Riding Royal

A tale of street racing in Saudi Arabia

By / December 2012

I am sitting in the backseat of a brand new Audi A5. I have only just managed to slap my seatbelt on when the driver laughs, lights up a cigarette, and accelerates out of the turn – intent on catching the careening white BMW forty feet ahead of us. I hold my breath and throw a sideways glance at Mike, next to me in the back seat, whose eyes return the same “Oh dear Lord” look as we both white-knuckle the hand grips above the windows.

Mike – a fellow American who prefers to go by Mohammed Ramadan here in Saudi Arabia – is the reason I am along for this ride through Jeddah, the kingdom’s proudest port city. I met him earlier in the day on a boating escapade along an inlet of the Red Sea. Upon our return to shore, he introduced me to his good friend, the man with the cigarette in his mouth and his hands on the wheel, Prince Abdullah.

Abdullah, I quickly gather, fancies himself a stunt man. In central Jeddah, we approach a red-light line of traffic, and Abdullah shows no sign of slowing down. At this point I start to think that drafting my will before I left the States would have been a good idea. Dodging cars as we near the light, the prince slams the brakes, takes a drag on his smoke, and settles back into his seat as if he were out for a Sunday cruise.

Alongside the Beamer now, he rolls down the window to shout at the other driver and his entourage, who lean out the windows and holler back. It reminds me of a scene from a Budweiser commercial. Everything is there but the beer, which is illegal in Saudi and of which these guys most definitely have no need. Drinking and amateur drag racing do not mix. Not in this Islamic city 45 minutes away from Mecca. Not at these speeds. Besides, acceleration, as any drag racer will tell you, is its own high.

Green light. Go. The chase resets, and I relax against the seat-back as the initial shock of speeding like we’re the stunt crew of The Fast and the Furious wears off. We squeal through a roundabout. Prince Abdullah barks some choice words at a car moving too slowly for his taste.

I don’t speak a lick of Arabic but given Abdullah’s tone of voice and the fact that he leans half of his portly middle linebacker’s body through the window to raise his left hand in disgust it’s clear that the prince has little patience for stragglers. We now whip onto Tahlia Street, a glitzy boulevard full of Armani shops and one too many Starbuck’s. Tahlia has it all. Mosques and malls. Millionaires on the sidewalks and Bangladeshi beggars on the street corners. Not to mention Hummers and Ferraris, all driven by Saudis wearing ankle-length robes and the traditional Arab red and white-checkered headdresses, or shimaghs.

My awe at the strange brand of Saudi opulence is suddenly interrupted by the woo-woop of a siren and the flashing lights of the law in the rear-view mirror. New to Jeddah, where I have come to teach English at a technical university, I am not psyched to have a run in with the fuzz.

Before I boarded the plane, people had warned me that the Saudis would confiscate my computer if on the hard drive there was so much as a picture of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model or an irreverent article from Rolling Stone. Chop Chop Square, they enlightened me, was the pseudo-affectionate name for the place where heads still roll for heinous crimes like grand theft.

Speeding, I figure, is a comparatively minor infraction but I nonetheless fumble for my documentation. No sooner do I locate my American passport that Abdullah’s nameless compadre in the passenger’s seat starts half-gagging on his cigarette from laughter.

“What’s going on?” I ask.
“We love this stuff!” Abdullah snickers.

And just like that, he is out the door and ambling towards the cop. Mike and I turn to peer out the back window. We watch Abdullah wag a finger at the policeman, exchange a few exclamatory words, and then motion for his buddy, who says, as he exits the car, “I have to take him his ID.” The policeman, diminutive next to the domineering figure of the prince, inspects the documents, shrugs his shoulders, and slugs back into the cruiser as my Saudi friends trot back to the car.

“What was that?” I ask.
“Nothing,” Abdullah says. “It happens all the time. I show them my ID and they get lost.”
He high-fives his buddy and continues, laughing:
“The policeman says he’s going to write a report to my uncle [the National Chief of Police]. I told him, ‘fine, do it! See if I care!’”

My new neighborhood is surreal and I shake my head in smiling disbelief. Not that I can fault Abdullah. What’s the point of being a prince if every once in a while you can’t exercise your God-given right to tell the local sheriff to shove off? But I have to wonder if he is pulling these stunts in part to impress the Americans in the back seat. Saudis have a reputation for brandishing a no-questions-asked brand of hospitality. Getting invited in often means a cup of tea or a puff of shisha on a balcony. When your host is young and part of the royalty family, it also can mean hauling tail in broad day on busy streets.

Abdullah hits the gas.

Tahlia fades behind us. We speed onto the highway that leads out of the city up the Red Sea coast, a beautiful stretch of palm-lined road, a drag racer’s dream.


Ben Liebing is a freelance writer and editor based in Cincinnati. He taught English in Saudi Arabia from 2010 to 2011.