News Racing

Here’s Why Saudi Arabia’s First All-Female Off-Road Rally Matters

Nearly 70 women, 41 of them from Saudi Arabia, competed in this historic competition.
John Rettie

Until June of 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country that did not permit women to drive. After decades of petitioning, increasingly organized efforts, and harsh punishment for women who drove illegally, the change finally occurred. And this year, another milestone was passed in the form of an all-female off-road rally called Rally Jameel.

Sponsored by Saudi philanthropist and automotive businessman Hassan Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, the rally is also recognized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation and the FIA Women in Motorsport Committee. Thirty-four teams of women from 15 countries participated, including 41 Saudi competitors, and Abdul Larif Jameel Motors even provided vehicles for several teams.

This is a tidal wave of change for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which did not previously exhibit a history of championing women. It has been nearly three years since the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia introduced several amendments to civil and labor laws that expand women’s rights, and almost four years since women were granted permission to drive in the Kingdom. It’s difficult to imagine, as a native American, that until 2019 women were not allowed to obtain a passport and travel outside of the country without a male relative in tow, could not claim their own place of residency, and didn’t have the authority to register cases of marriage and divorce.

The changes to the laws are all part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative, which states that “a successful, modern nation must encourage and empower all members of society, including women.”

“Under the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which recognizes that a modern and progressive nation must encourage and empower all members of society in all forms, including sport, women have been heavily involved behind the scenes at Rally Jameel,” read a press release issued by the rally. “Some hold key roles that are critical to the event’s daily operation and overall success.”

The country may have a long way to go, but those involved in Rally Jameel are celebrating the inaugural all-female event and looking to expand. Modeled on the Rebelle Rally here in the United States, Rally Jameel approached Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller to join the planning process.

This was a navigational rally, similar to the Rebelle, and attracted a number of competitors who had none or very little experience with any kind of motorsport event in the past. That included one team who had secured their driver’s licenses three days before the rally began, and Her Royal Highness Princess Abeer bint Majed Al Saud, who participated in her Porsche Cayenne with co-driver Nawal Almougadry.

“It was a great experience. To be honest, I took part because rally racing is a hobby I wanted to be part of and grow in,” said the princess. “It’s a sport I always wanted to be part of growing up. I have always raced on circuits, but this is my first 4×4 experience, and I learned a lot.”

The chief medical officer for the rally, Dr. Ahad Al Saud, is also the CMO of the Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix, the FIA Medical Delegate for Saudi Arabia, and the head of the Saudi Arabian Marshall’s Club. She is well traveled; Dr. Al Saud, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, studied emergency medicine in Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, and studied ultrasound technology at Harvard Medical School.

She told me during a phone interview that Saudi Arabia is a different place since women were permitted to drive. And she also said many Saudi women travel abroad and have had international driver’s licenses for years before they could drive in their home country. In Saudi Arabia, the rules to get a license are somewhat lopsided for men and women, still: women have to go through training and testing to get their license, and men do not.

It’s a start, though.

Off-roading legend Sue Mead, who traveled to Saudi Arabia to help staff the event, said she has seen so much growth in the sport, from the Rebelle to the Gazelle, which takes place in Morocco.

“One of the barriers for women with going to a multi-day motorsports event is setting up a vehicle,” Mead said. “That can take time and dollars, and the fact that Hasaan Jameel made vehicles available to women was extremely helpful. Also, I think women need the encouragement to perhaps leave their job and family for a few days and go off and do this. The Saudi culture now is pushing women to grow in every avenue of empowerment, and we know as motorsports people it can be one of the most empowering ways to gain confidence and experience camaraderie with other women.”

Dr. Al Saud is enthusiastic, and she sees opportunity for women in the Kingdom and beyond.

“Launching this rally is a dream come true,” Dr. Al Saud told me. “It’s closer step toward fulfilling that diversity and the kingdom’s vision to empower everyone.”

I asked her what she would say to those who don’t believe Americans should support any event in Saudi Arabia.

“This is the reverse of Pandora’s box,” she said enthusiastically. “Everyone knows the story: the box was opened and all of the evil of the world poured out. This is the opposite of Pandora’s Box; it’s more like Lucky Charms, where you open it and it’s fairies and crystals and everything nice. Instead of opening up something evil, it’s opening up something amazing, something really good. Like a portal to heaven.”

The people of a country are not the same as the government, and Mead agrees with Dr. Al Saud.

“I think it would be a tremendous loss for travelers if they let the politics of the U.S. manage their travel and miss the beauty of the landscape and the wonderful mix of people,” Mead said. “Last year, when I was in Saudi Arabia on my first Dakar rally, I paused to go. I wondered ethically if it was a good thing. And while I was there, our own country experienced January 6 and the storming of the capital.”

“Let’s celebrate women experiencing an incredibly empowering thing to do,” Mead said. “To be in charge of the road ahead; that’s what rallying is really all about.”

As someone who has covered the Rebelle Rally and is planning to compete in the rally myself this fall, I understand what she’s saying. This is a new journey for Saudi women, and I hope it connects them to the world at large. And us to them.

Got a tip? Send it my way: