Flying High: A Saudi female pilot reaching far beyond the 'glass ceiling'

Flying High: A Saudi female pilot reaching far beyond the 'glass ceiling'

Pilot Dareen AlSaleh has set her sights on inspiring a new generation of female aviators by showing them that their dreams are possible
23 November 23
Dareen AlSaleh

Female empowerment has emerged as a pivotal focus of change within the Kingdom.

The change happens at every level of society, including in the workplace. Saudi Aramco being one of the Kingdom's largest employers, the impact of its programmes can have wide-ranging effects. That's why its aviation training programme for women is such an interesting project. The inaugural cohort completed their training in January, and went on to secure positions within the company. The move to empower women, especially in a historically male-dominated field, is redefining the aviation sector in Saudi.

We sat down with Dareen AlSaleh – one of the four pilots, holder of a commercial aviation certificate, and graduate of the University of North Dakota – to chat about her inspiring journey.

The Journey

“In our culture, there’s a belief that our names are connected to who we are at our core. I recently discovered that my name implies a special connection with knowledge,” Dareen, who never says no to an opportunity to learn and explore new things, explains.

One of the reasons she decided to become a pilot was the opportunity to see the world from a bird’s-eye view, adding how she’s been “fortunate enough to travel to over 30 countries by the age of 27.” Japan is her favourite, as the experience was unlike any place she had visited, with its extraordinary culture, cuisine, and scenery. She also has a soft spot for the Kingdom, having had the opportunity to take in its strikingly diverse terrain from the skies. “Seeing the mountains of Abha, flying over the Red Sea coast on my way to Jeddah, and of course, the red desert of Shaybah are my top views so far,” she says.

If given the opportunity, Dareen would love to fly over the southern lights, the Caribbean, and the turquoise waters of the Bahamas one day.

The Experience

When she discovered her passion, Dareen spent years learning about the aviation industry. After earning her bachelor’s in industrial engineering from the American University of Sharjah, she applied to the Aramco programme and was thrilled to be accepted. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity,” she says.

Her experience during the course was great, but as it was during Covid, it meant travel restrictions, conducting flight training while wearing a mask, and attending classes online.

“The wonderful memories I made during my training far surpassed these challenges,” the aviator explains. “I’m grateful for the support from my colleagues, instructors, friends, and most importantly, my family, who helped me reach where I am today.”

Taking Control

Dareen’s first solo cross-country flight is one of her most memorable experiences. While on her way back to the Grand Forks International Airport base, she suddenly faced an abrupt loss of communication in an area that was congested by airplane traffic. “At first, I panicked, but then quickly remembered to stay calm and prioritise my safety,” she recalls. The pilot managed to get a signal despite being at a low altitude, and with the help of her instructor, she was able to safely land the plane. Dareen’s experience taught her the importance of remaining calm in challenging situations, trusting her judgment, and how real-life scenarios can differ from theory. She now carries the lessons of that memorable flight, ready to face whatever the skies may bring, with gratitude for the opportunity to learn and grow.

The Future

Saudi is on the path to becoming one of the most sought-after destinations in the region, while the Kingdom invests in its tourism and aviation sectors. There are some incredible flight academies offering training tailored to the local landscape, infrastructure, and regulations, according to Dareen.

“Beyond training, you also have more opportunities to grow in your career and build a local network of peers in the industry that is incomparable to anywhere else in the world,” she adds. With Vision 2030 advancing, she expects to see long-term growth in the aviation sector, particularly as the Kingdom continues to invest in tourism.

“The aviation industry in the region is booming, and I’m proud to see more women being represented,” Dareen says. “Saudi has a strong pool of skilled pilots, engineers, and aviation specialists with promising potential.” She feels her field needs more women as it continues to grow.

Ending with a word for those looking to pursue this path, the highflier advises: “Never underestimate yourself, always believe in your capabilities, and never lose sight of your priorities.”