As Saudi Arabia marks its 91st national day, ‘The National’ sits down with pioneer Saudis to talk about the changing face of the kingdom.
In recent years, Saudi women have been at the forefront of change in the kingdom.
As much as anyone, Dania Akeel symbolized those changes when she became the first Arab woman to win the World Cup for the T3 Desert Baja rally in Italy this year.
Saudi women won the right to drive just three years ago – a move that was meant to empower women across the country – but around that time they excelled in motorsports globally.
The FIA World Cup is an annual competition that hosts Baja style rally raids for buggies, trucks, cars and side-by-side in several countries.
Talk to The NationalDania said she did not consider rallying to be an extreme sport as she was passionate about driving “long before she became a motorsport athlete”.
As a young girl, she enjoyed off-roading on weekends with her father in Jeddah. Together they would find “open spaces and he would give me the wheel and teach me the basics of driving,” she said.
“Once it was over I would ask when we could go back. “
At 17, Dania got her UK driving license while in boarding school. The following year, in 2011, she continued her studies at the University of London.
“I traveled a bit, did my master’s and officially returned to Saudi Arabia in 2016.”
She signed up for an off-road rally in the UK and a driving course along Swedish Lapland in early 2019, a region made up of frozen lakes.
“There are a few companies that teach you how to drift on the ice and they have these replica F1 circuits carved out of ice which was a lot of fun,” she said.
Then, later in the year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to reform the country. The kingdom has opened its doors to the world and offered new opportunities to young people, with a strong focus on empowering women in different fields.
Dani said, “I don’t plan on driving long term. What matters most are the moments that brought me to the sport. It’s about enjoying what you do when you do it.
“That’s what driving gives me. I enjoy every moment, even the most difficult, ”she says. “It’s important that whatever you do has a purpose and that you can connect with it. What you do should be able to benefit you while allowing you to help others.
Dania said some of the toughest times on the road have helped her evolve.
Her masters in international business helped her “mark her career in motorsport” in the country, she said. She used her experience as a consultant and her master’s problem-solving knowledge to get sponsors behind her to participate in motorsport events locally.
She is the first Saudi woman to receive her Speed Bikes Competition license with the help of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation (SAMF), which also issued her KSA driver’s license at the end of 2019.
She acquired the license to participate in the UAE National Sports Bike Super Series while immersing herself in “riding experiences”, in ice, sand and mud.
However, the rallies were not her intended purpose, she said. She had bought a motorbike in the UAE and started racing. Then during one of her races in Bahrain, she was injured and returned to Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, she competed in Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota in Saudi Arabia, an opportunity she ‘jumped on’ after returning from the sport after a Covid-19 stoppage. She later found out that she could build on her FIA Championship points in a similar race in Jordan.
“I called the sponsors to ask if they were on board as the race was only held 10 days later and they accepted,” she said. “Later SAMF called and encouraged me to continue. “
She kept running and claimed her place in the top three, generating income and receiving a fair share of the recognition and support from the men and women of the country.
Dania will be one of the first Saudi female athletes to participate in the annual Dakar Rally in 2022.
“The borders closed but naturally I was still linked to the race,” she said. “Once I discovered the Dakar rally, I was in a place that facilitates these very high level world rallies. I thought that’s what I would do. It was almost as if the decision had already been made.
“The training period was six months. I was supported by the trajectory of Saudi culture. I was invited to attend the Dakar rally the first time we hosted it in the kingdom. They asked me to participate and honestly I received a lot of help and support from them which gave me a solid foundation to get started on this trail.
SAMF has helped provide training, education and a platform for Dania and other drivers.
Having had no professional training before the races, Dania said she continued to learn from the experts on different tracks.
She said she recommends aspiring athletes take the well-structured route, as she finds herself piecing together her course.
“The team I’m going to run with [South Racing Middle East, based in the UAE] contacted me to train until the Dakar, ”she said, adding that so far she has been fortunate to have a network that allows her to learn from pros around the world.
“I think you get what you need at the right time and people have been very generous in offering their advice, knowledge and contacts to put me in touch with the right people. I think South Racing Middle East will have a good structure for someone who wants to learn AZ.
“Mainly because I took the opportunity, I found out that SAMF would be the best place to start because they are the ones who guided me to the right places.”
Humble and determined to work harder, Dania is not driven by titles. She said she believed several women who were passionate about driving were enrolled in motorsports and were slowly coming into the limelight.
“There was a Saudi driver, Mishaal, in Shargiyah and I know Reema Juffali is planning F1, so it’s wrong to assume that me or someone else is the only one. I’m sure there are a lot of other girls there.
Another example of the growing demand for motorsports is the Bikers Skills Institute, a certified motorcycle training school in Riyadh established by Captain Wael bin Huraib, a Saudi pilot and trainer. He says the school now employs two female trainers and has trained 70 women so far.
“I just hope to finish the Dakar rally for now,” she said, discussing her goals. “What ultimately matters is to be a good person, to live a productive and fulfilling life. Not just for ourselves, but to be able to share it with others.
Dania thinks it’s too early to say motorsport will be her sole focus in the future.
She hopes the new opportunities and “unlimited support” from the Saudi Motorsport Federation will inspire women across the country to participate in local and international sports arenas.
Updated: September 22, 2021 08:24