Saudi trailblazer Huda Al-Rasheed’s message to women: never give up on your dreams

My father valued education, but he did not think broadcasting was a suitable job because men and women worked closely together. He thought I might go astray. At the time, there were no women working for Saudi broadcasting, but I heard they were looking for someone to present an informative program about development in Saudi Arabia. My father said, ‘You can try, but you will fail.’ That made me even more determined. (AN photo by James Hanna)
Updated 12 May 2018
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Saudi trailblazer Huda Al-Rasheed’s message to women: never give up on your dreams

LONDON: Huda Al-Rasheed’s first visit to the BBC was meant to be as a tourist enjoying a relaxed look-around. Instead, it turned into an audition for a job that transformed her into an accidental trailblazer when she became the first Saudi woman newsreader on BBC Arabic.
“It changed my life,” says Al-Rasheed.
Now, 43 years after she first uttered the words “Huna London” (“This is London“), Al-Rasheed remains a familiar voice to millions around the globe and to several generations.
Her path into broadcasting was far from smooth, however. Al-Rasheed’s father strongly opposed her ambition to work in radio — so much so that he forbade her to speak of it in public. But she ended up winning not only her father’s pride but also a place in both Saudi and broadcasting history.
But all that was far from her mind back in 1974 when Al-Rasheed arrived in London for a 10-week English-language course.
“I discovered the course organizer was married to a man who worked at the BBC so I asked if he could arrange a tour. The BBC wanted a letter from the Saudi Embassy. So I got one and because it was an official letter, the BBC invited me to spend a week with them,” she recalls.
It may not have been the intention, but it gave the BBC and Al-Rasheed the chance to have a good look at each other. At the end of the week, and only days before her return to Jeddah, she was handed a job application form.
“There was also a test which they said I could take at the British consulate,” said Al-Rasheed. “It was Ramadan and I was fasting. I went and took the test, but I didn’t tell anyone.”
She passed, but there was no promise of a job. At the time, Al-Rasheed was living with her married brother in Jeddah and trying hard to break into full-time broadcasting.
“It was my dream since childhood. The family used to call me ‘Broadcaster’ because I knew all the timings of all the programs. But whenever I said I really wanted to be a broadcaster, my father ignored me, or else he would say, ‘When I die’.”
Al-Rasheed was born and spent her earliest years in Onaza, in Najd province, north of Riyadh, but was packed off to boarding school when she was six, first to Lebanon and then to Alexandria in Egypt.
“My father valued education, but he did not think broadcasting was a suitable job because men and women worked closely together. He thought I might go astray. At the time, there were no women working for Saudi broadcasting, but I heard they were looking for someone to present an informative program about development in Saudi Arabia. My father said, ‘You can try, but you will fail.’ That made me even more determined.”
She encountered even more resistance after she got the job. “I had so many problems with jealousy from both other women and from men who didn’t think I should be there. My father was pleased. He thought it would make me give up.”
Then came a call from London, via the British embassy, with a job offer, starting immediately. But first, Al-Rasheed had to face her father, who was working in Damascus at the time.
To her amazement, he voiced no objection. “He said, ‘If your brother doesn’t mind, then I don’t mind.’”
Al-Rasheed’s brother, a pilot, had taken the same view — if their father didn’t mind, neither did he. There was nothing standing in her way, and with her father still predicting failure, she had everything to prove.
On Sept. 10, 1974, she began her new life at BBC Arabic. The training was intensive and everything about London seemed bewildering.
“I walked around with my eyes popping out of my head.” She lodged with a couple in Wimbledon, south London — “They were like parents to me” — but was desperately homesick.
“The weather was horrible, I wanted my own food and I was lonely. I spent my days off just watching television. But I never thought of going back because I was doing what I wanted to do and you have to take the rough with the smooth. For a year, it was hell. After that, I started going to the cinema, to concerts, traveling. I began to find my way.”
When her father heard her voice on the radio for the first time, all his disapproval melted away. The man who had forbidden his daughter to even speak of her ambitions now openly boasted about her. The next time Al-Rasheed visited him, they went out walking together so he could stop people in the street and introduce “my daughter who works for the BBC in London.”
She discovered that at home her father kept one of his many radio sets permanently tuned to BBC Arabic. “It was next to where he had lunch and no one was allowed to touch it,” she said.
Back at Bush House, the former headquarters of the BBC World Service and the broadcaster’s foreign language satellites, Al-Rasheed was reading and reporting the news. She covered the state visits to Britain of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Oman, and went to Buckingham Palace to report on preparations for the royal banquets.
Which did she enjoy most? “All of it,” she replied without hesitation.
The Saudi broadcasting company also tried to entice her back. “I told the head of Saudi TV that I do not cover my hair. He said, ‘You don’t have to.’ So I was the first Saudi woman to appear uncovered. But I didn’t want to stay in Riyadh. I loved my job and couldn’t live without it.”
However, she had always regretted not going to university, so in 1989 Al-Rasheed left the BBC to study for a degree in history and English literature at the University of Buckingham. She subsequently gained master’s degrees in media studies and in linguistics and translation. After graduating, she returned to BBC Arabic as a freelance.
Referring to a radio career that has spanned four decades, she said: “It’s a real blessing to be so appreciated.”
Her flat in West London is filled with beautiful rugs and books in Arabic and English. She has published three novels of her own and had a play performed.
She follows current affairs closely and is enthralled by the changes in her own homeland. Does she see herself as a role model for other would-be Saudi career women?
She shrugs. “I knew what I wanted to do and I didn’t give up. That’s what women everywhere have to do.”


BMW's Antonio Felix da Costa crowned champion at Saudi Arabia's Ad Diriyah E-Prix

Updated 59 min 24 sec ago
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BMW's Antonio Felix da Costa crowned champion at Saudi Arabia's Ad Diriyah E-Prix

  • The Portuguese driver held on for victory ahead of Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Jerome d’Ambrosio in the Mahindra car
  • Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi had the best start on the grid

AD DIRIYAH, Riyadh: Antonio Felix da Costa said there is still a lot of work for him and his BMW team to do in this year’s Formula E season after winning the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix on Saturday.

Da Costa was on pole from the beginning of the race and led away from the line, despite lining up at the front of the grid pointing towards the outside wall at a dusty and overcast Ad Diriyah circuit.

The Portuguese driver held on for victory ahead of Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Jerome d’Ambrosio in the Mahindra car.

“It is amazing, it’s been really tough and long months of work, but I am really happy with that,” da Costa said.

“We definitely have some work to do as the two Techeetah cars were really fast, and even with (Vergne’s) drive through penalty, he was right there at the end.

“But it’s a good start and we’ll keep working on that and try to keep it going,” he added.

When asked about BMW being involved in Formula E as a factory team for the first time, da Costa said: “It hasn’t been easy the last two years, but as I said it has been a lot work between Indianapolis with Andretti and Munich with BMW, it is great to see and I am so happy for everyone back in Munich.”

Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi had the best start on the grid after he blasted by Jose Maria Lopez around the outside of the first corner from third place.

The front four pulled away from the rest of the pack, before Vergne — who started the race in fifth — passed Lopez on lap one of what would become a 33-lap race, with his teammate Andre Lotterer also getting past the Geox Dragon driver.

As da Costa consolidated his lead, Vergne was closing in on Buemi, eventually passing him in a great move around the outside on lap nine. The Frenchman then set about reeling in da Costa, with the Portuguese offering fierce resistance.

Vergne was then forced to serve drive-through penalties – just after he had used his first “attack mode” – for going exceeding the permitted power while using his “re-gen,” which put paid to him getting a victory.

Reigning champion Vergne was philosophical after the race.

“Unfortunately, it was a step down from where I wanted to be, I wanted to win this one. 

“I had a fantastic car, it was incredibly fast, but a big congratulations to the BMW guys and Antonio, it was a well-deserved victory.

“Going forward, we just need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that cost us the win today, but it’s a very encouraging first race and I’m looking forward to Marrakech now.”

On his drive through penalty, he said: “Yes, I had quite a few overtakes on the outside, on the inside, but it was a fun race, I honestly had a lot of fun. 

“I’m content with P2 today, and hoping to keep this package (on the car) and hopefully get some victories.”
Meanwhile, third-placed d’Ambrosio was delighted with his finish to the race.

“I am super happy, it was a great first race with Mahindra and a great start to the championship, I am lucky to be part of such a great team with some great people.

“It makes a great to start to the season, with the podium and banking the points, and we’ll see what happens now.”

When asked about the new “attack mode” in Formula E, he said: “It is great, I actually wasn’t supposed to use it at that point of the race (when I did), but I had a good feeling and I saw Techeetah use it and start to build a gap, so I went for it and when the safety car came in I used it again.”