as though a bell rings in my head”, he says.

By 4pm he’s on the road with his family – his wife, 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter – towing a two-floor trailer containing the family’s off-road toys and camping equipment.

“You have the biggest playground here in the UAE with the Western Region, and I can never get enough of it. I don’t fight the weather. We drive open-air buggies with no AC, even in the peak of summer,” adds Mr Khneisser, who is competing in this week’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

On unzipping the tent on Friday mornings, Mr Khneisser, 47, is pitting his car against his son’s high-performance racing buggy out on the dunes. “I keep myself fit by driving my normal 4×4 car next to him, and it’s almost impossible to keep up. He’s basically training me.”

Mr Khneisser’s children both race competitively, as does his Bulgarian wife. “I’ve caught her in the trap of my lifestyle. She’s a good driver.”

The family head home late on Friday, before spending the whole of Saturday karting at Yas Marina Circuit.

On weekdays there’s no let-up to the hectic lifestyle. From 4pm onwards, the Khneissers are out doing a different activity every day – kayaking, mountain biking, Rollerblading, ice-skating or cycling. “I fill the children’s lives with so much activity that we never have to tell them not to play for too long on the PlayStation.”

Mr Khneisser still finds time to fulfil his corporate duties. Although he’s usually the first person to leave the office, he’s also the first one through the doors at 7.20am.

“On Sunday mornings, after a physically exhausting weekend, I feel so relaxed and fresh at work. I’m very efficient. I don’t like to socialise at work, and lunch is usually a sandwich at my desk.”

Mr Khneisser says in the past he worked from home, from 9pm until as late as 1am, but nowadays his phone and laptop are switched off after hours.

“If you’re not able to do your job within working hours, you’re making a mistake somewhere,” he says. “I was inspired to grab life when I started losing loved ones, which made me wake up to reality. Do we want to live like ants? Or do we want to benefit from life? I made the choice to benefit as much as I can.”

As a child, Mr Khneisser developed a love of off-roading from family hunting trips. By the age of nine, he was driving his own 4×4.

“My friends’ parents were mechanics who saw potential in me, and helped me out with my cars. I never liked a car just as it was, I always wanted to tinker with it.”

Mr Khneisser was the Lebanese off-road rallying champion four years in a row before coming to the UAE in 2001, upon the request of the businessman Abdulla Al Masaood. He developed prototypes for military vehicles until 2005, when Mr Al Masaood assigned him to one of his biggest franchises – Nissan.

At first, Mr Khneisser competed in races with a buggy he’d designed and built himself. But for the past two years he has been racing his company’s Nissan Patrol. On the sands, it can reach speeds of 180kph. Nissan is Mr Khneisser’s sponsor, and he promotes the brand through his hobby. “But when I was racing my own buggy, they supported me in the same way.”

Mr Khneisser will be away from his office for the next two-and-a-half months – first for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge starting tomorrow, then on to Qatar, Jeddah and Egypt for other races. “I’m blessed that my management are so flexible and supportive. If I leave work early to practice, they know I’ll catch up on my work another time. This year I might be doing the international championships. They won’t deduct my salary, even though they might need to recruit someone else to support me while I’m away.”

Mr Khneisser feels that his hobby complements his job.

“When you’re exposed to motor sports, you know more about cars. And because I’m a successful racer developing cars, people in the automobile industry look up to me. As a trainer and product manager, it gives me credibility. I know what I’m talking about – that’s what they believe.”

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