Should the Islamic Republic utilize the March 1 elections to end effective enforcement of the hijab law, it will remove a source of constant friction between state and society in Iran, but the regime will also lose an instrument of intimidating the urban middle class.
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As part of their regional economic diversification plans, Gulf countries are increasingly investing in sports-related ventures. Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Saudi Arabia won a bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games, purchased England’s Newcastle United Football Club, and attracted football, or soccer, star Cristiano Ronaldo to the Saudi Al-Nassr Football Club. However, another sport has been the focus of considerable, yet quiet, investment in recent years: cycling.
At the national level, professional Gulf teams – such as Team Bahrain Victorious, headed by Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, an endurance athlete and head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and UAE Team Emirates – have been landing podium spots in prestigious international races, including the Tour de France. Both teams ranked among the top 10 globally by the International Cycling Union at the start of 2023. At the same time, the number of Gulf countries hosting International Cycling Union Asia Tour and World Tour races has increased since 2019. Today, there are three Gulf countries on the International Cycling Union circuit – the Tour of Oman, UAE Tour, and Saudi Tour. The Saudi Tour was held at the Al-Ula UNESCO World Heritage site. Phillip Jones, the chief destination management and marketing officer at the Royal Commission for AlUla, said he aims to make the site “the cycling capital of Saudi Arabia, if not the Middle East,” through hosting such events.
One Kuwaiti cyclist, however, hopes to direct some of this interest in cycling toward bicycle tourism. AGSIW spoke to Abdulrahman Alkhamees to learn more about his journey “from couch to century” – from barely cycling to completing 100-mile rides – and how he thinks cycling can shape how riders experience and learn about the Arab world. Through his blog, The Paperclip, and his new business venture, Spoke Collective, Abdulrahman exposes international audiences to Arab cycling communities while encouraging them to discover the region through intensive cycling tours.
AGSIW: What first got you interested in cycling?
Abdulrahman: My passion for cycling began when I moved to Portland, but I would say that the story actually starts a lot earlier than that. My dad and I used to eat breakfast and watch documentaries before Friday prayer. One morning, when I was about 10, the documentary “The Eruption of Mount St. Helens!” was airing. I was blown away – pun intended – by what I saw: the greenery, the volcanoes, the Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific Northwest in general. I became addicted to everything Pacific Northwest. When I was 20, I received a full-ride scholarship to attend university after failing high school many times and eventually graduating in 2013. Portland was one of the three locations I was able to choose from for school. I thought, “Well, that has to be destiny because Portland is the place I’ve been dreaming about for so long.” Within my first week in Portland, I bought my first bike. When I walked into that shop, I weighed a little over 355 pounds. I started to challenge myself and decided to bike to school every single day, rain or shine. If I wanted to eat at a restaurant, I had to bike there to earn the meal. It was really hard, but it just felt right to experience everything – the air, the temperature, the rain, a huge range of motion – this way. It made me feel alive.
AGSIW: What were some of the factors that empowered your cycling journey?
Abdulrahman: It all came down to the community. These people guided me through the challenges and challenged me. They helped me understand that I was capable of going on rides beyond 10 miles – 5 miles had been unimaginable to me. But then, a couple of years later, I started doing centuries, which are 100-mile rides, every weekend like it was nothing. This biking community saw me and saw a chance for me to improve, and I always welcomed that help. I also started to ride with a group called Our Mother the Mountain and began going on crazy rides from 6 a.m. to midnight, cycling 200-250 miles or riding for more than 25 hours. When I realized that I went from being extremely obese to doing these rides and building these connections through them, I felt like I had found my people. I wouldn’t have been able to go from point A to point B without them.
Sadly, I had to leave the United States in 2021 due to visa issues, so I spent my last months traveling around the country – meeting people I’d only talked to on Instagram – and driving through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. The one idea that I kept at the back of my head was that if this community taught me how to ride, and to face anything, I can totally do that in Kuwait as well. I knew exactly what I was going back to because I was born and raised there. The first thing that my cousin told me after picking me up from the airport was, “Better buckle up, buddy. They’re going to try to break your arms,” which is to say, “Just toughen up because life is going to be hard here.”
AGSIW: How was the experience of going from cycling often in Oregon to moving back to Kuwait?
Abdulrahman: It was extremely hard experiencing that reverse culture shock. I decided to get in touch with my family in Spain to see if I could stay with them and bike there for a few months. In the few days between my return from the United States and going to Spain, I had completely lost myself because I was separated from my bike and cycling community. Biking was the thing that got me out of bed every single morning in Portland – it kept me upright both physically and mentally – and it suddenly just disappeared. It gave me a purpose and was a way to connect with the land and experience the temperature, wind, and noise. This was challenged by the car-centric behaviors and infrastructure of Kuwait.
After leaving the United States, I wanted to give myself an outlet for the immense pressure that I was feeling, and one of the best outlets I could give myself was writing. I wanted to explore my passion for cycling and document it for myself and others. This ended up being really healing because I got to share all my amazing cycling stories. The Paperclip, my blog, started as a way to relieve the pressure but developed into an acknowledgment to all the people who got me to that point. From there, people started asking specific questions about places I’d been or for advice about certain routes. I realized that through my blog, I was carving out a space as an Arab cyclist in an Anglo-dominated industry. My goal by the end of the year is to publish the first annual magazine focusing on Arab cyclists, from Kuwait to Morocco, from Yemen to Syria. I want to cover the whole range and make sure that every community is included.
AGSIW: You also recently started a cycling experience company. Tell me a bit about it.
Abdulrahman: It’s a Kuwaiti-led company called Spoke Collective. I started it because I realized how different it is to experience a place on bike – because walking is too slow, and driving is too fast. I’d gone to Spain for many summers as a kid, but I don’t think I fully understood the country until I rode my bike around it. So, Spoke Collective aims to provide Arab cyclists with these cycling opportunities because I know what it feels like to be in a limiting community. To me, a bike is a machine for freedom, so I’m not necessarily offering cycling tours – I’m offering the experience of feeling free. I want to teach people how to feel alive riding a bike. I don’t want you to just come and train hard to become a professional. I want you to experience the land, slow down, and talk to people.
We call it Spoke Collective because the bike wheel is composed of the major parts: the hub, the spokes, and the rim. At Spoke Collective, each spoke represents the community or person, the hub is my business, and the rim is the outside world. The spokes are kind of delicate because each one must be tensioned differently for the bike to run smoothly. So, when we come together, we collaborate and work in harmony. I came up with this name because I want to bring along all participants to explore the world together.
AGSIW: What are some of the activities or experiences you hope to offer through Spoke Collective?
Abdulrahman: One trip option would be to host riders in my own village, Novelé, a tiny village right outside of Xàtiva in Valencia, Spain. It’s a pretty empty region, so we’d be riding outside in the mountains by ourselves. We could meet retired professional cyclists who raced against Lance Armstrong and ride on the same roads they trained on. From there, we would head to the historical Tous Dam that destroyed the whole valley. During the summer, when the water level goes down, you can see the old church bell, so it’s getting to see stuff like this that gets you to slow down. We’ll still be cycling over 50 miles with a gain of around 6,000 feet of elevation, but the goal is not to go fast and miss out on everything around you, as that takes away some of the fun. This way, you actually get to experience Spain, not just as a tourist but as a local. That’s my goal.
We also plan to serve Antalya, Turkey – it’s basically an open-air museum – and hope to add Italy, in addition to existing trips to the Canary Islands. I was recently in Saudi Arabia to scope out locations there, too. I thought to myself, “Why should I take Arabs to Europe but not bring Europeans to the Arab world?” Saudi Arabia is the perfect location for that because they’re opening up, which is great; they have the funds for it; and they have mountains! They organize an annual cycling tournament in Al-Ula called the Saudi Tour. It’s in its third year and often has the same riders who participate in the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and La Vuelta in Spain. When I was heading to Saudi Arabia, I reached out to someone on Instagram and met up with them, and from there, I met dozens of riders in the cycling community and rode with them around Riyadh. When I told them about Spoke Collective, they asked, “How can we make it happen?” It kind of came full circle from those who initially asked, “Why make it happen?” earlier on in my cycling journey in the Gulf. It’s a great opportunity, and I want to use it to open up the Arab world as the new cycling destination.
AGSIW: What are some of the things that are inspiring you in your journey to open a local cycling agency?
Abdulrahman: What inspires me is the challenge. It is very, very hard. I’ve been unemployed since January 2022, despite being someone who holds a master’s degree and has worked with some of the biggest companies. To come back here and beg for a job has been soul crushing. I stopped thinking about how to make money and instead started thinking about how I can leave something positive and beneficial for the community while I have the time to do so. So that’s what’s been driving me.
On The Paperclip, I started the series “Meet the Rider.” I realized that I didn’t know what an Arab cyclist looked like, so I decided to interview cyclists in Kuwait and learn from them because they’ve struggled here, and I haven’t. The main question I asked them was, “What is it like to be a cyclist in Kuwait?” I introduce people as humans first. Sure, they’re cyclists, but they’re parents, neighbors, and cousins; they do X, Y, and Z. I try to put the human touch on what an Arab cyclist looks like – to challenge how the world sees Arabs.
I have this dream of traveling from one place to the other. I want to go to Abha, Oman, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and many other places just to meet cyclists and continue what I’ve been doing in Kuwait. These will be exploratory trips to see if I can work them into Spoke Collective. But no matter what, The Paperclip is definitely coming with me.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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