Monday, February 18, 2013

Driving in Riyadh OR Why I'm Happy I'm Female in Riyadh

(Unfortunately I don't have any good photos of examples of the driving that I describe in the following blog.  Instead I have pictures of some sights I've seen along my drives, so they will have to suffice for now.)

In an older part of Riyadh
Moving to Saudi Arabia meant a lot of changes in my life, a main one being that I wouldn't be allowed to drive.  I'm one of those people that drives A LOT.  For work, for general everyday errands, for travel, for shuttling when biking with friends...I could go on and on.  Essentially, much of my independence and convenience in life is the freedom I have from being able to drive whenever and where-ever I choose to go.  At least that was the case in Canada.  In Riyadh, I have to book a taxi from my compound, or ask the driver I have through work to make a quick stop here or there on my way home, or ask my male friends to let me know when they're going somewhere so I can hitch a ride with them (And this isn't really ideal as men who are not my husband or father technically aren't allowed to drive women around in Saudi Arabia either.  The men that offer to do this for me are actually taking quite a risk...they could be put in jail for it.  For some reason they don't seem concerned about this.).  Yes, I could look at this situation as being a pain in the ass to have to worry about how I'm going to get places, but I don't.  Why?  Because the driving here is freakin' crazy!!  It would take an awful lot of convincing and the promise that I'd be in an armoured vehicle wearing a helmet before you'd get me driving in Riyadh.  Let me explain...

One of the multiple grocery store chains

Not sure if this is a convenience store, but I thought it amusing that it was called Meed and back home the convenience stores are called "Needs"
Many company headquarters are this fancy

An entire new section of city (financial district) being constructed all at once.
One of the first things I learned after moving to Saudi Arabia one month ago was how SLOW everything is.  If you are in a rush to get something done you are essentially screwed.  It's a wonderful test of zen, and luckily I've been adapting fairly well to it (I'll probably go to more detail in a blog about this aspect of Riyadh-life in the future).  While life in general here in Saudi is slow moving, driving specifically most definitely is not.  On the highway, the speed limit is 120 km/hour.  And because Saudi's REALLY enjoy going fast in their cars (I swear, this is how they make up for being so bloody slow at everything else) the cars have been equipped with nice little buzzers and lights that go off on the dashboard indicating when they've exceeded the 120 km/hour limit.  Luckily, my drivers have actually listened to this signal, but I really think it's just cause the manufacturers made it nice and annoying.

A few weeks ago my cousin, Tracy, posted a note on her Facebook profile talking about an experience while driving back home in Canada.  She said, "Last night...I was about to pass a car that was driving below the speed limit. Then I noticed him swerve into my lane, thankfully before I was next to him. Then he veered back to his lane. Thought he might be drunk, really. While passing, I peeked over...there he is, with a car full of people, some of them kids, holding his cell phone up to the steering wheel and texting. I was so wild." She proceeded to talk about how dangerous this is and that the solution is simple, pull over to text or talk on your cell.  Sounds logical enough.  Not in Riyadh, however.  Oh Tracy, if you were here you would possibly end up going mentally insane.  It is common practice to text and talk on your cell while driving here, but not at slow speeds like your teenage friend was doing.  Oh no!  Because, you see, if you slow down to anything below the flow of traffic and create a gap larger than half a car length between you and the car in front of you, you will get chastised by the cars behind you via long-winded horn blowing.  No, if you're texting on your cell you'll quickly be reminded to speed up, so the men driving in Riyadh have learned to keep their foot firmly planted on the gas pedal while typing on their phones.
Road construction, Riyadh style

Speaking of teenagers driving...let's put a few things into perspective in that regard.  There have been a few times when I looked over into nearby cars while driving down the highway and noticed smooth baby-like faces in the driver-seat.  Keep in mind that Saudi men are dark skinned and not known for their ability to avoid the (in my opinion) oh so appealing 5 o'clock shadow or beard.  Suffice it to say that I was not surprised when I was told that it sometimes occurs when Saudi mothers really need to get somewhere.  If their husbands or fathers are not available who do they call for assistance?  Well, their 13 year old son of course.  Luckily, these boys-becoming-men are fairly well versed at driving on the highway at such a young age.  This is because many men allow their children to sit on their laps while driving.  

So, that covers what happens inside the vehicles of many drivers in Riyadh, but what does it all look like from the outside?  Well, consider those times when you've driven down the road and some crazy person zooms past you at a ridiculous speed, then veers in and out of lanes weaving through cars like he/she is driving on a go-cart track.  Yes, as you might expect, that is a typical way to drive around here.  Once you get used to it, it's actually quite entertaining to watch.  Keep in mind that not every driver does this, but it's a very common practice.  What we consider to be "crazy" driving in Canada is actually the norm here.  What we consider to be "suicidal" driving in Canada is what would be considered "crazy" driving here. 

Bott's Dotts (from Wikipedia...not a picture taken in Riyadh)
A suberb, half constructed with the soon to be financial district in the background

More construction
As fun as all this is to witness (and yes, I say fun, because it's really the only perspective to take without risking having a heart attack from the stress that being amongst this chaos could cause), the most entertaining aspect of my drive is the lane changing strategies drivers have.  It's like they're playing a game of chess, constantly considering the neighbouring driver's next move, trying to make their own move before anyone else predicts what they're going to do.  Many never use turn-signals.  None do shoulder checks (apparently no one's ever bothered to explain to these drivers the concept of blind-spots).  Instead, a quick flicking of their bright lights or a honk of their horn when coming up to pass is all that's required.  Whether the other driver sees the flashing of lights or even cares to listen to it is a whole other matter.  And, when I say lane changes, I use the word "lane" with the loosest of definitions.  Yes, there are lines on the road indicating the suggestion of lanes.  They're even designed using painted bumps called "Bott's Dots" that are, I'm assuming, supposed to annoy the crap out of a driver who dares to drive over them instead of respecting the lane indicators.  They don't work.  Basically, if a car can fit in a space it will be there.  This compacting way of driving happens, for the most part, during the slow-moving traffic jams that often occur at the end of the work-day or on Wednesday evenings (which are the equivalent of Fridays in Canada, as the weekend here is Thursday and Friday).  Often, the reasoning behind jamming your car into a space that a Vespa would be lucky to fit into is for the driver to do his damndest to bully his way into a spot in the "lane" that he needs to get into in order to make it to his off-ramp in time.  Why he doesn't just plan ahead and get in the "lane" long before he needs to is beyond my comprehension.  I think there's something in the challenge and an adrenaline-rush factor involved in the last-minute scramble to get into a required "lane."

A Riyadh suberb
Finally, what about when we're actually not moving?  The car has to be parked somewhere.  According to Saudis, anywhere is just fine.  Just running in a corner store for a quick purchase?  No need to spend time looking for a spot.  Just park behind someone else.  If the driver of the car you blocked comes back, he'll be sure to let you know you're in his way.  See an open space on a downtown corner?  Go for it.  No worries that you're parked right beside the stop sign.  Oh, and a quick note about stop signs...they're really just reminders to look for moving cars in the intersection you're about to sail through.

When all is said and done, though, somehow drivers manage to survive quite well around here.  I'm sure there are fatal accidents, but with all the driving I've done in the last month, the only accidents I've witnessed or come across have been minor fender benders.  None of them involved myself and my driver.  I've been in close calls, but my driver always seems to know that it's coming and weasles his way out of it and they've always been at lower speeds.  Like I said before, it's actually pretty entertaining to experience the driving around here.  This is probably because I really trust the drivers, especially my driver from work.  They are professionals when it all comes down to it and I'm glad it's them driving and not me. 

More construction
In Joy,


  1. Oh my gosh! All I can think of to say throughout this adventure of getting from point A to point B is, "May you make it through the city on angel's wings"

  2. I really do consider my driver an "angel" at times. He's pretty talented behind the wheel, thankfully!

  3. So interesting....but scary hon!!! So great to be able to read about your adventures (if that's what I should call them!). Be careful but have fun :)


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