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Here’s Why Saudi Arabia is Revving for Change

Photographed by Abdullah Alshehri for Vogue Arabia, January 2019.

I am thrilled to see Saudi women taking an increasingly active role in sports, and thus playing a larger role in the overall 2030 Vision for Saudi Arabia – a plan to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy through developing public service sectors like education, recreation, and tourism. Last year was a watershed one for women in particular. We have been encouraged to drive, watch sporting events live, attend the cinema, and even join the military. These are huge steps for the Kingdom. We are honored that Saudi Arabia was the first Arab country to host a Formula E race, an achievement that would not be possible without the support of our beloved Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. Having Saudi Arabia become part of the global motorsport map by hosting such an international championship is a game-changer for us. Surely, it will enhance the international reputation of Saudi as a forward-thinking, future-facing country that is ready to embrace change in the world of science, innovation, and technology. Hosting the Formula E – one of the key motorsports events in the world – also plays an important role in ushering women into the sporting world. From my viewpoint, it also serves as a general statement of empowerment and a focus on community. The hugely anticipated race proved that both females and males are welcome to take part in their passions. And according to the Saudi General Sports Authority, there will be more major events and initiatives to be launched in Saudi Arabia over the coming years.

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.

The significance of allowing women in Saudi Arabia to drive cannot be underestimated. The lifting of the ban, on June 24, 2018, was not only a celebration for the automotive industry, but also a significant step forward in Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of women’s role in society, legitimizing our aspirations, hopes, and dreams and allowing us to articulate and carve out identities for ourselves separate from our families and husbands. Women played several pivotal roles during the Ad Diriyah E-Prix. I was delighted to see such a strong show of female drivers, who made history in the rookie test phase of the race weekend, with nine women taking part. Moreover, many women played a role behind the scenes, working with the General Sports Authority day and night over the past two months on the organization of the event. I specifically congratulate HRH Princess Haifa Mohammed Al Saud, the Secretary General of Formula E Ad Diriyah E-Prix, and her great team.

Portrait of Aseel Al Hamad.

At the event, the volunteer marshals chanted, ‘One team, one dream.’ They came from all over KSA to support the event and I was so touched to see many women. These unsung heroes of the event took a quiet, dignified role in proceedings and I was proud of their contribution and achievements. It’s not always about the glamour or the headlines, but the ability to become part of a larger group. Furthermore, men are embracing the role women can play wholeheartedly. At Formula E, I felt welcomed as part of the community, and had two honor laps around the track: one with Jean Todt (president of the International Automobile Federation) and HRH Prince Khalid Sultan AlFaisal (president of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation) and another lap with Todt, Michèle Mouton (president of the Women in Motorsport Commission), and HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud (Saudi General Sports Authority Deputy of Planning and Development).

In my opinion, the quality and diversity of the supportive events contributed to the overall success of the Formula E. A world-class concert took place in the e-village, with an impressive mix of international musical talents – including Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta, and The Black Eyed Peas – and Arab artists such as Amr Diab; there was the car simulator corner, the ‘jenadriyah’ heritage village, and an area with shops, cafés, and restaurants. For me, the most important experience was the opening of the At-Turaif District, once home to the Saudi royal family, in Ad Diriyah, a Unesco World Heritage site and tourism area.

Growing up in a country where it was illegal for women to drive was one of the biggest challenges I’d faced in my life, since my main passion has always been around cars. As a young girl, I played with toy cars and Lego more suited to boys. My passion led me to buy a car, which I parked in the UAE. Over time, my love of cars evolved, and I became ever more curious. I started taking courses and attending events in the racing and track world, fully engaging with the industry. This led me to build the relationships that I have now, both with the driving tracks and also car brands, such as Renault. Driving the car that celebrated Renault’s return to Formula One and that had been driven by Kimi Raikkonen in 2012, was beyond anything I had ever imagined. On a personal level, this was a moment filled with immense joy and exhilaration. It is a great honor to be the first Saudi and Arab female to ever drive a Formula One car. On a deeper, more symbolic level, it also represented a defining moment for the people of Saudi Arabia – both men and women. I was elated, proud, and emotional all at once.

While society considers Formula One to be a male arena, it is important that we remember that there are no actual rules forbidding women to compete on the track. I want to show that with spirit, determination, and by dreaming big, we can redefine what is considered ‘normal,’ and encourage more women to step forward into roles in the world of motorsports. Last fall, Saudi Arabia hosted a groundbreaking, first- of-its kind female karting championship race and saw 10 Saudi female drivers compete on the track for an exhilarating karting celebration. It was an honor to present the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation (SAMF) awards to the winners of the race. I was asked to hold a seat on the board earlier this year and am the first woman to do so. My role is to champion female drivers in the Kingdom, and channel their hopes and wishes to a governance level. It is my ultimate aim to become more involved in the KSA government and to be a figurehead for female empowerment in all its guises. The development of the motorsports industry is a great way to get started. In December last year, SAMF launched the first round of the Saudi Time Attack championship; another race that took place in the Kingdom which included women’s participation, making it the first female track race in Saudi. Such fast progress indicates that the future of motorsports in Saudi Arabia will flourish.

I work tirelessly to inspire my fellow women to express themselves clearly and take ownership of their limitless and true potential. We must believe in ourselves and never lose hope. No matter what challenges a woman faces, if she can meet them head on and gain strength from every aspect, she will grow. By never giving up and remaining faithful to both the values of our nation and our personal ambitions, we can show women that anything is possible with hard work and ambition. I encourage women to do what they love, to follow their dreams, and to really push themselves to become the truest articulation of their personality. We gain nothing by acting small. Life is like a race. We must always look to achieve our goals and, ultimately, become a champion.

– As told to Caterina Minthe

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