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Rally Jameel, Saudi Arabia's First Women-Only Race, Reflects Rapid Change

Human rights abuses are still an issue there, but getting women involved in motorsport shows that its citizens want a different future.

Rally Jameel entrants posing in front of the car.
Imaging just getting your driver's license and entering a rally two days later.
Rally Jameel

When 18-year-old Noor Bakhashab set off to compete in Rally Jameel, she'd only had her driver's license for two days. She and her sister, 23-year-old Fawziah Bakhashab, were about to run in the first women-only motorsport event in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a place where, up until 2018, women weren't allowed to drive.

Rally Jameel brought together 41 Saudi women, in addition to women from 15 other countries. I was part of a group of six who came over from the United States to compete in the three-day rally, which started in Hail, went through Qassim and ended in Riyadh. We went through the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jubba and passed Uyun Al-Jawa and the symbolic Antara's Rock, named after the 6th-century poet Antara bin Shaddad Al-Absi who met his love Abla in its shade. On the last day, competitors were awed by Saq Mountain, rising 600 feet from the otherwise flat desert floor.

Rally Jameel used Dakar-style navigation, where competitors had to find hidden checkpoints in the desert. However, speed was not a factor. Instead, participants had to use precise navigation and keep their speeds consistent through certain challenges. If you want to learn more about the rally itself, check out my earlier story.

Rallying for change

I'll admit I was nervous to travel to Saudi Arabia to compete in Rally Jameel. I was iffy about putting an American flag next to my name on my car, fearing it could start trouble. I thought the Saudi men would treat me poorly, harassing me while I was driving or forcing me to cover my glorious head of naturally silver hair.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. Saudi laws and culture have been rapidly changing. On June 24, 2018, the first day women were allowed to drive, Aseel Al-Hamad, a representative for Saudi Arabia at FIA Women in Motorsports and a board member for the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, drove a Lotus E20 Formula 1 car at the French Grand Prix in celebration.

"I have been racing since 2000 and I wanted to send a message that we are not just now driving, but we are masters at driving," Al-Hamad told me. "We can drive the fastest cars in the world."

Al-Hamad did not participate in Rally Jameel, but she was on hand during the registration to encourage the newly minted drivers. The following week at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, she drove that same Lotus F1 car through the streets of Riyadh, marking the first time a woman drove an F1 car in Saudi Arabia.

Rally Jameel uses Dakar-style navigation.

Rally Jameel

Victory dreams

Obviously, the Bakhashab sisters didn't have the same pedigree. Neither had been outside their home city of Jeddah, nor had either driven in the desert, let alone navigated using a roadbook and rally computer. The four-wheel-drive system in their Isuzu MU-X -- which stands for "Makes U Xciting," by the way -- was completely new to them.

But there's racing in their DNA. The sisters' family is part of Bakhashab Motorsports, a sponsor of Rally Jameel. Its general manager, Abdullah Bakhashab, competed in WRC, winning the Middle East Rally Championship in 1995.

"Navigating is really hard," Fawziah told me. "Drivers have it easy. Navigators get the blame and drivers get the glory."

The pair got stuck a few times along the race and argued a bit, as sisters will. I told them that sometimes it helps to have a funny word or phrase to say during times of stress to break the tension. They chose "smelly camel," paying homage to the many herds of camels we saw during the race.

Rally Jameel

The sisters also went off course during a transit section on the second race day, but were smart enough to find a known point and calculate the remaining distance using the kilometers listed in the roadbook and the kilometers displayed on the rally computer, and made it to the next stage on time.

And trust me, missing a turn during a transit stage is easy to do. I've been rallying with my navigator, Rebecca Donaghe, since 2016, and Rally Jameel was our seventh race together. We missed a highway interchange and had to go 10 kilometers down the highway before finding a place to turn around. In other words, cut the sisters some slack.

When the rally started, the Bakhashab sisters were hoping for a top 10 finish. And while they validated all their waypoints, they received a few time control penalties and had a difficult time with the average speed challenges, resulting in a 16th place finish out of the 34 total teams. They were 22.3 points shy of 10th place, but still incredibly proud -- not just of themselves, but of their country.

"All the revolution in Saudi Arabia that's happening is really impressive," Noor said. "Every lady needs to start doing things that are new to her." Her sister agreed. "It's good to see Saudi Arabia evolve and be this open to women."

This couldn't have happened a decade ago.

Rally Jameel

You have to start somewhere

Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go before it makes a dent in its human rights violations; 81 people were beheaded the day before I arrived. But opening up the culture for women is a huge step in the right direction.

Most of the rally participants told me they've had positive experiences while driving over the past five years, but others said they've received harassment from men. Thankfully, women can now report harassers to the police.

During my time in Saudi Arabia I was greeted with friendly support from locals, both men and women alike. Men stuffed four abreast in Toyota Hilux pickups and Land Cruiser SUVs to honk, wave and give me thumbs-up as I passed. During the rally, lots of male spectators came out to cheer us on.

"Women were ready for change a long time ago," Al-Hamad said. "We just needed the green light from the government. But the country and the people were ready a long time ago. That's why things are happening so fast."