Rally Jameel: Exclusive look into Saudi Arabia’s women-only motorsport event

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As one of Saudi Arabia’s first women-only motorsports events takes place in the Kingdom, Al Arabiya English spoke to some of the participating racers and the organizer to get an exclusive look into the Rally Jameel event and what it means for sporting in the Kingdom.

Spanning at least 300 kilometers, the rally will take drivers from Hail to al-Qassim via the capital city of Riyadh from March 17 to 19.

The rally is being held under the patronage of Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the US and under the umbrella of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) with recognition from the FIA Women in Motorsport Committee (WIMC).

The fully off-road race is not one of speed, clarified the organizers, but rather, one that requires navigational skills and intense planning.

Dania Akeel a seasoned rally driver and winner in the T3 category at the Cross Country Bajas concurs.

Akeel told Al Arabiya English that she “never really considered focusing too much on being a woman…” when asked about the impact of Rally Jameel being a women-only event.

“It’s an engine sport,” she said.

Akeel has also raced in the famous Dakar Rally among other events. Her win at the Cross Country Bajas held in Italy, made history as the first Arab woman to win the title.

Photo shows Dania Akeel.  (Supplied)
Photo shows Dania Akeel. (Supplied)

“All over the world, motorsport is new for women,” said Akeel, adding that “we are in the early days of women in motorsport, and I think that Saudi women have just as much chance as other nations do to be competitive.”

Saudi Arabia, in 2017, announced a royal decree that granted women the right to hold a local driving license and drive in the Kingdom as part of the larger reforms in line with Vision 2030.

The 33-year-old said that the recent changes have proven to be an advantage when seeking sponsorship deals. Abdul Latif Jameel Motors and Hertz are two of the larger sponsors aiding her Rally Jameel stint.

Akeel had the opportunity to drive from the age of 17 when she was living in UK. She was also one of the first women in the Kingdom to receive a local driving permit in the week after women were allowed to drive.

“A lot of people gave me thumbs up and a wave,” said Akeel when describing her experience driving on Saudi roads in the year when women took to the roads. “There was this excitement and there was this novelty… It was always positive,” she said.

This show of support has continued in the four years since women were permitted licenses to drive on Saudi roads.

The rally “gives women a chance to shine, and show they can handle all of life’s challenges,” said HRH Dr. Ahad Al Saud, President of the Saudi Motorsport Marshals Club, in an exclusive statement to Al Arabiya English.

The royal is present at the event, in a show of support for the novel initiative and as the Chief Medical Officer.

HRH Dr. Ahad Alhassan Saud Abdulaziz Al Saud at Rally Jameel. (Supplied)
HRH Dr. Ahad Alhassan Saud Abdulaziz Al Saud at Rally Jameel. (Supplied)

“Hosting Rally Jameel and starting it from Hail shows how pivotal the city is, making the rally even more special for the Kingdom,” she added.

Nada Hambazza, another participant in Rally Jameel and one of the earlier adopters of Saudi Arabia’s driving license told Al Arabiya English that she has received nothing but support from her family and community to take part in the event.

Hambazza too is a Saudi resident with periodic travel between London and Lebanon.

She said that the event “celebrates the opportunity” and “proves that women fit in sports.”

Hambazza has also been driving in the UK since the age of 18, but racing is not her primary occupation like Akeel. Hambazza is an operations manager at MTN Co. with a passion for driving, she said.

Pictured is Nada Hambazaza, a Rally Jameel participant and an Arabic-YouTube content creator. (Supplied)
Pictured is Nada Hambazaza, a Rally Jameel participant and an Arabic-YouTube content creator. (Supplied)

The mother of three is also an Arabic content creator on YouTube aimed at introducing Saudi women to cars and vehicle maintenance.

She too has not faced any resistance from her family or community about taking part in the event, save for the safety concerns attached to a motorsport event.

“At the end of the day, it is myself, it is my religion, and it is my thoughts that count,” said Hambazza as she counters an inconsiderably small minority of voices who critique the societal changes.

Akeel resonates Hambazza’s comment and said, “I have the right to do it [drive], and I am doing it and nobody's stopping me. I'm not sure whether they agree with it or not, but it's great that people show me support.”

Akeel is driving a Toyota Land Cruiser while Hambazza is behind the wheel of an MG-branded car for the event, sponsored by MG Taajeer Group, in addition to companies including Ceramic Pro, Saudi Auto, and Saudia Cargo, among others.

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The drivers will race in teams of two with unmodified cars, according to the rules. The vehicles must have four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive capability.

The wider GCC-area is being represented with teams from both the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In preparation for the rally that features 34 teams from 15 countries, both racers have been training mentally and physically for the challenge ahead.

Hambazza said she trained for two to three hours a day in the desert regions of Dahaban and Asfan to familiarize with the terrain and enhance navigational skills that are essential for Rally Jameel.

All car-related maintenance will also be carried out by the two-person team in the course of the event.

Akeel finds comfort in the vehicle tracking technology implemented by the organizers.

“Everybody knows where you are. They have trackers. So even if you can't see anybody or anything, you're never lost and you're never isolated,” she said.

Cardio exercises and yoga are two areas Akeel focusses on. She said that “mental clarity, stamina and endurance” were the three key things required to master an offroad or cross-country rally event.

The off-road route is marked with hidden checkpoints and markers that ensure all vehicles complete the course within the designed path.

The rally is open to any national or international entrant over 18 years with a driving license valid in Saudi Arabia.

The opening ceremony was held in the historic al-Qashla Palace in the city of Hail, and overseen by Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad, the Prince of Hail.

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