That Beautiful Line in the Sand? It Marks the Rally Jameel – the First All-Female Off Road Rally In Saudi Arabia

Dania Akeel And Rosa Romero Featured Image. Photo: Shereen Shabnam
Dania Akeel and Rosa Romero Featured Image. Photo: Rally Jameel

Just 5 years after granting women the right to drive, Saudi Arabia welcomed its first ever women-only motor event.

Saudi Arabia has been in the headlines in recent years, but the one that resonates most for us as female motoring enthusiasts, as well as women around the world, is the end of the driving ban in 2017. It was followed by numerous empowerment initiatives for women as the Kingdom works toward Vision 2030, an initiative that will diversify its economy by empowering all members of society.

The most recent step in the direction of 2030 was Rally Jameel, an all-female off road rally that just ended, timed to support the 2022 International Women’s Day’s theme of #BreakTheBias. This world-class event invited women from around the world to cross a line in the sand– a starting line– for a motorsport rally sanctioned by the Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) and supported by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the governing body of international motorsport, through their Women in Motorsport (WIMC) program. Rally Jameel saw 34 teams participating from around the world with participants ranging from complete beginners to seasoned rally veterans.

Related: The Rebelle Rally Is Much More Than an Off-Roading Competition

Competing in Saudi Arabia, and On a Global Stage

Rally Jameel (Jameel means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic) gathered worldwide attention, mainly due to the progressive change in promoting women in a hugely competitive race. And not just Saudi women came to race: participants came from as far away as the USA and Europe.

And, the standings show the globalization of this rally; a team from Sweden took first place, and finishing second was a team from the UAE and USA. And, the three American teams finished in the top 10: Team Wild Grace–Lyn Woodward (who shared her story with the New York Times) and Sedona Blinson–finished 5th overall; Team Haal Donaghe–Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghe–finished 6th, and Team Saxten–Dana Saxten and Susanne Saxten–finished 8th. This incredible showing isn’t a surprise if you’ve followed the US all-women rally, Rebelle Rally; these women have made that rally one of the toughest, most competitive in the sport.

Related: Women Who Compete in Rebelle Rally are Not the Only Stars: These SUVs Rocked the Off-Road Race in 2020

Aseel Al-Hamad The First Female Member Of The Saudi Arabian Motor Federation And A Member Of The Federation International Automobile. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Aseel Al-Hamad the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation and a member of the Federation International Automobile. Photo: Rally Jameel

Rally Jameel is Not About Going Fast – in the Traditional Sense

First of its kind in the Arab world, Rally Jameel covered a challenging 900km route. It was not a race of speed but instead tested participants on their precise navigation skills with hidden checkpoints, time, distance, and strategy using navigation systems and road books. Each team of two (a driver and an assistant) drove unmodified, manufactured four-wheel or all-wheel-drive vehicles.

The rally commenced from the stunning front of the Al-Qishlah Castle in Hail, a city in northwestern Saudi Arabia, by His Royal Highness, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saad bin Abdulaziz, Prince of Hail. Just days later as the dust cleared, the winners were crowned: Annie Seel and Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky from Sweden, competing in their Toyota RAV4, took the top prize. Annie is a well-known Dakar veteran racer who has a long list of wins over her 30-year racing career.

Related: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: Racing Across the Sahara Desert in Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

Saudi Arabia Offers Some Of The World’s Most Dramatic Rallying Terrain

Saudi Arabia offers some of the world’s most dramatic rallying terrain. Photo: Rally Jameel

Personal Growth Is Built Through Tough Challenges

It’s an ideal that we all know, and as the Vision 2030 initiative takes shape it can come into focus through events like Rally Jameel. The Rally was endorsed by Dr. Thuraya Obaid, Saudi diplomat and the first Saudi to lead an agency at the United Nations. She is also a key figure for the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia. To her, empowerment is basically the ability of a person to make life decisions without negative pressures that prevent them from exercising this right, and thus the person is responsible for their decisions and results, both negatively or positively. Another idea we understand and that through a competition like Rally Jameel, becomes magnified.

Dania Akeel, a Saudi national and a well-renowned figure in the regional motorsport scene, put it perfectly: “Rally Jameel inspires a sense of adventure and discovery. This rally will support the increasing number of women on the road to become comfortable behind the wheel and experience driving in a completely different way to driving on the road.”

Sedona Blinson Finding Her Way. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Sedona Blinson finding her way. Photo: Rally Jameel

The Path to Empowerment: Getting Out and Trying Something New

Dr. Obaid touted the Rally’s role to help a woman’s ability to choose her own path and activities, and shows women in the kingdom in an activity they had not been seen participating in before. It shows the diversity of Saudi women’s capabilities and their ability to participate in activities that were previously restricted to men.

Rally Jameel, in turn, endorsed Saudi Arabia’s turn toward a modern and progressive nation that encourages and empowers all members of society in all forms, including sport. During the event, women held key roles critical to the event’s daily operations and success.

Dania Akeel And Rosa Romero, Car 10. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Dania Akeel and Rosa Romero, Car 10. Photo: Rally Jameel

Not Just Rally Competitors, But Women of All Expertises Joined In

On site was also Her Royal Highness Dr. Ahad Al Saud, responsible for the medical safety of all the rally participants and organizers. She is a senior doctor in Saudi Arabia, 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. 

Aseel Al-Hamad, the well-known figurehead of women in motorsport, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation and a member of the FIA, found Rally Jameel a very important event that brought women not normally associated with rallying or racing into the sport. The aim of the rally to develop and bring in new women drivers, navigators and organizers, and prepare them for participating in future local and international championships was achieved.

Her Royal Highness Dr. Ahad Al Saud. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Her Royal Highness Dr. Ahad Al Saud. Photo: Rally Jameel

Racers From Around the World

Before the rally, all the teams went through a rigorous training program conducted by experienced women from the wider motorsport world. It covered everything from road book navigation to safety, sand recovery and general tips on how to complete what for some is their first ever driving event.

The inspiration for Rally Jameel came initially from the hugely successful Rebelle Rally in America. With that as a benchmark, the organizers have worked with members of the Rebelle organizing team to both bring in competitors from the US and also to help with some of the organization of the rally. Members of the event team even travelled all the way to Saudi Arabia for the rally.

Dania Akeel. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Dania Akeel. Photo: Rally Jameel

Emily Miller, Founder and Director of the Rebelle Rally was thrilled to be part of Rally Jameel, helping as one of the stewards of the event. She was joined by Emme Hall, a former winner of the US-based Rebelle Rally and US-based competitor Sedona Blinson, who has previously participated in Rally Jameel’s inspiration, the Rebelle Rally.

Rally Jameel Competitors At The Opening Press Conference. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Rally Jameel Competitors at the Opening Press Conference. Photo: Rally Jameel

Making a mark was also Saudi Arabian driver Manar Alesayi and her British co-driver Lauren Bradley in a Jeep. The Swedish team of Dakar class winner Annie Seel and co-driver Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky drove a Toyota RAV4. Their enthusiasm was shared by Dana Saxton, who flew in from America for the rally and raced with her daughter, Susie Saxton.

Manar Alesayi And Lauren Bradley Car 31. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Manar Alesayi and Lauren Bradley Car 31. Photo: Rally Jameel

Dr. Fatima Banaz, from the Kingdom’s Desert Healers team shared her enthusiasm and said, “I’m a daughter, a wife and mother, as well as being a surgeon. But my passion for rallies started at a very young age and I’ve learned over time how to manage my time between all my hobbies and commitments. Participating in this event will add to my many life experiences, as well as allowing me to meet lots of new people. My aim is eventually to race in the Dakar Rally.”

From the GCC was also Sanaa Al Shekaili, an Omani racer who established the first women’s car club in Oman. She said, “This is very exciting to participate in. As well as empowering Omani women in the world of car racing and rallying, it is also showcasing Omani women in this field on the international stage.”

Sanaa Al Shekaily. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Sanaa Al Shekaily. Photo: Photo: Rally Jameel

The race aimed to encourage more women to get involved in motorsport and rallying, which recognises that a modern nation must encourage and empower all members of society in all forms, including sport. It offered a perfect opportunity for many adventurous women looking to take part in their first ever off-road rally where each day’s route was issued the night before, with everyone taking part seeing it at the same time.

Rally Jameel, Saudi Arabia'S First Women-Only Motor Race, Concludes In Riyadh. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Rally Jameel, Saudi Arabia’s first women-only motor race, concludes in Riyadh. Photo: Rally Jameel

The majority of the teams hailed from Saudi Arabia, but there were also competitors taking part from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Egypt, as well as teams from Europe and the USA. In total 15 countries from four continents were represented in the rally, making Rally Jameel a truly global event for the Kingdom.

Rally Jameel, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Shereen Shabnam

Rally Jameel, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Rally Jameel

Shereen Shabnam is a Dubai-based luxury and lifestyle motoring writer for various publications around the world. Driving over 60... More about Shereen Shabnam