Head cradled in a hard hat, Dania Akeel’s voice crackles through the intercom above the roar of the engine and the gust of wind through the windowless cabin of her rugged black UTV.
“We are so lucky,” Akeel told CNN Sport. “I mean, look at this place, it’s so beautiful.”
The Saudi grabs the steering wheel, deftly navigating the vehicle past rocks and Joshua trees along a winding dirt road, propelling it past the rusted hull of a long-abandoned pick-up truck on the dry sand .
“We can do this for a living, can’t we?” continues Akeel, 34, reflecting on her chosen profession as she prepares for her second participation in the infamous Dakar Rally, one of the longest and most demanding endurance races in the world.
CNN is about an hour north of Phoenix, Ariz., shotgun in a Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR with one of the most notable stories in cross-country racing.
Just over two years ago, the Jeddah-born athlete had never even tried this type of running. Not only that, Akeel is also from a country in which women have only been allowed to drive on public roads since 2018.
“The Dakar” was born in 1978 under the name of the Paris-Dakar Rally. It ran annually from France to Senegal until 2007, but when the 2008 event was canceled for safety reasons, the rally was transplanted across the Atlantic and crossed South America to in 2020 when he moved to Saudi Arabia again.
Today, there are five major categories of vehicles in rallying: cars, motorcycles, trucks, UTVs and quads.
Akeel’s interest in motor vehicles goes back much further than the arrival of this world famous rally in his home country.
“I had a big interest in cars when I was younger,” she told CNN. “It wasn’t necessarily cars, in fact it was all I could drive and that included bikes.
“You know, I love movement. I like to be outside. I love how it feels to communicate with the machine, to get it from A to B.”
Her childhood was spent trying out all sorts of different modes of transportation.
“I started driving things like karts at a young age and things like quads,” she explains. “When I was a little older, I rode two-wheeled dirt bikes.
“These are just vehicles that would be in private homes, on a farm or things like that, where I had access to these types of machines, and I would use them just to have fun with my cousins and my friends on weekends.”
Her interest in motor vehicles solidified when her family moved to the UK, where she attended high school and eventually university.
“I was very lucky to travel frequently with my parents,” she recalls. “We used to go to kart tracks in England and that was really fun.”
Another door that opened for Akeel in the UK was then firmly closed to her at home – the ability to drive on the road – and she wasted no time getting her driver’s license, at the 17 years old.
She even admits that her choice of destination for her undergraduate studies – the University of London’s picturesque Royal Holloway College in the western suburbs of the English capital – was influenced by the opportunities it presented for driving.
It was a switch to two wheels that turned Akeel’s mind towards racing.
“When I was 27, I got my motorcycle license and it was a lot of fun. Then the motorcycle started to lead me into the racing world.
After earning a Masters in International Business from Hult University, she moved to Dubai and started racing on the Dubai Autodromo circuit.
“I could see that I was really enjoying the sport and having a good time and some of the runners encouraged me to join them, to run in the national series,” Akeel said.
“I went to do the tests and exams for the racing license, then I got a license issued by the Saudi Motor Sports Federation. And that’s how I started racing.
The impetus to switch to cross-country racing came, literally, from an accident.
In February 2020, at a Superstock 600cc meeting in Bahrain, Akeel lost control of his bike and fell.
“I had a ‘low side’ fall, which means I fell on the track on the side the bike was leaning towards, which is, you know, the least significant, easiest fall. ”
Akeel, who is six-foot-one, considers herself lucky.
“I was very lucky. I had broken bones in my pelvis, my spine, but they were all fractures that could heal naturally. So, I considered it a very lucky result and I was very relieved and very grateful.
At the time, the Covid pandemic was beginning to precipitate widespread border closures and lockdowns, so Akeel returned home to Jeddah to recuperate.
While resting, she began to reflect on the allure of off-road and rally racing, especially as Saudi Arabia was hosting the Dakar Rally for the first time.
“It’s a big event. It’s international. It welcomes a lot of people from all over the world, coming in large numbers, and it’s a lot of fun,” she explains.
Akeel began competing in the FIA World Cup of Cross Country Bajas, a global rally series inspired by the eponymous races in Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
“(I wanted) to get used to the idea of being in different situations, different terrains, what Dakar gives you, across 9,000 kilometers of Saudi Arabia and it’s actually very diverse,” says -she.
“So when I went to the Baja Cross Country World Cup, I had two rounds in the Middle East and three in Europe and each of those places was a completely different way to drive.
“So I found, for example, that it was muddy in Italy and there was a lot of gravel and water in Hungary. There were a lot of bumpy and rocky parts in the Middle East with sand , with dunes. So it just prepared my mind for variety and being able to engage with the unknown.
Being ready for the unexpected is a key part of preparing for the Dakar, says Akeel.
“If you have this mentality that anything can happen at any time and you expect things to constantly evolve, then you can be well prepared mentally,” she explains.
“And then physically, it’s another story: so, I have my training routine and I eat well and sleep well.”
While women have only recently been able to drive on the road in Saudi Arabia, Akeel is aware that she could be seen as a role model by her compatriots, but she is philosophical about her own path and what she could represent for others.
“I was very lucky to get my license when I was 17 and I had a head start on building that response time and those skills and driving skills,” she says.
“I think it’s important to watch people do it because then you understand that it’s possible for you, whoever you are, to get into the sport.
“I mean, I remember when I joined the first race, I didn’t think twice… how many women had done that? Did they come from Saudi Arabia? Not Saudi? I didn’t think about it too much because the rules say I can be there.
“You know, I have every right to be here. I have my license. I belong here. I have my car, I have my equipment, I have my helmet. You know, so I meet all the conditions. I have a full set of membership rights in sport and that was what I needed.
In his first Dakar attempt, Akeel finished a creditable eighth in class in the 2022 race, but it could have been even better.
“We were sixth (in the T3 class), which I was very happy about, being a first timer,” Akeel said. “But on the seventh day I had a problem with the turbo and the car had a little less power. I started to use the brakes less and keep my momentum in the corners. But that means more risk.
“(My co-pilot) said, ‘you know, if you don’t stop what you’re doing, you’re going to have a problem’. But I ignored him, and I ended up turning a corner and I I was caught off guard by a rock and I braked very quickly, and the impact broke the front of the car.
The mistake cost Akeel four hours and several places.
“I reacted emotionally and I didn’t make the right decision,” she admits. “The Dakar is a race that forces you to watch yourself and make your decisions. And after that, I changed my way of driving.
Akeel’s story proved attractive to major sponsors, including Toyota and Canadian off-road specialist Can-Am, which provided him with the most important car.
“Dania isn’t afraid to get in there and compete with the boys in a male-dominated sport,” said Anne-Marie LaBerge, chief marketing officer at BRP, owner of Can-Am, of Akeel.
“She is helping to create a path forward for women and future generations of young women in Saudi Arabia, much like Molly Taylor in Australia, Cristina Gutierrez in Spain and Cory Weller in the United States are doing.
“These are women creating a path for other women to push their limits and get in the game, regardless of the rules.”
As for the challenges of the Dakar itself, Akeel sees it as a learning experience, but also and above all a pleasure.
“Dakar reminds me of a summer camp,” she says. “You know, every day we wake up, put on our gear and ride over 400 kilometres. Those are the best two weeks.
“When I get in the car, it’s me and the co-driver and the car and the track. That’s it. That’s all there is. Nothing else exists.