As Saudi Arabia marks its 91st National Day, 'The National' sits down with pioneering Saudis to talk about the changing face of the kingdom.
In recent years, Saudi women have been at the forefront of changes in the kingdom.
As much as anyone, Dania Akeel symbolised those changes when she became the first Arab woman to win the World Cup for the T3 Desert Baja Rally in Italy this year.
The FIA World Cup is an annual competition that hosts Baja-style rally raid events for buggies, lorries, cars and side-by-sides in multiple countries.
Speaking to The National, Dania said she does not consider rally an extreme sport as she has been a driving enthusiast “far before becoming 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’d give me the wheel and teach me the basics on how to drive,” she said.
“Once it was over, I’d ask when we could go back again.”
Aged 17, Dania secured her UK driving licence while at a boarding school there. The following year, in 2011, she went on to study at university in London.
“I travelled for a bit, did my master's degree and officially moved back to Saudi Arabia in 2016.”
She enrolled in an off-road rally in the UK and a driving course along the Swedish Lapland in early 2019, a region made up of frozen lakes.
“There are a few companies that teach you how to drift on ice and they have these F1 replica circuits carved into ice, which was a lot of fun,” she said.
Then, later that year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to reform the country. The kingdom opened up its doors to the world and offered new youth opportunities, with a strong emphasis on empowering women in different fields.
Dania said: “I don’t look at driving in the long term. What matters most are the moments that have taken me to the sport. It’s about enjoying what you’re doing when you’re doing it.
“That’s what driving gives me. I enjoy every moment, even the difficult ones,” she says. “It’s important that whatever you do has a purpose and you have to be able to connect with it. What you do has to be able to benefit you yet enable you to help others.”
Dania said some of the most challenging moments on the road have helped her evolve off it.
Her master's degree in international business helped her “mark out her career in motorsports” in the country, she said. She used her experience as a consultant and knowledge of problem-solving from her master’s degree 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 licence in late 2019.
She acquired the license to participate in the UAE National Sports Bike Super Series while immersing herself in “driving experiences”, in ice, sand, and mud.
However, rallies weren’t her planned goal, she said. She had bought a motorcycle in the UAE and started racing. Then during one of her races in Bahrain, she sustained an injury and returned to Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, she participated in Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota in Saudi Arabia, an opportunity she “jumped on” following the return of the sport from a Covid-19 shutdown. Later, she discovered 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 10 days later and they agreed,” she said. “Later on, SAMF called and encouraged me to keep going.”
She continued to race and claimed her spot in the top three, generating income and receiving a fair share of recognition and support from men and women in the country.
Dania will be one of the first female Saudi athletes to participate in the annual Dakar Rally in 2022.
“The borders shut down but naturally I was still connected to racing,” she said. “Once I was introduced to the Dakar rally, I was in a place that facilitates these insanely high-level global rallies. I figured this is what I will do. It was almost like the decision was already made.
“The training period was six months. I was supported by the trajectory of Saudi culture. I was invited to watch the Dakar rally the first time we hosted it in the kingdom. They asked me to participate and honestly, I got a lot of help and support from them giving me a solid foundation to get on this track.”
SAMF helped provide training, education and a platform to Dania and other drivers.
Having had no professional training before races, Dania said she has continued to learn from experts on different tracks.
She said she recommends that aspiring athletes take the well-structured road, while she found herself piecing her journey together.
“The team I am going to race with [South Racing Middle East, based in the UAE] have been communicating with me for training up to the Dakar race,” she said, adding that so far she has been lucky to have a network that allows her to learn from pros all over the world.
“You get what you need at the right time I believe and people have been very generous in offering their guidance, knowledge and contacts to connect me with the right people. I think South Racing Middle East will have a good structure for someone who wants to learn A-Z.
“Mostly because I took the opportunity I discovered SAMF would be the best place to start as they are the ones who guided me to the right places.”
Humble and determined to work harder, Dania is not motivated by titles. She said she believes several women driving enthusiasts are enrolled in motorsports and are slowly coming into the limelight.
“There was a Saudi female driver, Mishaal, in Shargiyah and I know Reema Juffali is planning for F1, so it’s wrong to presume that I or someone is the only one. I am sure there are many other girls out 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 rider and trainer. He says the school now employs two female trainers and has trained 70 women so far.
“I just hope I finish the Dakar rally race for now,” she said when discussing her goals. “What matters eventually is being a good person, to live a productive and fulfilling life. Not just for ourselves but to be able to share it with others.”
Dania feels it is too early to claim that motorsports will be her only focus in the future.
She hopes the new opportunities and “unlimited support” of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation inspire women across the country to participate in both local and international sports arenas.