Saudi girl makes it to the World's most infamous Dakar Rally

Saudi girl makes it to the World's most infamous Dakar Rally

Her head cradled in a crash helmet, Dania Akeel’s voice crackles through the intercom above the roar of the engine and the rush of wind through the windowless cabin of her rugged, black UTV.

“We’re so lucky,” Akeel tells CNN Sport. “I mean, look at this place, it’s so beautiful.”

The Saudi beauty grasps the wheel, deftly navigating the vehicle past rocks and Joshua trees along a winding dirt track, blasting it past the rusting shell of a long-abandoned pick-up across the dry sand.

“We get to do this for a living, right?” continues 34-year-old Akeel, reflecting on her chosen profession as she prepares for her second tilt at the infamous Dakar Rally, one of the world’s longest and most demanding endurance races.

Barely over two years ago, the Jeddah-born athlete had never even tried this type of racing. Not only that, Akeel also hails from a country in which women have only been allowed to drive on public roads since 2018.

The Dakar

‘The Dakar’ began life in 1978 as the Paris-Dakar Rally. It ran annually from France to Senegal until 2007 but when the 2008 event was cancelled due to security concerns, the rally was transplanted across the Atlantic, and ran through South America until 2020, when it moved again, to Saudi Arabia.

Today there are five major vehicle categories in the rally: cars, motorbikes, trucks, UTVs and quad bikes.

Akeel’s interest in motor vehicles goes back much farther than the arrival of this world-famous rally in her home country.

“I had a big interest in cars when I was younger,” she tells CNN. “It wasn’t necessarily cars, actually, it was anything that could that I could drive and that included bicycles.

“You know, I just love movement. I love being outdoors. I just love how it felt to communicate to the machine, to get it to go from A to B.”

Her childhood was spent trying all kinds of different modes of transport.

“I started driving things like go karts at a young age, and things like quad bikes,” she explains. “When I was a bit older, I drove two wheeled dirt bikes.