Going nowhere fast: analysing the joyriders of Saudi Arabia

Pascal Menoret spent several years studying the young joyriders of Riyadh, and says the roots of their behaviour can be found in Saudi Arabia’s unequal society.

Young Saudis gather to watch joyriding, an illegal activity that Pascal Menoret says is a reaction to the restrictive social milieu. Courtesy The Best
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“As more and more cars joined in, the procession snaked its way through the sprawling city like a massive hydra, adrenalin-filled shouting peppering the blasting music and the roaring engines,” writes Pascal Menoret, the author of a new book about joyriding in one of the world’s most conservative Islamic countries. “I was driving inside a parade of about a hundred cars, streaming down all four lanes of the ring road at 110mph, close enough to other vehicles to follow every emotion on their passengers’ faces.”

Menoret, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University Abu Dhabi, spent four years trying to embed himself with the joyriding youth in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to understand the who, what and the why of the illegal, dangerous and incredibly popular pastime.

He first moved to the country in 2001 to teach French at a French cultural centre while learning Arabic in his own time. By 2005 he had decided to study the politicisation of Arab youth and received a four-year research visa from Riyadh.

By that time the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia, was the subject of much attention from the West because of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003.

In his book Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], Menoret admits he wanted to "critique widespread stereotypes on Arab youth and to show that Islamic groups were not the hotbeds of religious radicalisation" regularly demonised by the study of Islam in the West.

"I wanted to bring a perspective that is less influenced by the concerns of western Orientalism and warmongering," he told The National, "and closer to the Saudi reality, which is marked by poverty, state violence and the difficulty to get by in one of the region's wealthiest societies."

His main argument is joyriding – which can be seen on hundreds of videos on YouTube and other social networking sites – is not just an expression and display of dangerous driving skills, but also a ­political statement.

“The main idea of the book is that joyriding is political not only because joyriders challenge law and order, but also because they poke fun at and play with the two roots of the Saudi state’s legitimacy: real estate and consumer-good distribution,” he says.

In his book he introduces the terms “street terrorism” and “street politics” to describe the power of joyriding, which goes way beyond a hobby.

“Street terrorism” was originally used by the Saudi press, he says, and by police to help criminalise the joyriders. In turn, the term has been adopted by some factions of the joyriding community who wear it with pride.

While Menoret approaches the topic of joyriding from an academic standpoint and is modest about his personal relationships with Saudi locals, his chapters about his fieldwork and the stories about his personal experiences are what set his book apart from other scholarly research coming out of Riyadh.

He uses an ethnographic method of study – and details a lot of this in the book – in addition to his work as an urban historian.

“Ethnography requires that you explain your position within your fieldwork, and that you make clear the connections, encounters and issues you experienced while in the field,” he says. “This, if you will, is what makes ethnography a scientific pursuit: you have to turn yourself into an object and to measure your instruments while you’re using them.”

Menoret writes in detail, warts and all, about the development of his personal relationships and relationships with subjects and sources – which were not without their problems.

His first mishap, as he describes it, was when he embarked on his research in the Bedouin population of Upper Najd, the region west of Riyadh.

Among the friends he made while conducting his studies was Sa’b, a graduate in his mid 20s, who was originally from a village in this region. Menoret hoped that through Sa’b’s friends and family he would be able to “explore a more compact society than Riyadh’s, which many blamed for its distant, alienated social relations”.

Menoret describes with great enthusiasm and detail evenings spent drinking tea and eating dates with the village’s men in an effort to gain their trust and learn more about their lives.

“To me, sipping coffee and tea in the company of elderly gentlemen was especially interesting because the entire range of male participants were all gathered together in plain sight,” he writes. “But for the same reason, it was often an ordeal: I struggled to follow the conversation while remaining as dignified as possible, my six feet four inches uncomfortably folded on the floor, my every movement scrutinised by a dozen pairs of eyes and sometimes commented on for days.”

His plan to study the rural communities fell apart when his presence caused friction between the much more conservative factions of society, who frowned upon his presence, and the more liberal thinkers.

“When we came back to the village, late at night, Sa’b’s mother was waiting for us behind the metallic door of their house’s courtyard,” he writes, remembering the day his presence became too much. “Draped in a beautiful red and yellow veil that covered her from head to toe and left her face exposed, she was in total panic. ‘Your brothers have weapons,’” she told Sa’b, twisting her wrists, “‘and they have been on the lookout since this afternoon.’ She implored us not to stay in the village a minute longer and to immediately drive back to Riyadh.”

He followed the advice and focused his attention on the city.

“I started studying joyriding as a side project, it was my evening and weekend project. My PhD was youth politicisation,” Menoret says. “One day some of my friends told me: ‘You really need to look away from the elite people you’re meeting all the time, and look more at ordinary people.’”

In his book, Menoret argues that joyriding in Riyadh is not a ­pastime exclusively for the car-­owning rich – it involves young people from across the social spectrum, with a weighting towards the lower end.

“I don’t think anybody has any reason to steal cars and drift them at top speed on urban avenues,” he says. “Drifting is more the consequence of a situation of violent exclusion and of economic inequality than the result of an informed individual decision.”

The joyriding scene has as much to do with the urban landscape of the city as it has to the disenfranchisement of the young, he argues. The two, in fact, are inextricably linked.

Before the 1960s the city had grown organically, he writes, with more and more outer layers being added to a central core, marked by the Musmak Fort, the grand market and the grand mosque. But in the 1970s and ’80s whole neighbourhoods were emptied out, forcing their former inhabitants to move north and east of the old city.

As certain populations moved out, the developers moved in – and so did the joyriders. While researching the city’s transformation Menoret decided to shift his research focus. “In my research, the life and death of Riyadh’s neighbourhoods similarly took precedence over my initial interest in Islamic groups,” he writes.

The city’s extension had been designed by the Greek Constantinos Doxiadis, just a few years before his death in 1975. His plans, which focused on rapid traffic and speed, also allegedly relied on the “removal of some 60,000 Bedouins” from certain areas.

“Slum removal, not upgrading, was ultimately the solution devised by the urban planners,” Menoret writes. He goes on to describe Bedouin residents as being treated like a “disposable and movable quantity”, and urban planning as a way to manage, identify, isolate and control populations.

The urbanisation of the country, Menoret writes, was an “ordeal” for the city’s inhabitants.

In Menoret’s view, this remains the case today. “[There are] police checkpoints on urban avenues, especially those leading to poorer neighbourhoods,” he says. “Private security guards prevent lower-class youth and immigrants from entering such public spaces as shopping malls, public libraries or cafes. Billboards celebrate affordable housing and advertise the very real estate companies that have driven real estate prices up for 30 to 40 years and have turned Saudi into a society where only 30 per cent of households own their home.”

The ban on female driving is also highly political and subjects women to “a series of daily controls, humiliations and difficulties”, he adds. “By limiting their mobility, you limit their influence, their autonomy,” he says, “their economic prospects. You use space to construct a subordinate category of citizens.”

Mitya Underwood is a senior features writer at The National.