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Say you’re a young male living in a country where cinemas are haram, dating girls is haram, recreational drugs (alcohol included) are haram, musical instruments are haram (at least, you’ll never see live performances), it’s often too hot outside to play sports, and gas is about $0.60 per gallon. It’s no wonder why Saudis seem to put more energy into thrills on 4-wheels than even the average American suburban teenager.

Saudi Arabia, besides its oil, is also famous for its expansive sand dune deserts; off-roading is a local passion that neatly ties the two. Being a people traditionally of the desert (or, at least, the favored tribes trace their lineages* far back into the Bedouin era), it is no surprise that many Saudis enjoy 4-wheeling into the sands to BBQ and/or camp out. (Nothing amuses me more, though, than when certain of my students tell me that they hate the desert and never visit.) However, the off-roading activity I’ve found most amusing is the popular practice of dune-running.

*Family history is the most important thing in Saudi Arabia, more important than wealth. Since the al-Saud ruling family traces its ancestry to the days of nomadic herding and trading, Saudis who can trace their family roots to Bedouin tribes, particulary of the Najd or Qasm areas, the center regions of the country, are the most honored. People from the Hejaz and other areas that have a longer history of settlement or aren’t in Arabia, are not held in as high esteem. It is highly unlikely that a man from one of the ancient Bedouin tribes would be allowed by his family to marry a woman from a non-Bedouin tradition; cousin marriage, unsurprisingly, is quite common.** Famously, individuals of the Bin Laden clan, the family behind the billion-dollar construction company that dominates Saudi Arabia as well as the world’s most notorious terrorist, have been rejected as suitable marriage partners by significantly poorer Saudis from the Riyadh area who descend from Bedouin tribesmen, despite their massive wealth and intimate ties to the royal family. The Bin Ladens trace their ancestry from the Hadhramaut region of Yemen.

The picture above shows the seen at the dunes of Half Moon Bay, today no doubt considerably less tall than they once were (erosion…), just south of al-Khobar where I live. I unfortunately neglected to bring my camera when I visited a few months back, but 30 minutes was enough to get the picture. Basically, young males in a range of vehicles, from modified Wranglers and Land Cruisers (supposedly the best choice), to full-size luxury SUVs, to even some jokers in sedans, attempt to prove themselves by summiting the steep sides of the sand hill without getting their vehicle stuck. Extra style points are apparently allotted to those who take the steepest path, or who attempt to swerve the most while jetting up, although this comes with the added risk of rolling your car or getting stuck in the sand in front of everyone.

It was explained to me that the key is to drive as fast as you can towards the hill and while going up, never once braking. Once you get to the top, you, uh, go back down and do it again. It’s like the opposite of skiing. It’s also a miracle that nobody seems to crash into each other given the chaos of everyone’s objectives and the blind lip at the very top. A couple police vehicles sit about 500 meters away, in case anything particularly alarming happens. Very reassuring. I have to imagine that alarming things do happen, though,simply because how could you enjoy doing this every weekend, week after week, without constantly ramping up the challenge? Here’s a shaky video posted by an Arabic-speaker of the Half Moon Bay scene.

**To be fair, given the enormous size of many families in Saudia, this isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds. Still, Saudis do suffer from a disproportionate amount of health issues related to inbreeding. For example, according to Wikipedia about half of the 6000 babies born with Sickle-cell anemia each year are from Saudi Arabia, largely from Qatif, a city 20 minutes north of Dammam where many of my students are from. Quick biology refresher: the off-spring of two closely-related people are more likely to suffer from ailments because disadvantageous, recessive genes, which are unlikely to be expressed when the DNA from unrelated individuals of a species is combined, can be expressed when both parents’ DNA have the same undesirable gene, which is more likely to happen with related couples.


Of course, behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia there’s as much fun had on blacktop as there is on sand. Really, simply going by highway from point A to point B is more exciting in Saudia than anywhere else on the planet.* Of course, young Saudis don’t limit themselves to the mundane thrills to be had flouting all conceivable manners of traffic laws and common road etiquette, or in games of pin-the-needle-past-the-odometer-dial. A popular pastime in Saudi Arabia is called tafheet, a practice which most Americans I imagine have only encountered in racing videogames or Hollywood adrenaline-porn called “drifting.”

*Whenever you go anywhere you see totaled vehicles just off the road. I already was nearby when a woman got hit by a car in a low speed accident. Hell, I was run into by a car that was backing up without looking. Shit seems pretty real.

Drifting involves accelerating to a high velocity, then steering such that your back tires swing to the left or right, the goal being to slide without totally losing control.* The powerslide, drifting while turning a corner at high speed, is perhaps the most well-known drifting maneuver. But, in Saudia, it’s much more popular to drift on a straightaway, attempting to get your car to slide from side-to-side on each edge of the roadway. Making donuts is also popular, though I don’t really understand why because it certainly doesn’t look fun. My students tell me that drifting, unsurprisingly, wrecks your car’s tires; it’s best to rent a car, which is fairly cheap in Saudi Arabia.

*One of my in-class writing assignments that actually garnered some participation involved teaching time-order signal words (first, then, next, later, etc.) by having my students write a paragraph explaining the process of how to drift one’s car. They all seemed to know how.

Although allegedly illegal, people often listen for the sound of screeching tires and then turn out to watch the fun.* I’m told that Qatif, a largely Shi’a city (so, thus, already full of latent anti-regime sentiment, given that the country is predominantly Sunni), is a popular site of drifting. Police officers “try to find and catch” drifters, but they rarely succeed. Drifting is so popular in Saudi Arabia that there are even drifting professionals; numerous videos on youtube attest to its popularity.

*I often hear screeching tires from my room. I admit, I always wait a couple seconds with schadenfrauden-anticipation for the sound of a crash that hasn’t ever followed. Not yet.

Of course, there are other ways that Saudis enjoy their vehicles. (Maybe you haven’t seen this yet.) Meanwhile, others just use theirs for illicit sexual liasons with anonymous Saudi women they pick up at malls, which my students say does occasionally happen. (The anonymouty of the niqab means they could be sleeping with their friend’s wife, and only the woman would know.)

Anyway, at least they don’t allow women to drive in Saudia–then they’d really have problems.