Saudis Without a Cause


A Saudi man looks at a car competing during the first day of the International Hael Desert Challenge 2011, a desert rally race, in Hael, some 600 kms northern Riyadh.


Fayez Nureldine

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Remember the James Dean film “Rebel Without a Cause?” Bored American youth searching for meaning amid the crushing conformity of 1950s America. They find something, if not a real cause, in racing American cars with huge engines to the edge of a cliff, daring each other to flirt with death.

On weekend nights here, a sort of Saudi version of “Rebel Without a Cause” plays out on the highway that runs along the beach here. That’s where Saudi youth compete in impromptu drag racing and an incredibly dangerous driving ritual known as “drifting.”

Drifting is when the speeding cars intentionally go into a skid and spin out, the challenge is to recover control of the vehicle. But the kids don’t always succeed. Last weekend, several bystanders were killed while watching this subculture in Riyadh, according to local news reports. And in Jeddah over the weekend, two more youths were seriously injured in an accident. Death and injury is a common occurrence on most weekends, Saudis say, although I couldn’t find any official tally of the casualties.

I was coming back from a long drive to the Asir Province on Saturday night and saw some of this wild racing. Motorcycles flying down the breakdown lane at high speeds. And great American muscle cars, like the Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird – and Italian sportscars, like the Lamborghini, revving their engines and flying at perilous speeds down the road. All set against the backdrop of raucous celebrations of an intense soccer match that gave a Jeddah team the national cup.

The evening offered a glimpse of how Saudi youth (male youth, that is) blow off steam. They are allowed to go out of control, shutting down traffic and essentially taking over whole blocks of the city. From what I could see, the Saudi police just stand by and let it happen. Very few Saudi girls were out and about. None were driving.

It seems to be one small part of the very carefully engineered balance that the House of Saud has undertaken to keep the youth of the kingdom from veering out of control toward the pro-democracy demonstrations that have swept the Arab world. Anything but that.

Better to have some kids racing cars at fatal speed than giving them any reason to come together and demand more rights to better education and better jobs.

Okay, watching kids race cars didn’t help us answer the big questions of where is Saudi today amid the Arab Spring and in the aftermath of the killing of its native son, Osama bin Laden, ten years after 9-11. But it is definitely a revealing glimpse inside a very closed country. The bigger answers will be coming as our Saudi correspondent Caryle Murphy continues to dig in on her coverage of one of America’s most important and most confounding allies.