Making history from the cockpit: Reema Juffali on becoming Saudi Arabia’s first female racing driver

Northeastern graduate Reema Juffali, a native of Saudi Arabia, is the first woman from her country to race competitively. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

SNETTERTON, United Kingdom—Reema Juffali is much too modest to admit it, but she’s a role model for young women around the globe. In particular, she’s a trailblazer for those in her native Saudi Arabia, where deeply entrenched patriarchal laws have for centuries gone unchallenged. 

Juffali in 2018 made history by becoming the country’s first female race car driver to compete in a major event when she took her spot on the starting line of the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. 

This April, the 27-year-old Northeastern graduate made her British Formula Four debut at Brands Hatch—a racetrack in the southeastern English county of Kent. Since then, she’s secured the national carrier airline of Saudi Arabia as her sponsor and is injecting some much-needed diversity into the male-dominated world of motorsports. 

“It’s all happened in a really short space of time,” Juffali says, speaking on a balmy August day ahead of a race at Snetterton, a former U.S. Air Force base in the British county of Norfolk. It’s around 100 miles northeast of central London, where she now lives. “It was only a few years ago that I decided to give professional racing a real try, so I’m quite late to the game.” 

“Aside from the usual parental concerns, my family has always supported me in everything I do,” Juffali says ahead of a British Formula Four Championship race at Snetterton, U.K. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

Many of Juffali’s rivals at Snetterton today look like they might be half her age. Formula One stars Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were not even teenagers when they first slipped into the cockpit. “These kids—and they are kids—have got loads of time to gain experience. Time isn’t really on my side but I’m giving it all I’ve got and so far I’m happy with how it’s going.”

‘Dates with Cars’

Juffali was born in Jeddah, and attended the city’s British International School, where she was an avid athlete. She graduated with the prestigious International Baccalaureate program before obtaining a degree in international affairs from Northeastern, with minors in history, Middle East studies, and political science.

“Aside from the usual parental concerns, my family has always supported me in everything I do,” she says when reflecting upon her academic and personal ambitions. 

And she’s careful not to take that for granted. Saudi Arabia is known for its systemic repression of women’s rights. Girls are often considered the property of their fathers until they marry into the possession of another man, and simple tasks that would be considered mundane in much of the western world—like making financial decisions or attending medical appointments—can be impossible for women to perform without a male guardian. 

Reema Juffali poses in her car before racing in the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship at Snetterton Circuit in Norfolk. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

When Juffali was growing up, it was still illegal for women to drive—that right was only granted in June last year—but as a teenager, she developed a passion for automobiles. In 2010, a few months after moving to Boston, she passed her test and promptly bought her first car: a BMW 3 Series that she named Optimus Prime, after the Transformers character. Today she affectionately refers to it as Opty. “I used to take Opty on dates and just drive around the snowy streets of Boston,” she recalls with a coy laugh. “Admittedly it was a little weird but, I just really loved that feeling of driving.”

A Leap of Faith 

Unsure of what she would do after graduating, Juffali completed a six-month co-op at the Arab International Women’s Forum, a non-profit organization set up in London to connect Arab businesses and professional women with each other and with their international counterparts. But driving was a persistent passion she couldn’t seem to shake, so in 2014—as a graduation present to herself—she traveled to Florida and enrolled in a three-day course at the Skip Barber Racing School, graduates of which have won every major U.S. auto racing championship. Opty came, too. “That was a real-eye opener and only solidified my determination to do this,” she explains. 

Conscious that the commonly trodden path after university is to find a job with a steady income, Juffali dabbled in finance in New York, spent a short spell at a start-up in London, and then toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant with her sister, but a chance encounter with prominent British racing driver Susie Wolff encouraged her to take the ultimate leap of faith. In December 2017 she became the first Saudi Arabian woman to gain a racing license and the following October she lined up for the TRD86 Cup in Abu Dhabi where she blazed into the world of motorsports by ranking second and third in two races.

“When I got out of the car one of the other drivers turned to me and just said, ‘Who are you?’,” she recalls, allowing a rare trace of pride to shimmer through. “That was a really special moment for me. Definitely a highlight of my career so far.”

Le Mans and the Future 

Saudi Arabia still has mammoth strides to make when it comes to empowering women and giving them the opportunities and rights to live independent lives and follow their dreams—however unconventional those might be. According to the World Bank, only around 23 percent of Saudi Arabian women are in the workforce today. Although that’s a reasonably steep rise from the 18 percent back in 2010, it still dramatically lags the global average of around 48 percent. 

Though they recently were granted the right to travel alone, women often still can’t dress as they please or freely communicate with whom they want. But people like Juffali offer hope that tomorrow’s generation will ring in a new era of cultural liberalism for everyone, regardless of gender.

And what about the future? Where does she see herself going from here?

“Well one of my ultimate goals in life is to race Le Mans,” she admits, referring to the grueling historic endurance race where teams are challenged to run vehicles as fast and far as possible for 24 hours without human or mechanical failure. She says that watching the event, widely considered one of the most prestigious and grueling automobile races in the world, was one of the reasons she has pursued her goals so doggedly.

“But more than anything I just want to be great in my field, regardless of category or event,” she says. “It’s great to be known as a woman driver in a male-dominated sport, and of course it’s great to be one of the only female Saudi drivers, but I just want to be really, really good, and really, really fast,” she says. “That, at the end of the day, is what I really want to be remembered for.”

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