First Saudi woman to race car in kingdom

DIRIYAH: Sliding behind the wheel of a sleek electric SUV, Reema Juffali is blazing a trail in male-dominated motor sports as the first Saudi woman to race in the kingdom.
Such adrenalin rushes were unimaginable for women in the ultra-conservative kingdom until June last year, when it overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wide-ranging liberalisation drive.
Juffali, a 27-year-old who made her motoring debut just months after the decades-old ban ended, is competing in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, an all-electric race in Diriyah, close to the capital Riyadh.
“The ban was lifted last year and I never expected to race professionally,” said Juffali, sitting in her black-and-green Jaguar I-Pace, an electric sports utility vehicle.
“The fact that I am doing it… is amazing,” she said in an interview close to the racing circuit in Diriyah.
Juffali, who hails from the western city of Jeddah and was educated in the United States, is participating as what organisers call a “VIP” guest driver, becoming the first Saudi woman to race on home soil.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s sports authority chief, has touted it as a “watershed” moment for the kingdom.
“Reema will have thousands cheering her on, as a professional racing driver,” the prince said.
Juffali, who made one of her first appearances in competitive racing at the F4 British Championship at Brands Hatch in April, has only about a year of professional racing experience under her belt.
But she has had a passion for fast cars since her teenage years and grew up watching Formula One.
She passed her driving test after she moved to the United States to study some years ago, and is now one of only a handful of Saudi woman to have obtained a “racing licence” in her home country, a mandatory requirement to race professionally.
Even outside the kingdom, only a few Saudi women have raced professionally.
“For a lot of women who haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to drive, to get behind the wheel is definitely something scary,” explained Juffali.
“For a lot of women in Saudi Arabia it’s something so far away.”
She said her dream was to one day race at Le Mans — a 24-hour competition in France that is one of the world’s most prestigious and gruelling competitions.
In Riyadh she is racing against the season’s veterans but will not score any points.
Prince Mohammed has sought to shake off his country’s ultra-conservative image by allowing greater freedoms for women, including easing so-called “guardianship” rules that give men authority over female relatives.
But alongside reforms he has also overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent.–DT

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