Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Revolt. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Pascal Menoret (PM): I started working on the urbanization of Riyadh in 2001. I initially came to the city to teach French as a second language, and I was blown away by the place. With its single-family houses, its endless grid of avenues, and its absolute reliance on cars, the landscape of Riyadh looked very American to me. Yet it was a Greek urbanist, Constantinos Doxiadis, who designed the city, and a French company, SCET International, who revised its master plan. How did these people end up working with the Al Saud? How did Europeans design a city that wouldn`t have been out of place in Arizona or South California? There was a story to tell. But I waited until after my PhD to start researching the urbanization of Riyadh. My first prospective adviser was a pulp poli-sci writer who turned out to be very conservative in his political and academic choices. He didn`t believe in urban history and expected me to work on Islamism. With the help of another adviser, I started working on the history of youth politicization while keeping an eye on the wider urban landscape.
I came back to Riyadh in 2005 as a PhD student, and conducted fieldwork until 2007. I had met several young activists in 2001, and they helped me explore Riyadh’s political landscape. 2005 was the height of Al Saud`s version of the “war on terror,” people were arrested in the thousands, and my interest in politicization and Islamist youth sounded suspect to a lot of people. “What youth politicization? All we have is repression,” was a frequent reaction to my topic. One day, one of my friends told me, "you only meet Islamists and elite people, and they won`t give you an accurate image of Saudi. I`ll introduce you to real people, you need to understand what most people go through here." He drove me to an empty lot where a group of his relatives were chatting and sipping soda. At some point, we went for a ride and started following cars skidding at high speed on the highways of Riyadh. I had met my first group of joyriders.
During the week I would work on Islamists, and at weekends I would follow joyriders—which was much more fun, extremely rewarding, but also tremendously hard. After I defended my thesis, entitled "Racailles et dévots: La politisation de la jeunesse saoudienne, 1965-2007" (“Thugs and Zealots: The Politicization of Saudi Youth, 1965-2007”), I moved to the US and started researching Doxiadis`s contribution to the planning of Riyadh. I explored the link between the making of the city and its "unmaking" at the hands of joyriders. The story was so compelling that it took the whole place in a book project that I had initially thought would cover my entire fieldwork experience. The result of that writing process is Joyriding in Riyadh, and I decided to write the story of Islamism in the Saudi suburbs as a separate volume (see question four below).
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PM: Joyriding in Riyadh is the first book in English that analyzes contemporary Riyadh. With more than six million inhabitants, Riyadh is the third most populated Arab city; it is also the capital of the wealthiest state in the region. The book looks at the recent history of the city from the conflicted points of view of its princes, planners, developers, realtors, and joyriders. In the 1960s, the princes didn’t want a big city, with its problems and its dangers, but rural migration contributed to creating a huge metropolis. The Greek urbanists didn’t really understand the growth of Riyadh (nobody did), and sort of blind-planned the city. Realtors started with modest projects, but the 1973 oil bonanza exceeded all their hopes. They unexpectedly became the actual makers of the city as we know it today. All these characters’ expectations about the city were trumped by the logics of urbanization and real estate development.
Joyriders belong in majority to migrant communities who left the Saudi countryside to seek opportunities in the capital. They are the product of the massive rural migration that fueled urban growth since the 1960s. If a few migrants managed to attain wealth and influence, most of them were betrayed by the city’s exclusive economy. Often dropouts and jobless, the youngest migrants or sons of migrants run amok in those areas where real estate development is raging: they steal cars and destroy them on freshly asphalted roads in the midst of new developments, where no police force is yet able to stop them. Their road revolt feeds off the two channels of rent distribution: real estate and consumer good import.
The book analyzes what I call a car riot: a youth revolt against commoditization and power abuse. Its main arguments are inspired by Mike Davis`s City of Quartz, a book that reads the landscape of Los Angeles as an outcome of class and race warfare, middle-class conservative activism, and crushing financial dynamics. Another important source of inspiration was Philippe Bourgois`s In Search of Respect, an ethnographic study of economic and racial segregation in East Harlem during the so-called “war on drugs,” and a powerful reflection on the anthropologist`s positionality and social responsibility. A third crucial influence was Arlette Farge’s book on the French plebeian public sphere in the eighteenth century, which she constructs in opposition to Jürgen Habermas’s racist fantasy of an enlightened, intellectual, bourgeois public sphere. In Subversive Words, for instance, she analyzes rumors and street unrest, and shows how the French people patiently destroyed the aura of the Bourbon monarchs, thus paving the way to the bourgeois revolution of 1789. Last but not least, I am intellectually indebted to Robert Vitalis, who wrote a social history of Aramco, America`s Kingdom, that deconstructs the US (and Saudi) exceptionalist narrative and analyzes with a scalpel the "unruliness of experts" oilmen and engineers brought to the country.
J: Since the uprisings of 2011, there has been renewed scholarly emphasis on youth, especially within social media. Your book takes a different approach—instead of focusing on their digital engagement, you focus on a fundamentally physical form of youth culture. What do you hope this book will offer an understanding of youth politics and revolution in the region?
Despite having the highest Twitter penetration rate in the world, Saudi Arabia hasn`t undergone the kind of political change that we`re told was triggered by social media. Joyriding in Riyadh shows that there is something else to the story of mobilization than virtual connections, and that physical infrastructure plays a vital role in providing opportunities for the emergence of class consciousness and activism. Marx noted that it took centuries for the burgers of the Middle Ages to develop class consciousness, whereas railroads allowed the proletariat to swiftly understand both its predicament and its collective power. Railroads were at once the epitome of industrial capitalism and the best way to connect isolated work forces. Today’s roads are as ambiguous. As one of my interviewees put it, car-possessing local elites benefited from the roads that were supposed to bring "development" to the people. Roads created huge investment opportunities for the clients of the royal family, and carried state power and nepotism deep into Saudi society. Joyriding in Riyadh shows how western experts, Saudi investors, and Riyadh youth have turned these instruments of authoritarianism into tools of anarchism and disorder.
What does the study of urban spaces in Saudi add to our understanding of the Arab uprisings? There is a vague sense among those who study the region that the heart of the Middle East lies on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and that the south of the Arab world, from Mauritania to Upper Egypt to the Gulf, is peripheral. Scholarship on the 2011 uprisings tends to reinforce that stereotypical geography: the action seems to happen around the Mediterranean, from Tunis to Cairo to Benghazi to Damascus, while many would probably contend that the hinterland personifies political reaction.
It is true that Saudi Arabia didn`t experience an uprising of the scale of those which dethroned Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Qaddafi. Yet labeling the country as counterrevolutionary would be misleading: if the Al Saud helped repress the Bahraini revolution and supported field marshal El-Sisi’s coup in Egypt, they welcomed change in Libya and supported the Syrian insurgency. Treating Saudi Arabia as the epicenter of the counter-revolution would also be unfair to those who, from Jeddah to Riyadh to Qatif, courageously protested corruption, economic inequality, and repression. Demonstrations took place, people immolated themselves in several towns, women came out to protest repression.
Yet the Saudi revolution didn’t take place. The Saudi system of power, often described as vernacular, “Islamic,” or exceptional, relies in reality on transnational networks, arms sales, corruption, and on the creation at home of an economy that is both connected to and insulated from international dynamics. The country`s economic importance generates enough resources to not only silence a large part of the population, but also turn it into an active promoter of authoritarian government. Contrary to widespread stereotypes, the Saudi opposition is highly vocal, articulate and transnational (think of Osama bin Laden or Salman al-`Awda). It scares the state, which has the means to sustain an impressive array of repressive tools. The level of political violence that Saudis experience is extremely high, and largely explains the stability of government in the country.
But there is more to this story than forced acquiescence. Saudis resent the system almost as much as they benefit from it, and this mix of protest and acquiescence is one of the topics of Joyriding in Riyadh. The book shows that physical infrastructures, produced at the intersection of global networks and local powers, became targets and symbols for popular uprisings. “Roads bring invaders,” as Arabian Peninsula leaders would say a century ago. They now bring state power and economic violence to the sprawling suburbs of Riyadh. In a system where the state itself is out of reach, it is roads, cars, and cops that are everyday targets of car riots against infrastructures, commoditization, and trade monopolies. Pedestrian demonstrations may be rare in Riyadh, but for more than three decades, car demonstrations occurred on a daily basis in those very places where financial investments and royal power reshape the cityscape.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PM: My next book project, entitled Suburbs of Faith, addresses two questions: why, beginning in the 1970s, did the inhabitants of Riyadh flee to the suburbs? And why, during the same period of time, did Islamic activism become the most visible way of expressing one`s political opinions? Is there a relationship between suburbanization and Islamic awakening? Common analyses of Islamism focus on ideology, and assume that the defeat of 1967 marked the downfall of Arab nationalism, opening the way to new, more vernacular, forms of political expression. By looking at the geography of activism, Suburbs of Faith questions this narrative, and examines how Islamists, by turning the suburbs into spaces of mobilization and protest, are espousing dynamics of resistance that go far beyond the Middle East, and may be compared, for instance, to NIMBY activism or to the rise of suburban evangelicalism in the United States.
I am also working on several research projects in Abu Dhabi. Last winter I edited The Abu Dhabi Guide: Modern Architecture 1968-1992, which will be published this summer, in English and Arabic, by NYUAD’s media lab. The guide was written by the students of my “Modern Abu Dhabi Architecture” class, who spent three weeks exploring 30 modernist buildings of the city and interviewing users, architects, and urbanists. The guide prefigures a more comprehensive volume on modernist architecture in Abu Dhabi. Last but not least, I am part of a collective of artists and writers who explore metropolises on foot. Baptiste Lanaspeze and a group of urbanists designed metropolitan hiking trails around Marseilles and Paris. In May 2014, we conducted our first walking tour around Tunis, and plan on designing a suburban hiking trail across Abu Dhabi, from Saadiyat Island to the Musaffah industrial district and back to the main island. These projects have in common the focus on the making of urban landscapes, and the interest for suburbanization as a potent social force. They require a lot of work, but I’d hate to have to choose between them: I never feel more creative than when I keep several irons in the fire.
Excerpt from Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Revolt
From Chapter One
My research almost came to a crashing end during a freezing night in February, while I was following a drifting (tafhit) procession in Riyadh. Drifting is the practice of using stolen cars to skid at full speed on urban highways—a high-octane gymnastics that is for cars what dressage is for prize horses. I was driving my car, a worn-out Jeep Cherokee, behind the red lights of a Toyota pickup that was careering from one side of the street to the other. Its driver, ‘Ajib, was skillfully playing with the steering wheel and the handbrake. My informant Rakan was pestering me to salute each skid with a flash of my headlights in a gesture of appreciation. I complied, also using my blinkers to convey what I was told were messages of enthusiasm. A zigzagging pickup followed at full speed by a flashing Jeep was not an uncommon scene in suburban Riyadh.
Soon ‘Ajib turned off the main street onto one side road, and then a second. He swerved into the wrong lane and I followed, alarmed by his carelessness but determined not to lose him. “He is testing you,” declared Rakan. We were headed to what some local youth call Tariq al-Ba‘arin (“Dromedary Drive”), a six-lane thoroughfare in the east of Riyadh. The road’s nickname came from the corrals on both sides of the street, where families kept herds of dromedaries for their enjoyment or profit. Located on the outskirts of the city, the wide thoroughfare was an ideal spot for joyriding and car drifting. ‘Ajib was driving expertly through a maze of side roads so as to avoid the police patrols. I was in a mixed state of excitement and fear; this was my first night of joyriding.
At around two am we pulled into a gas station on al-Ba‘arin. Several police cars were cruising the road, and ‘Ajib’s ear was glued to his cell phone: he was collecting information and trying to catch up with the joyriders. His two friends, a heavyset, shy guy and a skinny younger boy, remained inside the pickup, staring at us with blank expressions. “Zlayeb (morons),” Rakan said in a shiver. “They should go out and say hello at least.” The temperature had dropped and I was shivering too. “You both afraid?” asked ‘Ajib. “No, we’re cold.” “Ayy wallah, this is what joyriding is all about: cold nights, wind and darkness.”
‘Ajib was twenty-three. Short, slim, and sturdy, he adorned his musical colloquial Arabic with masculine gesticulations. Rakan was more vocal than I and was trying to bend his standard Riyadh Arabic to the brisk pace of ‘Ajib’s Bedouin dialect. In spite of my efforts to speak clearly, ‘Ajib’s eyes widened whenever I opened my mouth, and he had me repeat every single sentence. I understood him well, but he seemed not to grasp what I was saying. Rakan later told me: “Don’t forget that you are European; people aren’t used to talking to you folks, and they always assume you won’t understand them.” The police patrols, now more frequent, reminded ‘Ajib of a scene he had witnessed a few months ago. One night, a drifter had stopped next to a police car, opened his window and shouted: “Come here, ia wir‘, you sissy, I’ll give you a ride!” The boy had sped away immediately, chased maladroitly by the patrol, and managed to dodge out of sight. According to ‘Ajib, joyriding was distilled in this vignette; it was about being a real man, having a good laugh and jeering at the powers that be.
‘Ajib was still on his cell phone. “Hanuti (‘undertaker’) will drift a GMC Suburban in al-Quds,” a residential neighborhood in the east of Riyadh. We barely had enough time to rejoice before a second phone call changed the plans: the police presence on al-Ba‘arin had forced the drifters to move to another part of the city. We jumped in our cars and drove away, slowing down when crossing paths with police cars before we accelerated again, zigzagging in and out of our lane. After a twenty-minute drive along various thoroughfares, we found ourselves in a calm residential neighborhood, in the middle of an unexpected traffic jam. Still following ‘Ajib, we drove around and parked on the sidewalk of Turki bin Ahmad al-Sudairi Street, an avenue six lanes wide surrounded by the high walls of luxurious villas. The drifting was about to begin.
We stood in the middle of the gathering of seventy to eighty cars packed with young people who, restless but strikingly silent, poured out of their vehicles, walking in all directions and climbing on car roofs and streetlamps. I had just started to take pictures when everybody suddenly moved to the other side of the street and massed on the traffic median. The drifters were coming. A Toyota Camry, closely followed by a Hyundai Sonata, shot out in front of us at an outrageous 140 to 150 mph. Both cars spun four or five times, their tires shrieking on the asphalt. Inside each vehicle, besides the driver, three youngsters were raising their arms through the open windows toward the sky and shouting, their faces hidden by their checkered headdresses. I was astounded but tried to keep my composure in line with the blasé audience. After the two cars vanished, everybody ran to his vehicle and drove swiftly away. Our massive procession swarmed in the direction of the ring road. The police were suddenly ahead of us, stopping cars at an improvised checkpoint. We managed to escape and drove in a wide loop to catch up with the joyriding party.
As more and more cars joined in, the procession snaked its way through the sprawling city like a massive hydra, adrenaline-filled shouting peppering the blasting music and the roaring engines. I was driving inside a parade of about a hundred cars, streaming down all four lanes of the ring road at 110 mph, close enough to other vehicles to follow every emotion on their passengers’ faces. Something odd happened. Carried away by the scene, I burst into laughter and shouted in Rakan’s direction, “This is awesome! This is what I should have been doing all my life!” I was excited to drive fast, to break the law, to belong, even for a night, to a community of agitated young men who were defying the police in a country reputed for its harsh handling of the slightest incivility. Speed had given me a sense of invulnerability I had never experienced before.
We were speeding to catch up with the procession after another drifting show when catastrophe struck. A driver started to spin his Camry ahead of us, in the middle of a group of twenty cars moving at about one hundred mph. His car began to waltz on the asphalt, sliding with a shriek while presenting its flank to us. It hit another car, hurling it onto a security rail on the left side of the freeway. The entanglement of cars, skidding fast in front of us, was so terrifying that I stepped on my brakes. Finding a way out on the right side of the road, I accelerated again to avoid triggering a pile-up.
It was too late: a powerful shock projected us toward the dashboard and then back into our seats. Still accelerating, and with my car making an alarming noise, I looked for a safe spot and pulled over away from the gigantic accident that I imagined was unfolding. The driver of the other car stopped behind me. I gazed at the highway, expecting to find a heap of cars and wounded drivers. To my bewilderment, the asphalt was empty. All the cars had sped up and avoided the accident my clumsiness should have caused.
A police patrol car soon reached us. Before he opened his window, the policeman popped a captagon (amphetamine) pellet into his Power Horse energy drink and swallowed it with a gulp. Seeing that nobody was hurt, stumbling and stuttering, obviously unable to articulate his thoughts, he unexpectedly drove away, soon followed by the other driver. Calling from his car, ‘Ajib told us to fix our car and join them, but I needed the help of more than just a mechanic, and Rakan and I spent the next few hours at the hospital for a checkup.
The accident happened a year after I arrived in Riyadh. I had started my study of drifting in the preceding months, collecting articles, interviewing drifters and their fans, and trying to secure access to a group I would follow and observe. My hopes thinned out after that night, as ‘Ajib became more and more elusive. Like most drifters we approached, he was on his guard, wary of the improbable duo: a French PhD student and the young Saudi professional who claimed to be researching the dynamics of joyriding. In the eyes of many, Rakan and I were spies sent by the local police to infiltrate the drifters. To ‘Ajib, my gaucherie and our retreat after such a minor incident were evidence of our suspiciousness: how could he trust such a poor driver and his unfathomable friend?
Joyriding in Riyadh doesn’t look at joyriding as an extreme manifestation of Saudi youth criminality. Rather, it looks at both drifting and its criminalization as embedded in global networks of power and knowledge. The surprising behavior of the police and Ajib’s conduct pointed to an unspoken alliance between law enforcement and law breakers that could only be understood by stepping back and looking at Saudi roads, cars, and male youth in the light of the global importance of Saudi Arabia, since World War II, as a major oil exporter, commodity market, and inventor of traditions. The book explores an idea that will sound both simple and obscure: in Saudi Arabia today, road violence is a form of political violence. And by road violence I mean not only the most visible forms of violence that are road rage or joyriding, but also the structural violence that roads, infrastructure, and the automobile system in general inflict on individuals.
[Excerpted from Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt, p. 1-6, by permission of the author. © 2014 Cambridge University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]