Reema Juffali is Saudi Arabia's racing pioneer — despite female driving ban

Sports Car News

Saudi Arabian women were banned from driving when Reema Juffali was at racing school but she's making a career in the sport and leading a new generation of young Saudi racers

Reema Juffali in Jaguar I-Pace trophy

Juffali became the first Saudi woman to compete in an international racing series during the Jaguar I-Pace Formula E support race in Diriyah, 2019

Fayeaz Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

What counts in motor racing? Just the taking part? No one really buys into that. Winning. That’s what matters when you get down to the grain.

Except in some cases defining winners in sport simply by results is blinkered and means remarkable stories can be overlooked. For some, just getting on to a grid is a victory in itself.

Take Reema Juffali. In three years racing on the UK junior single-seater scene, two in Formula 4 and last season in GB3 (what used to be British Formula 3), she didn’t feature on a podium at Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Oulton Park or anywhere else. But look closer at the context. She’s from Saudi Arabia, a country that banned women from even driving on the roads until 2018 – and she didn’t drive a racing car until she was well into her twenties.

As a Saudi woman with a racing licence competing overseas, Juffali is unique and breaking important new ground. Sure, she wants to win and hopefully in time she will. But for now, just racing at all marks significant progress far beyond her own personal ambitions. Like all women racers, she’s not competing to be an inspiration or a pioneer. But what she represents means she is anyway, and she’s learning to live with it.

“It’s something I’m finally getting my head around,” says Reema, who turns 30 next week. “The more I’m back home around either familiar faces who knew me before I was a racing driver or those who’ve only known me since, the impressions I get are of encouragement and support. Everyone seems to have taken something out of my story, whether it’s going into something unconventional or trying different things. Even just taking up a sport for the weekends: some of my friends have started triathlon training. It’s exciting to see because I think Saudis are very hungry for new things and excited for all these new events that are coming our way. It also opens doors for them, that actually this doesn’t just have to be a hobby but also a career. To play a small part in that has been one of the best surprises.”

Reema Juffali in British F4 car

Juffali has raced in two British F4 seasons


Juffali grew up in Jeddah and recalls feeling an early connection to cars – which was automatically suppressed by the restrictive society in which she lived. “There was definitely a sense of frustration: I want this, but I can’t have it,” she says. “I don’t want to give a rosy image. It’s why I appreciate it now.”

Seven years abroad, studying in the US and then working in London and New York, finally allowed her to explore her growing interest in motor racing. She did her research, booked herself into a racing school and sought advice about how to make her way in what was a totally unfamiliar world. “Then life happened and I ended up taking a professional route into finance, doing the nine to five,” she says. “When I finally moved back to Saudi in 2017, there was still this itching desire to give this a go.”

By this time Saudi’s rulers had announced a plan to lift the archaic and deeply troubling female driving ban, and it happened the following year as Reema took her first racing steps in the UAE-based TRD 86 Cup. To then turn her back on a promising career, come to the UK and chase her dream to become a racing driver took guts, total commitment and clearly a significant financial investment. Last year she finished 18th in the GB3 standings for Douglas Motorsport. Nothing spectacular – but in the context of how she got to this point, where she came from and how she pitched herself into a deeply competitive world inhabited by younger racers, most of whom have years of karting experience she clearly lacks, deserves respect. And she has no regrets.

“Throughout the season I felt like I kept on improving,” says Reema. “With back to back races and a lot of them wet, my confidence in the car took massive steps. The team were very supportive in that sense. The biggest thing for me was my qualifying and generally I was not where I wanted to be. That put me on the back foot at most races, starting near the back. But that gave me the experience to learn how to attack and in the reverse-grid races defending too.”

Related article

She openly admits “results-wise, I was not where I want to be,” but adds: “I definitely think it was the right thing to do. In the beginning I was around a second off the pace and half-way through the season I was within a second when the others had also made their own gains. Just being in the car, understanding it and drive it the way I wanted to from a physical point of view, I didn’t feel I wasn’t prepared or ready. Part of it is about learning as I go, but I wanted to experience the aero and technicality within these F3 cars. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable in a GT3 car now if I hadn’t done it.”

Single-seaters were always a means to an end for Reema, who says the Le Mans 24 Hours and endurance racing have always been her primary target. This weekend she takes her first step towards that goal by competing in her maiden GT race, the Dubai 24 Hours, driving an SPS Automotive Performance-run Mercedes-AMG GT3 she’ll share with German Valentin Pierburg, American George Kurtz and Briton John Loggie. The entry is packed full of experienced racers, modern GT3 cars cannot be underestimated and once again she’s asking a lot of herself. “As always I’ve thrown myself into it,” she says, on the back of a handful of test days and a winter of intense endurance fitness training. Just getting through her stints unscathed and helping steer the car to the finish will be an achievement.

“In the next couple of years you’ll see some names coming out of Saudi in this sport.”

Reema is lining up a full racing programme for 2022 – “it’ll definitely have a roof and won’t be a single-seater” is all she can say for now – and after spending large chunks of time in the UK is now basing herself back in Jeddah. It’s given her a great perspective on what she says is genuine change for women in her home country. “When I’ve come back every three or six months I’ve seen the change and it’s incredible how fast people are taking things on and empowering themselves to make changes. And it’s our generation that is doing it.”

She was proud to be named an ambassador for the first Saudi Formula 1 grand prix last month and is likely to have a similar role for the next one at the end of March. Beyond her own ambitions, she has high and genuine hopes that a new generation of Saudi racing drivers will break through in the years to come, influenced by the raft of major motor sport events the Kingdom now welcomes: F1, the Dakar Rally, Formula E at the end of this month and Extreme E in the spring. “Our neighbours in Bahrain and the UAE have more experience by 15 or 20 years,” she says. “Now we are creating both the infrastructure and racing knowledge, and it’s an exciting time. In the next couple of years you’ll see some names coming out of Saudi in this sport.”

Dubai 24 Hours start

This weekend’s Dubai 24 Hours will be Juffali’s first GT race

24H Series

They should have an easier and clearer route to chase their ambitions than Reema faced. Motor racing’s increasing infatuation with Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable and troubling, from a western perspective of ‘sports-washing’ and ‘green-washing’. But inside the Kingdom the citizens who live with the reality of existence in such a confined society are curious about the new worlds opening up to them. For motor sport, there is no reason why the people should not be embraced and welcomed into the global community.

“I can see how the presence of F1 completely changes people’s impressions and expectations, and opens doors,” says Reema. “People are able to dream of new things and it’s so much more than just racing. But from that perspective, the amount of questions I’m getting now… how can I become a racing driver? What’s the best way to go about it? To be an F1 driver, is it impossible? It wasn’t even on people’s radar before, but even parents are asking me, how can we get our kids into go-karts? It’s creating new opportunities. To have such events at home, there is definitely a sense of pride.”