Women’s motorsport picks up speed in the Middle East
In motor racing, as in commerce, the eyes of the world are increasingly pivoting towards the Middle East.
For proof of the sport’s rapid acceleration within the region, just glance in the rear-view mirror at the most recent Formula One season: bookended by showpieces in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and detouring to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the championship raced towards its nail-biting climax.
Indeed, the Middle East has increasingly been a honeypot for the global racing community since its first foray into F1 with 2004’s Bahrain Grand Prix. The sport’s development within the region has moved at lightning pace ever since, including the appointment of UAE-born Mohammad Bin Sulayem as President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s governing body, in 2021.
As a former rally driver, Sulayem knows better than most that it is rallying, rather than circuit racing, that first ignited the Middle East’s love affair with motorsport.
The FIA-sanctioned Middle East Rally Championship has been staged annually in the region since 1984, featuring regular events in the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan.
Since 1991, the Middle East has also hosted the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (formerly the UAE Desert Challenge), part of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, latterly permitting entry to motorcycles, trucks and quads as well as cars.
Motorsport fans in the UAE are increasingly spoiled for choice, with the F4 UAE Championship, UAE Sportbike Championship and TCR Middle East Touring Car Series all establishing a presence, and Dubai Motor City (with its 5.39 km FIA-certified Dubai Autodrome track) serving as a focal point.
The region also boasts famous off-road endurance event the Dakar Rally (formerly the iconic ‘Paris to Dakar’, founded in 1978) which has been held entirely within Saudi Arabia since 2020 and is set to expand from next year to encompass Qatar and the UAE, too.
Also in Saudi Arabia, the Formula E Diriyah E-Prix has taken place in Riyadh since 2018, kicking off a decade-long deal for Formula E racing in the country, and ensuring that the throttle will remain firmly pressed on Middle East racing action long into the future.
Women behind the wheel
The boom in motorsports in the region has also led to a boom in talent – not least in terms of female drivers, as women increasingly seek to consolidate their position behind the wheel and on the podiums.
This growing profile of women in motorsports is a global trend. The all-female W Series single-seater championship, for example, recently launched its blockbuster third season, with an international line-up of drivers embarking on a ten-date calendar spanning Europe, Asia and America.
The 2022, Extreme E Championship off-road racing series, meanwhile, has instigated a 50/50 gender balance bringing global attention to female talent such as Sweden’s Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, Spain’s Cristina Gutiérrez Herrero and the USA’s Sara Price. In IndyCar racing, Colombia’s Tatiana Calderon will this year become the first female driver in almost a decade to compete in a majority of the season’s events, in her AJ Foyt Racing Dallara-Chevrolet.
With women showing that gender is absolutely no barrier to success, it can’t be long before a new generation of female drivers emerges to rival legendary American open-wheel racer Danica Patrick, the only woman to win an IndyCar race (2008, Japan, for Andretti Green Racing) and a surefire inspiration to the stars of tomorrow.
Rally Jameel: Leading from the front
Within Saudi Arabia, the roots of this change go arguably back to 2017, when women first secured the right to hold driving licenses and take to the roads. Empowering women to unlock their potential is a key component of the government’s Vision 2030 national development strategy, outlining the country’s future direction on the domestic and global stage.
The profile of women racing drivers took on a whole new perspective in 2022 with the inaugural Abdul Latif Jameel Motors’ Rally Jameel, the nation’s first ever all-female rally.
The event got under way in Hail, north-west Saudi Arabia, in March, officially opened by His Royal Highness, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad bin Abdulaziz, Prince of Hail.
A total of 34 teams from around the world competed in the event, which was designed as a navigational rather than a speed test.
Competitors from 15 countries spanning four different continents converged to take part in the three-day race, which featured hidden checkpoints along its route from Hail to the capital of Riyadh, via Al-Qassim city.
The race covered more than 1,000 kilometers of varying terrain, with almost one-third of its course classed as ‘off-road’.
Teams only received route books the night before each stage, with dashboard-mounted odometers tracking vehicle locations via GPS. Drivers notched 141 waypoints along the course, with measurements recorded for time, speed and distance – so-called ‘average speed’ challenges – offering a chance for bonus points.
Swedish pair Annie Seel and co-driver Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky (pictured) emerged victorious at the end of day three, their Toyota RAV4 triumphing by more than nine points. The duo recorded the fewest penalties among all teams to secure a memorable win.
The UAE’s Atefa Saleh and her USA co-driver Eleanor Coker took second place in their Toyota Prado. Saudi national Maha Al Hamly finished third with co-driver Pochola Hernández, likewise behind the wheel of a Toyota Prado.
Toyota’s dominance was fitting given Abdul Latif Jameel’s longstanding partnership with the Japanese automotive giant.
Describing all the women taking part in the rally as ‘heroes’, a victorious Seel said: “I am so proud to be racing with all of them: the Saudi Arabian racers, the women from the Rebelle Rally [the American desert rally which inspired Rally Jameel] and the total novices that really rose to the challenge and proved themselves.”
The rally had high profile support, not only from the FIA Women in Motorsport Committee, but also from Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabian ambassador to the USA.
Princess Reema pledged her patronage to what she termed a “first of its kind” event, one which would help “shine a light on the positive steps being taken across Saudi Arabia to empower women to pursue their passions in their everyday lives”.
As a member of the International Olympic Committee Women in Sports Commission, Princess Reema is a key figure among the burgeoning women’s sporting movement in Saudi Arabia.
She previously served as vice president of women’s affairs at the Saudi General Sports Authority and was later appointed president of the Mass Participation Federation, becoming the first woman to lead a multi-sports federation in Saudi Arabia.
Fueling the rise of high-flying Dania
Rally Jameel itself was the brainchild of Hassan Jameel, Abdul Latif Jameel Deputy President and Vice Chairman. He hailed the event’s demonstration of outstanding teamwork, explaining: “We believe Rally Jameel will play a major role in driving women’s participation in global motorsports, and we are committed to building on this success.”
Akeel’s record of achievement speaks for itself. In January 2022 she became the first Saudi Arabian woman to finish in the top ten of the Dakar Rally, cementing her rise up the global motorsport ranks.
In 2021 she became the first Arab woman to triumph in the T3 class at the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas, beating rivals from around the world including the UK, France, Spain and Russia.
Akeel is also the first Saudi woman to earn a motorcycle racing license, scooping a Rookie of the Year trophy after her participation in the UAE National Sportsbike Superseries 2019/20 season.
Commenting on the newly-signed deal, Hassan Jameel wished Akeel good fortune for the many seasons ahead, adding: “We hope to see other athletes in Saudi Arabia follow in her footsteps, showcasing an international model for recognizing Saudi excellence.”
Akeel credited wide community support for nurturing her passion, and for helping her to capitalize on her early promise.
“Today, my efforts here are a new and important step to global stardom, carrying the flag of Saudi Arabia first and foremost. I am also delighted to be representing Abdul Latif Jameel Motors, who are renowned for their longstanding professional support of motorsports in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
Go-getters leveling the gender balance
Akeel is not the only women blazing a trail in Middle Eastern motorsports. A new generation of drivers from across the region are raising the standards – and the profile – for female drivers at the highest levels of competition.
Amna Al Qubaisi is a breakthrough female Emirati racing driver – the first female Arab to feature in the RMC World Finals, and following the Diriyah E-Prix in Saudi Arabia, a participant in its coveted Formula E test program.
Then there is Reema Juffali, the first Saudi Arabian woman to hold a racing license in the country and the first professional female Formula-class racing driver.
Marah Zahalka and Noor Daoud hail from Palestine, and both are members of the Speed Sisters race team. Founded in 2009, Speed Sisters is the Middle East’s first all-women racing team, regularly competing on the West Bank’s professional car racing circuit.
And flying the flag for Egypt is Yara Shalabyv, the country’s first female rally driver and leading female desert-racing champion. Shalaby has competed in races across the Middle East and in 2016 established Egypt’s first all-female Gazelle Rally Team. She has appeared among the top finishers in several of Egypt’s flagship race events: the El Gouna Rally Cup, the Al Remal Desert Challenge Rally and the Al Farouky Desert Challenge.
The female racing stars of tomorrow will be watching and learning – and fast realizing there is no limit to their own ambitions.
Partnership is a perfect fit
The words ‘Abdul Latif Jameel’ and ‘motorsports’ have long been synonymous in the Middle East, helping to raise the profile of this thrillingly modern sport throughout the region.
Abdul Latif Jameel Motors has just celebrated 25 years of supporting rally sport in Saudi Arabia, having been involved since 1977. A celebration event, under the patronage of HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal and organized in collaboration with Saudi Arabian Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) and Abdul Latif Jameel Motors, took place in Jeddah in May 2022 and welcomed pioneering figures in the world of motorsport.
Abdul Latif Jameel was an early backer of the Hail Rally, and since 2019, it has acted as the main partner for all national tournaments organized by the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF), among them the Drift Championship, Autocross, Drag Championship, Hill Climb and Time Attack.
And yet it is important to recognize the journey is only just beginning. Nurturing young talent and pioneers like Dania Akeel and others; helping them to break through what has traditionally been the male-dominated world of racing is part of our culture of inclusivity and we hope to make motorsports in the region more inclusive. Private sector players like Abdul Latif Jameel can help inspire the kind of success stories which will continue to propel Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle Eastern region up the global leaderboard.
Hassan Jameel explains:
“Since its founding, Abdul Latif Jameel has always served as a pioneering model of collaboration across a wide variety of activities, from the economic and commercial development of the country to supporting sports and social affairs, including empowering women. Our new partnership with the role model, Dania Akeel, continues this collaborative tradition of supporting inspiring Saudi athletes and sporting icons.”