Dania Akeel doesn’t see herself as a female racer. Instead, she’s simply ‘a racer’ whose competition is the clock and the rest of the field, regardless of gender.
Having grown up around dirt bikes at the family home, first in the Saudi Arabian capital Jeddah and then on the banks of the Red Sea, Akeel has been a veritable motor head for as long as she can remember.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that Akeel turned to motorsport – albeit at the relatively late age of 29 – and became the first Saudi woman to contest the Dakar Rally earlier this year.
Since her first foray into cross-country rallying, the trajectory has gone only one way: upwards. Her eighth-place finish in the T3 side-by-side (SSV) class at Dakar in her homeland is what Akeel describes as the ‘most important result’ of her career to date.
“It really was,” Akeel tells DirtFish. “Of course, winning the [FIA World Cup for Bajas] T3 title last year was great and it’s nice to have won a title, but the competition wasn’t as strong as it is on the Dakar.
“There weren’t really that many cars competing, so if you turned up every round, you stood a good chance of winning or finishing on the podium. Whereas on the Dakar, I was racing against a lot of cars, so the challenge was a lot steeper.
“And one of the things that some journalists, not all but some, used to ask me on the Dakar was how much I was concentrating on the other women in the class, which was strange because I was just focusing on people in front of me.
“Why would you focus on someone behind you when you can improve your own position? So, I really just see myself as a racer like everyone else. I race against men and women, and I want to win.”
As anyone will know, getting to the start podium of the Dakar is one thing, but getting to the finish is quite another. Akeel knows this all too well, having recovered from a potential career-ending motorbike injury in 2020 before contemplating giving everything up amid a fairly significant budget deficit at the backend of last season.
Not only has she managed to overcome this adversity, but Akeel has also taken to cross-country rallying with the sort of panache and determination which has inspired plenty in Saudi to see motorsport as a career goal for the future.
Speak to Akeel for even 10 minutes and you will realize that the off-road world, whether that be competitive rallying or simply mucking about in the back garden, has little to no gender boundaries.
At least as far as she is concerned.
“I never felt like it was something strange for me to ride my bikes because a lot of my cousins also did the same as me and they are girls too,” Akeel explains.
“Even my girl friends from school used to come round to ours and play on the bikes. It is a stereotype that girls aren’t normally into cars or bikes, but I have to say that in my life, it’s just never been true. Girls and boys have always been into these things.
“I know it exists, but I’ve just never experienced it. Some of my friends would come round and ask to play with the buggies and we would do that.”
Akeel’s early exposure to off-roading follows the sort of path many of her peers enjoyed in their own youth. A mix of dirt and quad bikes on vast open land whetted the appetite, but it wasn’t until much later that the hunger and opportunity to go racing arose.
The Saudi federation asked me to attend the 2021 Dakar Rally. They encouraged me to drive in it and I thought: ‘yeah, why not?'Dania Akeel
In the intervening years, it was school, not motorsport, which took up most of Akeel’s time and energy. She moved to the United Kingdom where she attended Prior’s Field Boarding School before going on to study modern history and politics at Holloway University of London and subsequently achieving a master’s degree in international business at Hult Business School.
Despite her focus on studying, Akeel remained a motor head throughout and tells the story of applying for her provisional driving license to arrive on the day of her 17th birthday and driving her very first car, a Mini Cooper, to and from school.
While many prospective rally drivers might consider the time constraints of study a hindrance to their motorsport career opportunities, Akeel used her academic life to her advantage when the chance to go racing finally presented itself.
“I tell my parents that I used my MBA for a couple of consultancy roles, but I actually used it more for sport,” she admits.
“I was really grateful for the education that I got and it’s a privilege, but it is also very useful for motorsport: you can have excellent drivers who are maybe not so strong at pitching their season and that can give them a disadvantage.
“Yes, you can hire a team to rent a car and they bring everything with them, but those can be really expensive teams. If you want to do it cheap by yourself in the beginning, you’ve got to bring a lot of the disparate elements together, you’ve got to know how to communicate with different types of people, you’ve got to learn how to work with different suppliers, register for the race and then make sure you have all the appropriate documents, safety equipment.
“If you don’t have a team walking you through all of these stages of what you need, then that can be quite challenging. My education got me through those parts, because the first few races I did, I did them on a tight budget.
“When I got more budget, I could contact [renowned cross-country outfit] South Racing and they would take care of everything and all I needed to do was get myself to the location. So, that takes a lot of effort, figuring out how to register for the events and to get to the location.”
Akeel’s progression in the cross-country world has been rapid, having made her first outing just two months after attending the Dakar as an interested guest. A couple of tests in the dunes and some expert tutelage from Dakar Rally veteran Christian Lavieille to learn the basics followed before her first start in the FIA World Cup for Bajas.
By the time Akeel had made contact with South Racing, she had developed quite the name for herself in this new-fangled world of off-road rallying. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Akeel was racing bikes on closed circuits in the UAE, a far cry from the precarious, unpredictable nature of the Dakar.
How Akeel made it across to full-time cross-country in the end relied on a combination of heartbreak, circumstance and strong results which caught the attention of the Saudi Arabia Motorsport Federation.
“That injury also served me well,” reflects Akeel.
“It caused me to move into cross-country, because I haven’t been back to bike racing since then. I’ve not been back to a track since the accident, because I’ve had other commitments.
“I was doing a practice session in Bahrain, and I had a fall and broke three bones in my pelvis and a fracture in my lower spine, but it was not as serious an accident as it sounds when it came to the recovery.
“There was no surgery required, all I had to do was let it heal in time which meant I had physio every day. I was swimming in the sea at my home in Jeddah; I came back and did my recovery here.
“Of course, it was tough and painful, all that kind of thing but it taught me patience and, to be honest, I was just so grateful for the outcome because I knew I had fallen off a bike on a racetrack and that my back was affected. And that can be anything.”
Women now have the spotlight, they have advantages in that companies want to sponsor themDania Akeel
The injury coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 which expedited Akeel’s return to Saudi. With the borders closed and little else in the way of motorsport on the agenda, Akeel looked for new ventures once her recovery was completed.
“The Saudi federation asked me to attend the 2021 Dakar Rally, to see it and experience it and I spoke to a lot of people there. They encouraged me to drive in it and I thought: ‘yeah, why not?’
“But the Dakar felt like a long way away at that time, of course.”
Over the next 12 months, however, the prospect of Akeel taking the start of the Dakar on home soil became more and more realistic and she made her off-road rallying debut on the Sharqiyah Baja in March last year.
Her appearance with Team RM Sport of France for the Hungarian Baja in the summer then produced the turning point in Akeel’s cross-country adventure, as official funding from the Saudi Motor Sports Federation was now on offer.
The dream was quickly becoming a reality.
“For me, cross-country was appropriate because it’s not necessarily a young person’s game, and I noticed that,” Akeel says.
“You know, Peterhansel is winning Dakar in his late 50s, so I saw a window for me there. I had my MBA and all the tools I needed to make it happen, but I still needed to make a decision to keep going.
“[So] late last season, I realized that I had nothing left to prove to private companies anymore, so I would just pitch for one race at a time and, at some point I had a budget deficit, and I wasn’t sure if I should carry on.
“Eventually I decided that I would and then the deficit disappeared because I re-negotiated the contract, the Saudi federation stepped in because I was leading the World Cup and they had a policy which said that if you are leading the World Cup, or in second place, then they would financially support you for the remaining three rounds. That was a really important factor for me.
“I have questioned everything at moments, but at those moments, solutions have appeared.”
Those final three World Cup Bajas could not have gone any better for Akeel, who wrapped up the T3 title on the Italian Baja with a hard-fought fourth place finish aboard her RM Sport Mamba SSV, the first Arab woman to do so.
With a title in the bag in just her first year of cross-country rallying, the future certainly looks promising for Akeel, who made history in January by becoming the first Saudi woman to participate in the Dakar Rally.
That feat is not lost on Akeel, who admits that her appearance on the Dakar was by and large down to her gender as a unique marketing selling point.
But don’t let that fool you, Akeel’s approach to racing is the same as any man or woman out there.
“For me, it’s not enough for me just to participate, obviously in the beginning it is but I want to be competitive,” Akeel explains.
“And I think it’s now really important for women, because women now have the spotlight, they have advantages in that companies want to sponsor them. I got that sponsorship for my first race because I am a Saudi woman, there’s no doubt about that, it was my profile that gave me the advantage over let’s say a man who wanted to come and get sponsors.
“They would have needed tons of data to show that he was a fast driver; in my case, I didn’t have any data, but it was easier because I’m a woman.
“So, while I had that advantage of being a Saudi woman, I wanted to respect that advantage and make sure my driving was up to scratch, out of respect to the sport and the other drivers, and to myself as an athlete.”
It’s clear that Akeel’s success on the global stage has had an impact not just in Saudi Arabia, but the Middle East as a region, with Akeel receiving countless enquiries from young girls on how to enter the sport.
As with everything, progress never happens overnight but the signs are pointing in the right direction in order to bring motorsport to an ever-wider driver pool, particularly in a country which has the rights to several high-profile racing events.
“I know that a lot of girls ask me online about how to get into the sport and the Saudi Motor Sports Federation has had more and more women calling to apply for racing licenses than they ever had before.
“The first women’s rally takes place this weekend which has more than 30 drivers signed up which is really impressive. These indicators are telling me that there is interest in the sport from women which is promising.”
That interest may well be the tip of the iceberg in a developing motorsport nation and Akeel’s exploits offer a glimpse of what can be possible for those keen to get a foothold in rally raid. You see, it’s not just the sandy tracks of the Middle East or southern Europe that form the World Cup Bajas calendar.
The opening round of the season gave Akeel her first experience on snow for the Northern Forest Baja, a far cry from the surroundings of the vast, open stretches of desert she’d enjoyed barely a month prior.
“It was so much fun driving on the snow for the first time. I missed the first corner and had to reverse and go in, but honestly by the end I was picking up some more control on the turns.
“You choose how far you want to push it, right? And I didn’t want to push too much, just learn as much as I could and take the experience.”
In addition to racing, Akeel is a published author, a motivational speaker and regular guest on podcasts. But if there is one thing which is abundantly clear it’s that she is still channeling the motor head mentality from her childhood charging around the family home on dirt bikes.
She is a female racer, but above all, she is a racer.