HAIL, Saudi Arabia — The starting line for the Jameel Rally was drawn in 2017 when women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to a driver’s license. Finally, last month, the ceremonial green flag fell at the kingdom’s first all-women rally at the Qishlah Palace in Hail, waved by Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad bin Abdulaziz, and Saudi Arabia marked another historic beginning for women.
The rally (Jameel means beautiful in Arabic) ushered in the era of women’s motorsport in the Kingdom. Rallies or desert races have their origins in the early 20th century. Racers drive long distances, typically in stages, over rough terrain in modified vehicles. Often, courses like the famous Paris-Dakar Rally include checkpoints or waypoints where drivers and navigators earn points as they make their way to the finish line.
“The journey and taking part in our first driver briefing gave me goosebumps,” said Atefa Saleh, 41, a Siemens engineer from the United Arab Emirates. “I’m looking forward to being the driver. But we switch when things go really wrong,” she joked.
Ms Saleh’s passenger, Eleanor Coker, 48, is an American living in Saudi Arabia. She had an unusual way of preparing for her navigational duties. “My son came home from school and caught me playing Dakar on his PlayStation,” said Ms. Coker, referring to Dakar 18, a racing simulator.
Before 2017, Saudi women could only improve their driving skills by playing video games like Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo. It was time to get out on the dirt and have some fun.
Participants from 15 countries, including the UK, Germany, Oman, Spain, Sweden and the United States, came to the rally in mid-March. There were 34 two-woman teams, and over half had at least one Saudi.
I’m a writer and rally driver and was invited to compete with a delegation of three American teams. We knew that some participants would be professionals who already understood the joy of rallies. But most had only recently obtained their driver’s license and were not only new to the sport but also to off-road driving. What we all experienced exceeded our expectations.
The Jameel covered over 1,100 kilometers (687 miles), about 340 (212 miles) of it off-road. Participants collected 141 waypoints from road books that were distributed to teams the night before each of the three stages. A Stella III EVO rally computer, a high-tech odometer attached to the dash with Velcro and tape, held a digital file of the route and tracked a team’s speed and location via GPS. The Stella opened each waypoint at a distance of 800 meters (half a mile), and when the riders were 90 meters (about 100 yards) from the porthole, the waypoint was validated by the computer and points were awarded.
Four Time, Speed and Distance challenges, called Average Speed Challenges, have been introduced for additional scoring chances. At hidden intervals within previously announced distances, each team’s rally computer recorded their speed and penalties were imposed if the drivers were not precise. If you thought going fast was difficult, try going exactly 38 kilometers per hour (23.6 miles per hour) for 20 kilometers over soft dirt highways, around hairpin turns on gravel roads or steep climbs.
Rally Jameel was conceived and sponsored by Hassan Jameel, Vice President and Vice Chairman of the Abdul Latif Jameel and Bakhashab Motorsports Development conglomerate and a champion rally driver himself. It also received the patronage of Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington.
Stage 1 of the rally challenged participants with a round-trip route from Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia to Jabal Umm Sinman Mountain, east of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jubbah, where almost 10,000-year-old petroglyphs and inscriptions can be found on the desert rocks. However, no sightings were on the teams’ agendas, as penalties were imposed if you didn’t come back within a limited time – and no speeding was allowed.
In the larger rallying world, both speed and navigational accuracy decide who gets on the podium. But the Jameel imposed a speed limit of 70 km/h off-road and the posted restrictions applied on roads. Without a successful and safe opening event, there would be no second year. Organizers also knew that once speed was introduced, competitors would need a race car equipped with a roll cage. Accessibility for more women was the main goal of the rally, so the vehicles were cars that could be found in every driveway.
The second leg of the rally consisted of a transit from Hail to a glamping-style bivouac 600 meters above Al Mithnab, a governorate in the Qassim region not far from Antara’s Rock, a famous boulder that looks like it’s from a razor split in two parts. In its shadow, Antarah ibn Shaddad, a 6th-century poet and warrior, is said to have met his beloved Abla.
The vast and barren Saudi desert landscape felt not unlike the desert near my California home. Competitors could easily have been old friends exchanging rally tips and driving techniques, rolling their eyes at husbands and kids, and drinking far too much coffee for a good night’s sleep. The other side of the world suddenly felt less far away.
For Manar Alesayi, a divorced Saudi mother of two teens from Jeddah who drives an upscale 2016 Jeep Wrangler, off-roading was nothing new, but the competition made things difficult.
After day one her team was in second place, but by day 3 it was down to 13th place. “It was a harsh reality for me,” Ms. Alesayi said. “I thought we were doing so well. But I learned so much.”
Ms. Alesayi used to steal her father’s car at night and drive around their farm before it was legal for her to drive. We have so much more in common than I could have imagined.
“My mother told me I was a daughter of the desert,” she said. “Now I just want to rally as much as I can.” As Rod Hall, the legendary American off-road racer, used to say, “First you learn how to finish. Then you learn how to win.”
Rally Jameel organizers recreated their vision of the Rebelle Rally, the longest map and compass rally in the United States, which just so happens to be for women.
Emily Miller, Rebelle founder and rally champion, set out to organize an event where women could challenge themselves off-road.
“Having a successful rally doesn’t mean winning,” said Ms Miller, who served as Jameel’s steward and mentor. “It’s about how you work with your teammate, how you prepare and how you show up. This is how you learn from your mistakes and move on. These are skills that you use in your daily life.”
But it’s not all serious business either. “Most importantly,” she continued with her trademark mischievous smile, “rallying is about having fun.”
On the third and final leg, teams navigated around camels making their way through the endless and intimidating dunes to Riyadh, the capital. Without question, the rally’s most demanding driving was within the city limits, on freeways where lane markings and speed limits seem like mere suggestions.
Upon arrival at our final base camp, I found Lauren Bradley, Ms. Alesayi’s co-driver, a Scottish physical education teacher who lives in Jeddah, startled, her face red from crying. “That traffic was the scariest thing,” she said in her soft accent. “Someone tried to drive into us a few times.”
As women find their place behind the wheel, not everyone in the kingdom is supportive. However, the government seems committed to protecting women. Several competitors mentioned that if they felt harassed or intimidated on the street they could report the incidents to the police and there would be consequences for the perpetrators. While the political climate in Saudi Arabia remains complex, opportunities for women are increasing.
Dania Akeel owns a rare award in Saudi Arabia, her home country. She is a Rally Champion in Cross-Country Baja’s T3 class and competed in the 2022 Dakar. Her Toyota Land Cruiser, adorned with the badge of Jameel and her sponsor Toyota ALJ, also carried a rallying cry in the form of a unique sticker: # start
“Rally Jameel is the next step,” said Ms. Akeel. “Women have been traveling for a few years. Now they have a choice to get away from it.”
At the end of the rally, two Swedish pro drivers, Annie Seel and Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, topped the podium in a 2022 Toyota RAV4.
My co-driver Sedona Blinson and I won Stage 3 and finished fifth overall. But the most satisfying result could easily have been that of two Saudi women, Afnan Albediny and her co-driver Fatmah Al Shamri, who finished 22nd.
The achievement, evident in Ms. Albediny’s big smile, had nothing to do with her place on the leaderboard.
“Before, I was a driver. Now I can say that I am a rally driver.”