The Saudi phenomenon known as tafhit, or joyriding, is both a youth-driven pastime and an urban menace. As argued in a groundbreaking study, “Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt” by the scholar Pascal Menoret, the use and deliberate misuse of driving at high speeds gives power, voice, and attention to those challenging the Saudi state’s grip on public space and political expression.
As told by Menoret, Saudi youth first began to race, drift, and joyride (sometimes stolen) cars in the wake of the 1973 oil boom. The Saudi state’s ambitious transportation programs created a rapid, geometric sprawl in urban areas. The American oil company Aramco in partnership with Bechtel, a California construction company, built the first asphalt roads in Riyadh and other cities. Joyriding developed together with the thousands of miles of new paved roads, spike in imported cars, and lack of public transportation. He writes, “The extreme road revolt of Saudi youth was neither exceptional nor peripheral. It was a spectacular response to the global emergence of oil-based spaces.”
In the Driver’s Seat
Joyriding could be the most popular “sport” among Saudi youth. Drivers execute extremely dangerous stunts, such as the natla (lateral skid), ugda (looping), and istifham (U-turn at top speeds), or a combination of the above. Street skating is a derivative of the craze where riders lean out of their doors and “skate” along the tarmac at top speeds. At its height in the mid-1990s, official statistics reported, on average, a new case of joyriding every eleven minutes.
The skidders of Saudi Arabia cannot meet in urban squares and centers. A major police crackdown on drifters occurred in the second half of that decade. In 1997-1998, the police gave 44,000 drifting fines and, in 1999-2000, the police gave out 35,000 drifting fines.
Saudi joyriders, thus, occupy the streets of surrounding environs. Menoret concludes that joyriding functions as “the opium of the downtrodden.” However, given the underground nature of the pastime, it is difficult to pin down the political potency of the act. Do these social outcasts represent a collective resistance to a society that champions consumption and commodities or are they simply bored out of their minds?
Drifting, though, is much more than a product of tufush, a Saudi word for boredom, that many Saudis attribute for the reason why some young people risk their lives. By appropriating public spaces for their own kind of expression, Saudi joyriders revolt against the establishment in a similar way to alternative youth subculture in other countries. “Saudi drifting” videos have proliferated on the Internet and the cultural influence of the tafhit phenomenon has reached Western countries (for example, see the MIA video Bad Girls). These videos present an alternative image of Saudi society—one that contrasts with law, order, and control.
Hajwala, another colloquial term youth use for the dangerous pastime, means anarchy and disorder. The World Health Organization found Saudi Arabia to have the world’s highest number of deaths per capita from road accidents in 2009. Road accidents constitute the country’s principal cause of death in adult males—aged 16 to 36—and tafhit and other forms of automobile acrobatics are often blamed for this high death toll (although drifting represents less than one percent of all traffic violations). The Saudi state has employed a public awareness campaign to try to stem the activity’s interest among youth. A 2006 documentary titled The Composite Crime aired on state television and interviewed detained skidders. Tafhit was referred to as “street terrorism” in the film and the term has since been used by the government to dissuade youth from participating.
Saudi’s street culture has emerged as a visible oppositional style to mainstream society which was built upon religious conservatism and enforced by state surveillance. For example, the country’s religious police—the mutawa—roam the streets and impose the moral code set by the Unitarian doctrine, derived from the teachings of Muhammed ibn Wahhab, as interpreted by the state religious authorities. They are one of several institutions that the Saudi government has employed to keep state control. Joyriders, drifters, and skidders celebrate their reinterpretation of street ethics as a “badge of honor” which instill consternation in public institutions.
Government authorities even fear drifting as a potential gateway to armed militancy. They cite the case of Yusuf al-Ayeri who first gained attention as a joyrider on the streets of Damman in the country’s Eastern province. He later became a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden and formed the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. Militant groups also pay attention to young joyriders, who confront authorities on a daily basis, as a source of recruitment.
Young males make up the vast majority of tafhit participants (although there have been a few accounts of Saudi female participants). Some Saudi joyriders see their lateral skids as an overt way to resist marginalization. In a 2003-04 sample questionnaire of students in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam, the study found an inverse relationship between tafhit involvement and the feeling of respect the youth believes to have earned from his family, school, or another public institution.
Menoret relates how rapid urbanization and state administration has left Saudi Arabia’s Bedouin population economically and socially isolated. The Saudi state has systematically halted the movement of Bedouin since the 1930s. In the 1970s, Bedouin communities in Riyadh were relocated far from major roads and the public’s gaze. Some see the popularity of tafhit among Bedouin as a continuation of the Bedouin culture of competitive masculinity. Tafhit, and the assertive mobility that comes with it, appeals to those Bedouin who have been pushed around by the authorities. Yusuf, a Bedouin joyrider from Dhahran, said that “after a good day of skidding, [he] would feel like the king of the roads.” Some of the most famous skidders have become street heroes—in the eyes of youth—through the proliferation of online videos. Yusuf adds, “The gasoline price is very cheap. In order to fill a Toyota Camry’s oil tank, you just need to pay eight dollars.” Driving around all day is a readily available activity for Saudi Arabia’s present underemployed generation.
The marginalized social status of Saudi women provides another example on the politicization of driving in Saudi Arabia. Madawi al-Rasheed’s A Most Masculine State analyzes mobility, driving, and struggle through the relationship between gender, politics, and religion. On November 6, 1990, 47 women drove down Riyadh’s ‘Ulayya Avenue demanding greater freedoms, including the right to drive (female driving had not yet been made illegal). The Interior Ministry banned female driving in reaction. Official reasons attributed to the 1991 prohibition fatwa on women driving included: “the loss of women’s modesty, their increased roaming outside the home, rebellion against their families, [and] dissent.” The Women2Drive campaign demonstrates how innovation and defiance are being employed against the fatwa on women driving. In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif posted a video online which showed herself driving while arguing for why women in Saudi Arabia should be allowed to drive. In the four days before it was taken down, the video had already been viewed more than 700,000 times. Manal was imprisoned and later released. Women2Drive encourages women to speak out against the driving ban. “We the Women” stickers, the music video No Women, No Drive, and the Twitter hashtag, #IWillDriveMyself are some of the most recent iterations to raise the visibility of the right-to-drive campaign both online and in the public space.
Rage Against the Machine
The male dominated youth practice of tafhit fits into Dick Hebdige’s model presented in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Drawing from Marxist theorists, Hebdige emphasizes class and socioeconomic conditions as major factors that influence the formation of each subculture. A shared physical space is also necessary to bring people together (this can be debated with the rise of the Internet). Art, music, dance, and movement have all been employed to build solidarity and opposition to mainstream culture throughout the world. In the 1970s and onwards, many American cities became spaces of alienation where minority youth were largely unseen. In reaction, Puerto Rican youth began b-boying. African Americans explored outlets like rap music and graffiti to raise the visibility of their counter image and reclaim the space around them. Rumba sessions in Central Park became a weekly confrontation between dancers and musicians and the New York City police, based on Mayor Rudi Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policy and the “Broken windows theory.” Authorities attempted to control and criminalize these public performances through zoning regulations, noise complaints, and confiscation of instruments. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gained its own stability and legitimacy through state surveillance, as well as social spending. Is the “disorderly” subculture of tafhit a mere interference on Saudi roads or a larger challenge to the government’s social control?
Sixty percent of Saudis are under the age of 30, coming of age when oil prices were on the rise and Saudi Arabia’s regional influence exceeded what anyone from the pervious generation could have predicted. That time has passed. Joyriding has emerged from a growing feeling of relative deprivation and a disdain toward the state. More and more disillusioned Saudis may begin to champion Saudi joyriding as more than acts of boredom but necessary defiance to a regime and a society that must change.
 Saudi Arabia Interior Ministry Statistical Yearbook, quoted by al-Duwayriat, “Al-Dawafi,” 657.
 Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 196.
 Tawfiq al-Zaydi. Al-Jarima al-Murakkaba, documentary, Al-Ikhbariyya News, December 2006.
 Yusuf al-Ayeri in discussion with the author, October 2015.
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