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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Saudi women leave driving ban behind and taste thrill of speed

'It's a myth that Saudi women choose only pink and cute cars'

Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, drifts a car on a track in Dirab motor park, on the southern outskirts of the capital Riyadh. AFP
Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, drifts a car on a track in Dirab motor park, on the southern outskirts of the capital Riyadh. AFP

Donning a helmet inside a pearl silver sports sedan, Rana Almimoni skids and drifts around a Riyadh park, engine roaring, tyres screeching and clouds of dust billowing from the back.

For Saudi women, such adrenalin rushes were unimaginable just weeks ago.

Speed-crazed women drivers are bound to turn heads in the conservative desert kingdom, which overturned the world's only ban on female motorists in June as part of a much-hyped liberalisation drive led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Ms Almimoni, 30, a motor racing enthusiast, is defying the perception – or sexist misconception, depending on who you ask – that only dainty cars in bright colours are popular with women drivers.

"I adore speed. I love speed ... my dream car is more than 500 horsepower," she said, slamming the accelerator of her silvery sleek Kia Stinger in Riyadh's Dirab motor park.

"It's a myth ... that Saudi women choose only pink and cute cars."

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Read more:

A historic moment for Saudi women should be seized as a catalyst for change

More than 120,000 women in Saudi Arabia apply for driving licences

Female diplomats in Riyadh rejoice as driving ban is lifted

Saudi Arabia's $90 billion boost from women drivers

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Ms Almimoni said she was awaiting an expected government decision that would permit women to obtain a "racing licence", which would allow her to hone her passion in motor-sport competitions.

That includes drifting – oversteering the car to slip and skid or even spin, and other high-speed daredevilry – which is illegal in public but tolerated in the controlled environment of Dirab park, whose private owners insist on safety.

Author Pascal Menoret's book Joyriding in Riyadh described the high-octane Saudi obsession for drifting as all "about being a real man".

Now newly mobile Saudi women are embracing what was previously deemed a male entitlement – speed.

"Most of our enquiries [from women] are about drifting – how to learn drifting, which cars can they train on, how long will it take them" to drift, said instructor Falah Al Jarba as he watched Ms Almimoni zip around the park.

Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, stands with her helmet next to her car on the track in Dirab motor park. AFP
Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, stands with her helmet next to her car on the track in Dirab motor park. AFP

Car showrooms tapping new women clients have rolled out a line-up of cherry red Mini Coopers, but sales professionals say many exhibit an appetite for muscle cars like the Camaro or the Mustang convertible.

Many new drivers seek inspiration from Aseel Al Hamad, the first female member of the kingdom's national motor federation, who got behind the wheel of a Formula One car in France in June to mark the end of the driving ban.

The driving reform is said to be transformative for women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives, but many are keeping off the streets.

For now, most women drivers appear to be those who have swapped foreign licences for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.

Many complain that driving courses cost several times more than those available to men and that women instructors are in short supply.

While no overt incidents of street harassment have been reported publicly, women are also wary of pervasive sexism and aggression from male drivers despite warnings from authorities.

Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, poses with the thumbs-up gesture in her car. AFP
Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, poses with the thumbs-up gesture in her car. AFP

Clad in skinny jeans and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, a handful of women are also training to ride motorbikes at a Riyadh driving school, a scene that is still a stunning anomaly in the kingdom.

Transport authorities have rolled out racing simulators to help first-time women drivers get a feel of being behind the wheel.

As a male traffic official demonstrated the importance of seatbelts by buckling up inside a car tethered to a flat platform and upturning the vehicle, some women zipped around twisted tracks in toy cars.

Another sat down behind the wheel of a simulator and instantly floored the accelerator, sending the speedometer soaring.