Saudi women add a first: a car rally

HAIL, Saudi Arabia – The starting line for Rally Jameel was drawn in 2017, when Saudi women were granted the right to a driver’s license. Last month, the ceremonial green flag finally fell on the kingdom’s first all-female gathering at Qishlah Palace in Hail, waved by Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad bin Abdulaziz, and Saudi Arabia marked another historic start for the women.

The rally (Jameel means beautiful in Arabic) ushered in the era of women’s motorsport in the kingdom. The rally, or race in the desert, was born at the beginning of the 20th century. Riders cover long distances, usually in stages, over rough off-road terrain in modified vehicles. Often courses, like the famous Paris-Dakar rally, include checkpoints or waypoints where drivers and navigators collect points as they work their way to the finish line.

“Coming here and participating in our first pilots meeting gave me goosebumps,” said Atefa Saleh, 41, a Siemens engineer from the United Arab Emirates. “I’m delighted to be the driver. But we change if something is really wrong,” she joked.

Ms Saleh’s co-pilot, Eleanor Coker, 48, is an American living in Saudi Arabia. She had an unusual method of preparing for her sailing duties. “My son came home from school and caught me on his PlayStation playing Dakar,” Ms Coker said, referring to Dakar 18, a racing simulator.

Before 2017, Saudi women could only hone their driving skills by playing video games like Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo. It was time to get down to earth and have a little fun.

Competitors came to the rally in mid-March from 15 countries, including Britain, Germany, Oman, Spain, Sweden and the United States. There were 34 two-woman teams, and more than half had at least one Saudi woman.

I’m a writer and rally driver and I was invited to compete with a delegation of three American teams. We knew that some participants would be professionals who already understood the joy of the rally. But most had only recently received their driver’s license and were new not only to the sport, but also to off-road driving. What we all experienced exceeded our expectations.

The Jameel has covered over 1,100 kilometers (687 miles), of which approximately 340 (212 miles) was off-road. The competitors collected 141 waypoints from the road books given to the teams the day before each of the three stages. A Stella III EVO rally computer, a high-tech odometer mounted to the dashboard by velcro and tape, included a digital file of the course and tracked a team’s speed and location via GPS. The Stella opened each waypoint at a distance of 800 meters (half a mile), and when drivers were 90 meters (about 100 yards) from the center of the target, the waypoint was validated by the computer and points were issued .

Four time, speed and distance challenges, called medium speed challenges, have been instituted for additional point opportunities. At masked intervals over pre-set distances, each team’s rally computer recorded its speed and penalties were imposed if the drivers were not accurate. If you thought it was hard to drive fast, try driving at exactly 38 kilometers per hour (23.6 miles per hour) for 20 kilometers on sandy highways, around hairpin bends on gravel roads or steep inclines.

The Rally Jameel was designed and sponsored by Hassan Jameel, vice president and vice president of conglomerate Abdul Latif Jameel and Bakhashab Motorsports Development, and himself a rally champion. He also received the patronage of Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Ambassador to Washington.

Stage 1 of the rally challenged competitors with a round-trip route from Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia to Jabal Umm Sinman mountain, just east of the World Heritage Site of the UNESCO site of Jubbah, where petroglyphs and inscriptions dating back almost 10,000 years are found. desert rocks. Team programs didn’t include visits, however, as penalties were imposed if you didn’t return within a time limit – and no speeding was allowed.

In the big world of rallying, speed and navigational precision determine who gets on the podium. But the Jameel imposed a speed limit of 70 km/h off-road, and the posted limits applied on the roads. Without a successful and safe inaugural event, there would be no second year. The organizers also knew that if they had introduced speed, the competitors would need a racing car fitted with a roll cage. Accessibility for more women governed the main objectives of the rally, so the vehicles were cars you could find in any driveway.

The second leg of the rally consisted of a transit from Hail to a glamping-style bivouac 600 meters above Al Mithnab, a governorate in the Qassim region, not far from Antara’s Rock, a famous rock which appears to have been split in two by a razor. In his shadow, it is said, Antarah ibn Shaddad, poet and warrior of the sixth century, met his love, Abla.

The vast, barren landscape of the Saudi desert was unlike the desert near my home in California. The other competitors could easily have been old friends, sharing rally tips and driving techniques, rolling eyes at husbands and children and drinking far too much coffee to sleep well. The other side of the world suddenly felt less far.

For Manar Alesayi, a divorced Saudi mother of two teenagers from Jeddah, who drives a jacked-up 2016 Jeep Wrangler, off-roading was nothing new, but competition complicated matters.

After day one, his team was in second place, but by day 3, they were down to 13th place. “It was a harsh reality for me,” Ms Alesayi said. “I thought we were doing so well. But I learned so much. »

Mrs Alesayi used to steal her father’s car at night and drive around their farm, before it was legal for her to drive. We have so much more in common than I could have imagined.

“My mom told me I was a desert girl,” she said. “Now I just want to drive the rally as much as possible.” As Rod Hall, the legendary American off-road racer, said, “First you learn to finish. Then you learn to win.

Rally Jameel organizers inspired their vision for the Rebelle Rally, the longest map-and-compass navigational rally in the United States, which just happens to be women-only.

Emily Miller, Rebelle founder and rally champion, aimed to organize an event where women could challenge themselves off-road.

“Having a successful rally doesn’t mean winning,” said Miller, who served as a delegate and mentor at Jameel. “It’s about how you work with your teammate, how you prepare and present yourself. This is how you learn from your mistakes and move on. These are skills that you use in your daily life.

But it’s not all serious business either. “Most importantly,” she continued through her signature mischievous smile, “rallying is having fun.”

For the third and final stage, the teams cruised around on camels puffing their way through the endless and daunting dunes to Riyadh, the capital. Without a doubt, the toughest driving of the rally took place inside the city limits, on highways where lane lines and speed limits seem like mere suggestions.

When I arrived at our last base camp, I found Lauren Bradley, the co-pilot of Ms Alesayi, a Scottish PE teacher living in Jeddah, shaken, her face red from crying. “That traffic was the most terrifying thing,” she said in her sweet brogue. “Someone tried to bump into us several times.”

As women find their place behind the wheel, not everyone in the kingdom is supportive. However, the government seems determined to protect women. Several competitors mentioned that if they felt harassed or intimidated on the road, they could report the incidents to the police and there were repercussions for the perpetrators. While the political climate in Saudi Arabia remains complex, opportunities for women are increasing.

Dania Akeel possesses a rare distinction in Saudi Arabia, her homeland. She is a rally champion in the T3 class of Cross-Country Baja and participated in the Dakar 2022. Her Toyota Land Cruiser, sporting the badge of the Jameel and its sponsor, Toyota ALJ, also sported a rallying cry in the form of a a singular transfer: #begin.

“Rally Jameel is the next step,” Ms Akeel said. “Women have been on the road for a few years. Now they have the choice to do without.

At the end of the rally, two Swedish professional drivers, Annie Seel and Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, took the podium in a 2022 Toyota RAV4.

My co-driver, Sedona Blinson, and I won Stage 3 and took fifth place overall. But the most satisfying result could easily have been that of two Saudi women, Afnan Albediny and his co-driver, Fatmah Al Shamri, who finished 22nd.

The accomplishment evident in Ms. Albediny’s broad smile had nothing to do with her place in the rankings.

“Before, I was a driver. Now I can say that I am a rally driver.

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