When I chased Rally Dakar this year in Peru, I was instantly hooked. For me, the Dakar was never about the glitzy media show, the top factory riders, or the cool desert shots. It was about the human endurance and the inspiring message that nothing, absolutely nothing, was impossible. Seeing Malle Moto riders, Dakar rookies, and privateers doing the unbearable every single day despite being exhausted, dehydrated, injured, with few hours of sleep each night, hard work at the bivouac fixing their bikes, and hellish desert stages getting more and more difficult with each day was awe-inspiring, and I was sure I would follow the Dakar each year.
Whether it stayed in South America or moved back to Africa, I was going to chase the rally on my bike.
But the Dakar is moving to Saudi Arabia.
The news came as a shock to many Dakar fans. Saudi Arabia might have some stunning desert territory worthy of the Dakar pilots, but this is a country with an atrocious human rights record. This is a country that still uses beheadings as capital punishment, routinely jails and murders journalists and activists, treats women as second class citizens, and refuses to let Amnesty International into the country. This is a country that only allowed women to drive last year while still jailing, trying and possibly torturing female activists who advocated for the change. This is a country that still has a functional moral police force.
And yet, the ASO has confirmed that in 2020, Rally Dakar will be held in Saudi Arabia.
Anxiously awaiting the official press release, I pondered my choices. Clearly, the decision had been made. Equally clearly, the top racers and factories were not going to boycott the Dakar on the grounds of Saudi Arabia being one of the worst countries for human rights around the world. It was going to happen, one way or another. The question for me was whether I should chase the rally anyway. Was it possible that perhaps an international event of such scale and magnitude would inspire positive changes in the Saudi society, however small? Was it possible that the Saudi government would be forced to relax some of the rules, especially towards women, LGBT people, and free press? Was it possible that the contact with the colourful international swarm of Dakar pilots, support crews, media, fans, and supporters would bring about some change on a human level?
Needless to say, I was curious. To chase the Dakar in Saudi Arabia and to be able to report straight from the ground, I figured, might do some good, even if on a tiny scale. Meeting local Saudis, especially women, especially Saudi women who loved to race, was an intriguing perspective. More than that, I was hoping that as a freelancer, unaffiliated with any news outlets and unrestricted by any media formats, I would be able to report freely, and that it would have some positive outcome.
Still, I wanted to wait until the official press release. Will they at least address the concerns so many Dakar fans have? Is Laia Sanz going to wear an abaya at the press conference? Will they provide information on any restrictions female or LGBT competitors and fans may face while in Saudi Arabia?
Instead, the ASO chose to ignore the topic completely. I was expecting, at the very least, a watery “we are concerned about the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, but we look forward to the change in the direction of Dakar”, or something along those lines. Some sort of an acknowledgement, albeit vague.
Not a peep. The ASO folks talked a lot about new beginnings and deserts. The prestige of racing the Dakar was mentioned several times, as was the difficulty of organizing an event like that. Saudi representatives gave talks in Arabic. There was a weird circus-like show opened by a man balancing a hat on a stick, followed by more speeches in Arabic and a conference with some of the top riders – including Laia Sanz. There were some cool desert shots displayed on the screen and finally, traditional Saudi folk dance to cap off the press conference.
The ASO is choosing to completely ignore Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record, oppressive restrictions for women, minorities and LGBT people; there was zero reaction to the fact that thousands of Dakar fans and supporters have expressed their concerns and disapproval of the move.
Yes, the function and focus of the Dakar is racing, not overthrowing oppressive regimes or fixing human rights issues around the globe. Yes, some other countries have numerous issues that need to be addressed, yet receive much less criticism and international media attention. And yes, the Dakar might, just might, inspire some positive change on the human level, however small or fleeting.
But for me, my first Dakar, it seems, is going to be my last. Whichever way I look at it, chasing the Dakar in Saudi Arabia, with whatever naïve goals in mind, is supporting the Dakar in Saudi Arabia – and I don’t.
Instead, I’m going to chase the Africa Eco Race in 2020. Africa Eco Race is already being called “The Real Dakar”, as the rally route starts in Europe and ends in Dakar, Senegal. The 2020 edition in January promises 14 days of cross country racing along the original Dakar routes, and while Rally Dakar still claims to be the toughest rally in the world, the Oscars and the Olympics of motorsports, Africa Eco Race comes in closer and closer. And it’s not just this race that’s moving forward; Silk Way Rally, passing Russia, Mongolia and China, is offering free entry to all female competitors this year. The ASO, in the meantime, is offering a man balancing a hat on a stick.
No doubt, people will still follow the Dakar, as it will still feature some of the best rally pilots in the world. No doubt, the Saudi Arabian deserts have some fantastic terrain. No doubt, the show will carry on.
But it feels like the move to Saudi Arabia is the beginning of the end for Rally Dakar as we know it.