The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Saudi Boy Racers 

Thanks to "Khesh" for pointing me to this article in the London "Sunday Times".

Saudi's 180mph road racers cause carnage

TONIGHT it is a couple of Porsche 911s but it could be a Ferrari, aLamborghini or a supercharged American racer. A group of young men have gathered on an empty road on the fringes of the desert to watch the latest craze in the oil-rich Middle East — illegal road racing. Two cars swing into position on the impromptu starting grid. From vantage points nearby, lookouts keep watch for police vehicles. Two more cars move into position behind the racers to act as a rolling roadblock and hamper any pursuit. A glance, a nod and the drivers floor the accelerators and disappear into the night in a cloud of acrid smoke from burning tyres, reaching speeds of up to 180mph. For the drivers, this is a chance to show off their prowess but it often leads to injury or death. Throughout the Middle East a heady mix of high incomes, youthful boredom and a plentiful supply of highly tuned, high-performance cars have made the white-knuckle races a cult.

I carried a report earlier about the apparent attempt to drive into the Grand Mosque in Makkah. People over there are still saying that it was a Boy Racer escapade gone wrong. A Commentor suggested that we could have a Formula 1 race around the streets of Makkah and the Grand Mosque. That was quite a neat idea. "Custodian of the Holy Racetrack King Abdullah waved the chequered flag to bring the 2006 Makkah Grand Prix to a close...." People are also suggesting in the national press that we actually build racetracks for these kids. That's OK, but I'd rather we built lots of sports fields and swimming pools and bike tracks, that would be far safer and far healthier. Better still, build them for both sexes, but maybe we'll go one step at a time. In the meantime, young men with excess testosterone, but no other way of letting off steam or excess energy, and with no way of engaging with young women in a civilized manner, but with excess money, are being a danger to each other (as seen in the video at the end) and often the public at large.

I'm starting to sound terribly old here. In fact, dangerous driving is not an exclusively youth thing. Saudi desert roads are fine, but within the conurbations, the roads must be some of the most dangerous places on this earth outside a war zone. I have driven in many parts of the world, but can say, hand on heart, that Saudi drivers are the most careless, selfish and dangerous that it will ever be your misfortune to meet. We have the road death statistics to prove it. Here are some little cameos from everyday Saudi driving experience.

1. Two dual-carriageways meet at a set of traffic lights. We gradually crawl our way up to the lights. Once they have turned red, and ten or fifteen seconds later when the traffic finally obeys them, an important-looking Mercedes comes from behind and drives up the "right-turn-only" lane on the right, gets to the lights, and then turns left and stops, broadside on to the cars now waiting in line, in preparation for U-turning back down the road. He is now out in the junction, blocking two or three lanes of cars, and unable to see the relevant lights. When the lights turn green, everyone beeps their horn. (This happens every time, it's a national reflex). This indicates to Mr Straddled-across-our-lanes that the lights have changed, and he accelerates away, hoping to escape being broadsided by us, or clipped from behind by the still-moving stream of traffic coming from the right.

2. I was driving along the Riyadh Ring Road one afternoon when I saw an elderly Chevvy about 200 meters ahead. It was being driven OK, but I couldn't see any driver. When I got closer I still couldn't see a driver. I overtook, to see that it was being driven by a schoolboy coming home from school. He can't have been older than 12, and he was peering over the top of the wheel. With him were three school chums, equally small. The whole thing was completely surreal. They were all sitting so demurely and quietly, that if I'd shut my eyes, I could have imagined them as Miss Maisy driving her friends to the Sewing Guild at the Baptist Church. Was he old enough to drive? Certainly not, but Daddy had obviously given him the use of a car.

3. Similar place, similar time. I spot a Suburban ahead. It is weaving around a bit, but more or less staying within its lane. But something in the back seems to be writhing around. It's like one of those sci-fi movies where an octopus-like alien has taken control. As I get closer, the writhing resolves into the sight of at least five kindergarten-age children who are having a great game, jumping backwards and forwards over the back of a passenger seat. I get closer, and observe abaya'd and veiled (presumably) mother looking ahead, oblivious. What does father think of all this? As I go past I see that he's driving with his left arm, the same one that is holding his one-year-old son on his lap, leaving his right arm free for his mobile, into which he is talking with great animation.

4. I am waiting at a set of traffic lights, at the back of one of four lanes of traffic doing so. I spot movement in the rear-view mirror. It is a road-rage incident. A passenger car and one of those 12-seater bus-taxis are coming up from behind, weaving from side to side across the road as if to ram or avoid the other. It seems inevitable that in about six seconds I am going to be rear-ended while I sit here, meaning the rest of my day and possibly night will be spent in the Police Station sorting out the insurance paperwork, unless I am fortunate enough to get a whiplash injury and end up in hospital instead. I brace myself for the inevitable. At the last moment, the car speeds into the empty "right-turn-only" lane and does so, with tyres emitting smoke and squeals. The bus-taxi still comes up behind, but manages to stop by turning sideways on and removing rubber from his tyres, laterally. He is literally one meter from my rear window. I observe several assorted Filipino and Egyptian passengers, who are now shouting angrily at the driver.

5. This is not a single experience, it's a guaranteed weekly one. Wednesday or Thursday evening (the Western equivalent of Friday or Saturday night). The Northern Ring Road of Riyadh, heading east. At the far east end is a collection of "Resters" frequented by youngsters. They are all on the same road as me, anxious to get there. The inside lane is too dangerous because they pull out from the slip road without checking for other traffic in the lane they are joining. The outside lane is too dangerous because they still overtake you there, using the emergency outside lane that is not quite wide enough so you are caught by their slipstream and the gravel they throw up They are nose-to-tail in the emergency lane, of course. The middle lane is the best compromise. Now you provide a good spatial reference for the boy racers who are alternating between inside and outside lanes in their bid to get past each other. You feel like one of those orange-and-white cones in some mad slalom as they scissor around you from either side. You actually spend more time looking in the mirror than forwards, because it is from behind that Death will come. You notice a police car ahead. He is doing absolutely nothing about these one-a-second violations. Many of the cars involved are Mercedes, and the cops' logic goes like this.

"The Princes drive Mercedes"
"That car was a Mercedes"
"That car was driven by a Prince"

And so it goes on. As I say, it's not exclusively a youth thing, and a lot of it could be stopped just by good no-nonsense policing. But until that happens, too many Saudis drive as though accidents only happen to other people.

Fortunately our local councils are good at infrastructure, and build highways out into the desert, even though there are no buildings there yet. These make good locations for the youth "sport" of "drifting", which you can see in this video (Thanks, "ODIE"), together with stills of (I presume) some of the casualties. I say "fortunately", because at least out there they are only a danger to themselves, not others. But it's still a huge waste of energy and money and youthful potential and young lives.

Caution. This video appears to contain images of real accidents and casualties, possibly fatal.

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