A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

The Women Riders World Relay (WRWR) is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders. (Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2019

A Middle East bikers’ club hits the road for women’s empowerment

  • Arab motorcyclists turn sisterhood into a support system in a male-dominated sport
  • The Litas Dubai is the first ever chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East

DUBAI: History was made in 2018, when women in Saudi Arabia were permitted to drive for the first time since 1957. As the world watched female motorists across the Kingdom celebrate, a less visible set of women also quietly stepped out of the shadows and revved up their engines. “Women were interested in motorbikes, but they couldn’t
ride openly in Saudi Arabia,” said Zahra AbuAli, founder of social media group Saudi Women Riders and co-founder of The Litas Khobar, a Saudi chapter of the international all-female motorcycle group The Litas.
“It was an underground scene. They used to wear baggy clothes, hide their hair under helmets, and ride at the center of (mixed) groups. Some girls have licenses from Bahrain, some have bikes but no licenses, and some ride with their husbands.”
AbuAli, a 28-year-old Saudi national, learnt to ride a motorbike last year while working in Dubai.
“I just wanted to try something new, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. Cars in Saudi were only a man thing, but that didn’t mean they’re made only for men,” she said.
The horsepower thrill was amplified when the biomedical engineer began to ride her Harley 883 Sportster with Lara Tarabay Saab, founder of The Litas Dubai, the first chapter of the motorcycle collective in the Middle East.
Saab, who is from Lebanon, said that she founded the group to alter perceptions and help female bikers find each other and ride together as a sisterhood.
“My vision is to make our community as women bikers in the Middle East visible to the world. I don’t want them to think of us in stereotypes,” she explained.
The Litas Dubai currently features 10 women from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Palestine, Morocco, Russia and the UAE. The group includes police officers, doctors, artists, engineers, management professionals and mothers.
“Thirteen years ago, if I stood anywhere with my bike, people would come and speak to me in English and be surprised when I answered in Arabic,” Roqayya Abdullateif, 37, said.
The Emirati police officer said that she mastered the handlebars simply by watching her brothers riding bikes. “I saw girls sitting in the back of the bike, and I said why not sit in the front?”
Saab, who initially rode as part of mixed groups in the UAE, said that she also formed the sisterhood as a support system in a male-dominated sport. “Our culture dictates a few things for us. Typical lady behavior wouldn’t be to be on a motorcycle, so it wasn’t easy (for me) at all.
“I was in Italy with my husband, and I wanted to ride a scooter. He said, ‘No, you can’t.’ When I’d ask him to teach me, he’d say ‘It’s very heavy, you can’t even lift it.
“This triggered a lot in me in terms of my sense of existence, freedom of choice and power.”
Saab, a mother of two and a marketing director, now cruises on a Sportster 1200cc, but her journey to this point involved attending 7 a.m. lessons before heading to work.
“I had to come to my husband to sign the form to give me approval … because I’m on his sponsorship,” she said. “He said it’s dangerous and that I should talk to my father first. (But) I said there’s no way I’m not doing this.”
Saab, who also co-founded The Litas Lebanon, is UAE ambassador for the Women’s International Motorcycle Association and Middle East ambassador for the Women Riders World Relay (WRWR).
“We have a lot of women who message us with questions about motorcycles or asking where we learnt to ride,” Saab said. Set to take place in Dubai in 2020, the WRWR is one of the largest global motorcycle events for female riders, created to raise awareness of women across all spheres of motorcycling. The UAE and Oman are the only Middle Eastern states included in the tour of 80 countries, with Dubai marked as the final destination. Saab and her pack are already holding information sessions for the event.
“This is for women’s empowerment because models who pose on bikes are not lady bikers,” she said.


This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

Updated 07 December 2019

Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

  • President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States”
  • Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018

TEHRAN: Iran and the US conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw a detained Princeton graduate student released for an Iranian scientist held by America, marking a potential breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made the first announcement on the trade via Twitter. The trade involves graduate student Xiyue Wang and scientist Massoud Soleimani.
“Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Zarif wrote. “Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.”
In his tweet, Zarif confirmed rumors that had been circulating for days that a deal was in the works to free Wang.
President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States.”
“Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said. “We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America's interests in the country as the U.S. Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 student takeover and 444-day hostage crisis.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, accompanied the Iranian scientist to Switzerland to make the exchange and will return with Wang, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be released. The swap took place in Zurich and Hook and Wang are now en route to Landstuhl in Germany where Wang will be examined by doctors, the official said. Hook is expected to return to the US from Germany alone, as Wang is expected to be evaluated for several days.
Although Hook was present for the swap, the official said Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien played the lead role in the negotiations dating from his time as the special representative for hostage affairs at the State Department.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later reported that Soleimani was with Iranian officials in Switzerland. Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours. Zarif later posted pictures of himself on Twitter with Soleimani in front of an Iranian government jet and later with the two talking on board.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly “infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad. His family and Princeton University strongly denied the claims. Wang was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton.
Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, released a statement saying “our family is complete once again.”
“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
Princeton University spokesman Ben Chang said the school was aware of Wang's release.
“We are working with the family and government officials to facilitate his return to the United States,” Chang said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court tried Wang. That court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Soleimani — who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine — was arrested by US authorities on charges he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. He and his lawyers maintain his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the US to Iran in September 2016 as a chance to get recombinant proteins used in his research for a fraction of the price he’d pay at home.
Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. In the time since, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran's economy. There also have been a series of attacks across the Mideast that the US blames on Iran.
Other Americans held in Iran include the 81-year-old businessman Baquer Namazi who has been held for over two years and diagnosed with epilepsy.
Both Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak Namazi, also a dual national who has been held for over three years, are serving a 10-year sentence after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power.
An Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Also held is US Navy veteran Michael White.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while saying Wang would soon be able to go home to his family, acknowledged other Americans remain held by Iran.
“The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” Pompeo said in a statement.