Motorsport

In Saudi Arabia: the right to race

On June 24, Aseel Al-Hamad of Saudia Arabia drove a Lotus Renault E20 Formula One car during a parade before the race, celebrating Saudi Arabia’s decree lifting the ban on women motorists

On June 24, Aseel Al-Hamad of Saudia Arabia drove a Lotus Renault E20 Formula One car during a parade before the race, celebrating Saudi Arabia’s decree lifting the ban on women motorists   | Photo Credit: Jean-Paul Pelissier

Six months after the lifting of the ban on female motorists, Saudi Arabia’s women drivers are eyeing a bigger prize

At the FJR Academy in Riyadh, Falah Al-Jabra — a professional racer — is the first in his country to provide pro-racing and skill development classes (usually in a Camaro sports car or Infiniti) to Saudi Arabia’s women citizens.

Less than six months after the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving, Al-Jabra has four female students (“It’s all new,” he says). The star pupil, Rana Almimoni, is a self-confessed “speed crazed” 30-year-old from Jeddah who trains once a week at the academy’s amateur racing track. “We want to set an example through her and attract more aspirants,” shares Al-Jabra.

Almimoni, who is completing her degree in medicine, admits that she was a once-reluctant driver, who, at the age of 13, drove a car straight into a wall (she was in Dubai at the time).

But her interest in automobiles grew over time, and in her free time, she would look up YouTube videos to see how skedaddling racers controlled their cars, drifting and gaining balance without compromising on speed. And as soon as the ban was lifted, she enrolled herself at a training centre.

Roadcraft

This weekend, Saudi Arabia plays host to the Formula E Championship, the world’s first fully electric, international, single-seater racing series. The fifth season launches in Ad Diriyah, and the organisers have publicised their commitment to encouraging gender equality, incentivising teams with female participants at the in-season test that will follow the race.

While no woman from Saudi will be participating, the E-Prix is a harbinger of change in the conservative kingdom that arrested dozens of women in the 1990s for driving. As one recent study by Amnesty International revealed, women who campaigned for the right to drive were arrested and tortured during interrogation as early as this year.

Freedom to move

Back in June, when the much-hyped ban was lifted, scores of women took to the streets in jubilation at the stroke of midnight. Many of them had already learned to drive while studying or living abroad, and wove through the streets of Saudi in celebration. Theirs is the last country in the world to give female motorists the right to drive.

Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, used the time she spent waiting for her racing license to get better at the sport

Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, used the time she spent waiting for her racing license to get better at the sport   | Photo Credit: Fayez Nureldine

Meanwhile, other women were already on to their next goal. On the same day, at France’s Circuit Paul Richard in Le Castellet, Aseel Al-Hamad, a Saudi citizen, celebrated by driving a lap on the Lotus Renault E20, a Formula One car. Al-Hamad, who is the first woman to be appointed to the board of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (and who made waves for becoming the first Saudi woman to own a Ferrari), has publicly declared that “the development of women’s motorsport in Saudi Arabia” is her life’s mission. “I hope I made everyone proud, including my country and women in my country, she said in an interview with formula1.com.

Formula E comes knocking
  • The 2018 SAUDIA Ad Diriyah E-Prix, which launched on Thursday, marks the sporting event’s Middle Eastern debut
  • As part of a promotional event, Formula E driver Felipe Massa raced a peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest animal, in a Gen2 racing car (pictured below)
  • Enrique Iglesias and Jason Derulo kicked off the extravaganza, and OneRepublic and David Guetta are expected to perform today

In September, 22-year-old Amjad Alamri also made history when she won the country’s first ever all-women, go-karting race, organised by Petromin Corporation. “I can’t describe how happy and thrilled I was,” she tells me excitedly, about the sporting event which saw 40 participants, 10 of whom she beat in the final round to clinch the winning trophy. Go-karting, after all, is what allowed her to practise her motor-racing skills when was prohibited from driving legally.

The road to the wheel

While this change in attitude, and quick embrace of driving (and racing) might appear to have taken place overnight, the road to the present has been a long one. Alamri — a final year university student — for instance, has been interested in cars since she was a child, back when it was illegal for her to even dream of driving one. So, she decided to pursue a field of study — mechanical engineering — that would, at the very least, allow her to work with cars. About life after June, she says, “Many things have changed, starting from our daily lives to our future plans.” Her goal, she tells me, is to participate in the Formula-E race one day. She does, however, acknowledge that barriers are steeper for would-be women drivers. The average cost for a woman to obtain driving lessons is higher than it is for men (approximately ₹47,200 per class as opposed to ₹7,600 for men).

In September, Amjad Alamri won the country’s first ever all-women, go-karting race

In September, Amjad Alamri won the country’s first ever all-women, go-karting race   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I ask Falah Al-Jabra, the racing instructor from Riyadh, about his pricing. He ensures me that he charges the same amount (approximately ₹28,200 per class) for both women and women. “The approach is different,” he tells me. “Most of the females need to be taught from scratch, and their classes are private.”

But obstacles are more than just cost-related. The government only started issuing racing licenses to women in November, and attitudes are still changing. Almimoni, for instance, used the time she spent waiting for her racing license to get those around her, including members of her family, used to the idea of seeing her in racing garb. She recalls her mother’s shock when she first saw her daughter in a racing suit, swiftly changing gears in a speeding vehicle. “But they are all supportive now,” she is quick to tell me.

In the meantime, she is not shy about making plans (“Saudi women are all hopeful,” she says). Her goal for the near future, though, is getting to ride her dream car, Ford’s Super Snake, the F150 Shelby. She encourages me to Google the car and tell her what I think. I oblige, and concur — the car is a vision.

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Printable version | Mar 24, 2020 4:41:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/motorsport/the-right-to-race-in-saudi-arabia/article25742344.ece

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