‘It Wasn’t Even a Dream’: Reema Juffali on Being Saudi Arabia’s First Pro Woman Driver
Banned from driving in her home country for most of her life, Reema Juffali is now making up lost time.
It's Formula 1's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend. That's a big enough deal in the west, but a considerably bigger deal in Saudi Arabia, where for most of the past 40 years an event like this wasn't even conceivable. Motorsport wasn't outlawed per se, but no FIA-sanctioned event could have taken place while women were banned from driving and crowded, mixed-sex attendance events were an absolute no. That's the world Reema Juffali grew up in—but now she's been competing internationally for four years as the Kingdom's first professional woman racing driver. I spoke to her this year about her own journey and the rise of motorsport in Saudi Arabia at what appears to be a critical moment for the nascent scene there.
I've been to Saudi Arabia a lot more than I ever expected to as an openly out female journalist in the years since 2018, when Formula E announced its new partnership with the country to host races. That year I found myself at a launch event in Riyadh; it felt like us and the Saudis were eyeing each other nervously across the room like two cats you're desperately hoping will get on with each other once they've stopped being terrified.
It's now one of my favorite places to go, because I'm a journalist and that means being interested in things that stress other people out. When I first went there, it was very much still a country in lockdown. Anything more than a drive-through coffee shop was relatively rare, with communal dining one of the things forbidden (at least between unmarried men and women). The very first cinema had just opened. The last time I went back, just two months ago, Riyadh was bustling with hipster smokehouses (Saudi Arabia has embraced barbecue big time) and my own bright purple hair felt frankly lackluster compared to the efforts of some of the locals. Without question, especially with a recent record of 81 executions in a week, Saudi Arabia is still on the wrong side of human rights standards. But in societal terms, it's a country that is in a period of rapid and dramatic transformation from closed and isolated to having a much more significant, well, open society.
Reema Juffali, like all Saudis I've met, is a warm, funny person with the kind of steel core you need for endurance. Juffali was the first Saudi woman to participate in an international motorsport race on home soil, competing in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy rounds of the 2019 Diriyah Eprix. Inspired by Le Mans and realizing she could still find a way into elite competition despite a delayed start to her driving career, Juffali has been on a well-worn path the past few years, a ladder proven effective over and over by European racers: Taking on two seasons of British Formula 4 before moving up to Formula 3. She's well-liked in the paddock and delivering great results, and as a result she was the drivers' own pick for Driver of the Year in her first F4 season. It was just unusual that she was doing all this aged 24, not 15. That's what happens when you're not allowed to drive until four years ago, though.
Juffali's journey started somewhere I've been inspired to nearly smash a car into a barrier several times myself: an icy day at Snetterton Circuit in England. All it took was a track day in a Renault Clio to convince her she wanted to pursue motorsport for real, and then a chance meeting with Susie Wolff to push her to enter her first race.
"I think it's right place, right time," Juffali demurred about what's a pretty extraordinary pathway. "I was living abroad, working abroad and opportunities brought me back to Saudi. That was in 2017, when they announced that women will be driving the following year and obviously, that was news I knew was coming, I just didn't know when it was going to happen, so [I was] ecstatic, of course, it was gonna be a new chapter for us. Not just behind the wheel, but it opens many doors as well. And that point is, again, I think the right place, right time, and you could say all of these things.
"I was introduced to Susie Wolff, and at that point I had done my research and knew what it would take to go racing," she told me. "It was just a chat that I had with her. And I'm like, 'you know what, actually, I want to get my racing license, I want to go racing.' And just that introduction allowed me to be like, 'OK, that's a sign' and that was it. I got my racing license two months later, went to the Formula 1 in Abu Dhabi. At that point, I met a few people that were like 'go to this racing school, learn with them and then see what happens.'"
And then Juffali took the plunge: "In 2018, I found some time, I had left my job and I had this itching passion, fire in me was racing, so I told my partner at the time I was like, 'listen, I need to take three months just to kind of explore this avenue and see where it goes.' And obviously, 2018 was the year women were allowed to drive, so it was a big story [to have] women in cars, let alone racing. I got my racing license, signed up to race in Abu Dhabi and got in, got in a car with the goal of getting behind the wheel, finishing the race, fulfilling this dream of being a racing driver."
Up until that time, Juffali said, the idea of being a racing driver was to her as it is to most of us: a completely unrealistic concept. But she'd been inspired by endurance racing to think it could be possible. "I have an older sister," she told me, "when she would buy the gossip magazines, I'd buy car magazines, and that was always the case. The passion was there from a young age, but then connecting the dots was when I started watching Le Mans."
She said she had an "oh my god" moment watching the race. "It's so many different cars, different levels, drivers from pros to amateurs who can be much older than me. So it showed me that there was actually a lot more to racing and that you can come in very experienced and it is accepting of all. Before that, I didn't know that—I thought being a racing driver is being an astronaut. You know, you didn't think it was possible."
So Juffali made it. After her three years in single seaters in the U.K., she signed up to race the 24 Hours of Dubai in a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for SPS this past January; her team came second in their category after Juffali pulled an enormous night stint during the fastest part of the race. You absolutely love to see it, frankly. But what about people who don't?
"I'd say yes, people have opinions and there's people like that in every country, whether it's someone who is going against change or is used to just in their comfort zone or other sorts, and everyone's entitled to their opinion," Juffali told me. "But I like that. I sometimes have to prove them wrong and then I show them something else, something different.
"It's not always men," she said. "Sometimes it's a woman who would be like, 'maybe you shouldn't do this, it's not safe' and whatnot. You have your opinion. I think just knowing that I've done this and hearing from my experience will change your mind, then job done for me. I always try to do the best that I can, be as authentic as I can and the worst thing that will injure, hurt me as if I didn't do that. If I did something that wasn't 100 percent or I didn't put my effort in.
"But if someone else thinks something of me, then I'm my worst enemy," Juffali admitted, echoing a lot of drivers. "Whatever they have to say, I probably say to myself and I already know it and I'm fine with it. But everyone to their own opinion, and hopefully with time, they'll realize that there's a lot. There's a bigger world out there and. And hopefully they'll get to explore it as well."
Back to Saudi Arabia, though. Ahead of this year's Grand Prix, Saudi driver Aseel Al-Hamad and British teenager Abbi Pulling have just done a demonstration run with an Alpine Formula 1 car through the streets of the capital city, Riyadh. When I think about the closed-off place, people scurrying between buildings only really when they had a justification to be outside, that Riyadh was in 2018, it's kind of mindboggling to think this is just four years later, that Saudis haven't just emerged, blinking but are embracing the high-speed change.
The current Saudi sports minister, Abdulaziz bin Turki al Saud, was the only Saudi driver I'd heard of competing in international circuit racing until very recently. His career in GT competition in Europe has surely shaped some of his political enthusiasm to embrace motorsport and encourage Saudis into it, as well as using events like the first Riyadh Formula E race as a way to introduce western music concerts to a deeply restricted society undergoing enormous change.
This year, in the Dakar rally (which is now held in the dunes of the Arabian desert), there were multiple names with Saudi flags. Most notably, Mashael Al-Obaidan and current FIA T3 (a type of buggy rallying) champion Dania Akeel made their first attempts at the notorious endurance rally.
"Let's say there's a lot of encouragement from the government federation to get Saudis in cars [into events], as well as females behind the wheel," Juffali told me. "I know, personally, both of them—Dania is a really good friend of mine who did really well for a first Dakar, finishing in the top 10, it was very impressive. And Mashael as well was out there, and we had a Saudi, Yazeed Al-Rajhi, on the podium."
Sport in general, having been very restricted by the regime's rules, is relatively new to Saudi culture. Rallying in particular is, Juffali said, "not a historic thing for us," so to see competitive participation on such a high level is no small thing. "Motorsport in general, it's never an easy avenue to get into for a lot of people. I think having these international events gives that opportunity for people like, 'OK, I want to go and participate in Dakar.' Dakar was here, what, like a year, two years? And there we're already seeing a lot of Saudis participating and getting involved.
"So events like these are what are going to allow us to see, to nurture the local talent. And we're seeing that already with with rallying and hopefully soon once we have circuits in Saudi, we'll see that."
Got a story tip? Mail it in on email@example.com
MORE TO READ
The 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix Was ESPN’s Most-Watched F1 Race Since 1995
Strong ratings bode well for the continued growth of the sport.
Ferrari Seems to Be on Top of F1 After 2022’s First Race. Here’s How
It’s been a long time since Maranello had a 1-2 to celebrate, but the Tifosi are back.