Hanan Sobati is not a big fan of the word empower. “I’ve never really liked [it] because I feel like we are already empowered, you know what I mean?” she says, speaking over the phone from her home in Dubai. And when it comes to her all-female luxury car club, the Arabian Gazelles, you’d be hard-pressed to deny they’ve got some serious torque. During the past 12 months, as the UAE has become further embroiled in the conflicts in Yemen and held onto its political alliance with Saudi Arabia in the face of much controversy, the gregarious Sobati and the Gazelles have become something like poster children for the women’s movement in the region, both in the sense of progress for women, and in, well, movement. Since the Algeria-born Sobati launched the club in 2016 with a few of her close friends, the Gazelles have garnered worldwide attention—and plenty of Instagram likes— for their ultra-glamorous exclusive girls group, one that isn’t just about like-minded wealthy women who shop and throw parties and try to outdress one another, but rather, women who find their bliss inside the steering wheel of a six-figure supercar. Think Real Housewives, only no catfighting, and on wheels. Very, very fast wheels. The Gazelles are wives, mothers, CEOs, pilots, entrepreneurs, journalists, stylists, and almost everything in between. Some are from the United Arab Emirates and others are from Europe, the United States, North Africa, and beyond. Currently, there are more than 50 members in the club, and more are clamoring to get in every day.
According to Sobati, who maintains the club’s wait list, the requirements for joining are as follows: Applicants “have to be women, they have to own a luxury car (can be owned by her husband or her individually), and they have to know how to drive a supercar.” What, you may ask, is a supercar? “Cars that qualify for our club include Porsches, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Mercedes-AMG GT Coupes, McLarens, Aston Martins, Maseratis, and Bugattis. We also have some luxury SUVS like a [Bentley] Bentayga and G-Wagon [Mercedes-Benz G-Class].”
In most cities anywhere else in the world, barring a major automotive event like Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance or the Quail, spotting a caravan of luxury cars slaloming down the avenue would be highly unlikely at best. In Dubai, for a certain section of the population, these toys are the norm, and, despite outside perceptions, unlike in nearby nations like Saudi Arabia, women driving and owning them is both not new and relatively common. What’s not common is what Sobati has done: bringing these women together over a common interest and providing a platform (a road map, if you prefer) for their shared passion. And getting a lot of attention for it.
The Gazelles meet about once a month for what they refer to as “an experience.” In the past they’ve visited museum exhibitions, gone zip-lining, test-driven new supercar models, and taken their cars on excursions to the Western Hajar mountains that border Oman and Dubai. Some meet-ups happen on actual race tracks, and while they don’t race each other, some do race against themselves, taking a turn around the track to break their own time records. As in most aspects of their lives, when they hit the road together, the Gazelles tend to wear designer labels, a generous amount of makeup, and expensive jewelry—but the roar of the engine is what propels them. Charlotte O’Brien, who joined the Gazelles last year and commutes to Abu Dhabi for her job managing the staffing at NYU, says she feels relieved that she “can finally be around other women who love cars and driving as much as I do.” Her automotive pursuits, she’s found, lend her a sense of invisibility in a community where it can be difficult to stand out. “Even though my Porsche GT3 RS, G Wagon, and Bentley Supersports are quite obvious, I don’t necessarily drive to be seen,” she says. “I just love to drive.”
Most of the Gazelles grew up around fast cars, and like to refer to themselves as “petrolheads.” O’Brien’s mother owned a Porsche 911 when she was growing up, which everyone in her town assumed was her father’s car; her brother later became a race car driver. “My mom wishes there was such a thing [as the Gazelles] when she was my age,” O’Brien says. Eliane Amer, a former journalist, mother of three, and one of the original members of the Arabian Gazelles, had parents who owned a gas station and car repair shop in Lebanon. “I used to steal my brothers’ cars a lot and go driving everywhere,” says Amer. Now she likes to drive her Lamborghini Aventador barefoot. “When I jump into the driver’s seat and hear the sound of the engine, something changes,” Amer tells me. “It makes me want to be as aggressive as the car. After joining the Gazelles, I realized there are many more woman who feel the same way I do.”
Day to day, most of the Gazelles don’t break out the major horsepower for their daily commute to the office or the after-school pickup line: They save that for themselves. (Amer once made the mistake of dropping her 12-year-old son off in a Rolls-Royce: “He got in the car and suddenly started yelling at me and crying because the kids at school made fun of him. I never used that car for school pickup again.”) The majority of the Gazelles say that their club has received nothing but positive reactions from their friends and family, despite the raised eyebrows of some men in the luxury car community—a few of whom have even called them out for their “sexist” women-only membership policy. The idea that they might face specific challenges as a group of women with automotive interests in the UAE rather than elsewhere in the world has not been borne out, they tell me. “Most people have a stereotypical idea that women aren’t interested in cars,” O’Brien says. “I feel like the United Arab Emirates is respectful toward women, and if this club were in the U.K. or the U.S., I think it would actually face more challenges than it does here. I think people here are more comfortable seeing female groups together.?Women here are more likely to socialize together, since there are many men-only groups.” The problem, she explains, is that no matter where you go, “women just aren’t encouraged to drive supercars.”
Most of the wealthy women’s clubs in Dubai are of the traditional type: gatherings that involve a meal, a cocktail party, and an accordant (often implicit) dress code. That’s not the Gazelles. “There are other women’s clubs in Dubai,” Sobati says, “but mostly, they just want to lunch and talk. To be honest, we get tired of lunching and wining and dining. We want action.”