Skip to content

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – A Journey to Work

November 5, 2015

Riyadh Chronic-traffic-problems

It’s late October, and I’m on one of my regular business trips to Saudi Arabia. It’s a lovely time of year to be here. The blistering dry heat of the summer has given way to days in the low 30s, and nights in the low 20s. If you’re a Saudi, it’s perfect weather for heading out to the desert for a bit of camping, midnight barbecues, endless cups of coffee and tea, and chatting and laughing through the night. Take a night flight into Riyadh at this time of the year and you’ll see fires dotted around areas otherwise devoid of lighting.

This autumn, spirits seem a bit subdued. There’s a war in Yemen that’s draining the national treasury. ISIS sympathisers within the country are increasingly making their presence felt with suicide bomb attacks and random shootings. And the sustained drop in oil revenues is beginning to spark cuts in public spending, particularly in the construction sector – projects put on hold or cut back in scope.

The Kingdom itself is a key player in a region plagued with swirling political instability – jostling with Iran, Russia and the US for influence over outcomes from the multiple conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

You don’t need to be inside Saudi Arabia to be aware of all this stuff. And since I’m here on business,one of the issues that’s fair game to discuss is the economic outlook and the implications of current and potential spending cuts. On more controversial matters I speak when I’m spoken to, and you have to know people pretty well before they will open up in any depth about politics, internal security, war and sectarianism. Not that these issues aren’t discussed in the local media, but truly controversial views tend to be coded.

But everyone talks about the traffic.

If you weren’t aware of the various problems facing the country, you would be forgiven for thinking that in Riyadh it was business as usual. And the most obvious manifestation of that business is breakneck construction everywhere you look. No project is more massive than the Riyadh Metro, about which I wrote a few months ago. The difference is that since then things have started to happen – big time. The city has always been beset by diversions and U-turns, but never on the current scale. Crazy drivers abound, as this article from the English-language Arab News, Residents protest against traffic chaos in Riyadh, plainly points out.

Rush-hour traffic is snarled up as never before. The municipality helpfully launched an app to let drivers know where the real nasties are. Not much use, friends tell me, because they already know through bitter experience. Some journeys to work take an extra half hour or more. That’s in addition to the normal queues of traffic arriving in the city centre via the main arteries. Yet most of the people I’ve spoken to this time are remarkably phlegmatic. It will all be worthwhile when the work is finished, even though at best that that happy moment will be at least three years away.

Do they think the metro will be a good thing? Yes, it will be, they say. So will you use it, I ask? Er, probably not, seems to be the consensus. I suspect the expectation is that the city’s millions of expatriates will use the metro, freeing the citizens to make full use of their asphalt birthright. It will take more than a $20 billion project to wean the average Saudi off his love affair with the car.

Meanwhile, for the next three years at least the drivers of the capital will have to put up with torturous journeys to work, something I experienced in spades over the past week. Though most of my trips to the place where I was running workshops took a mere hour, I had two days travelling to a factory about 70 kilometres outside the city, which took even longer. Those journeys will stay in the memory for a long time. Apart from the delightful people whom I met during the workshop, I have my driver to thank for that.

Abdullah (not his real name) didn’t speak much English, but between us, with our limited grasp of each other’s native tongue, we communicated well enough.

On the first morning he was supposed to be at the hotel at 6.45am. The journey was supposed to take at least an hour and a quarter, and I needed to be there by 8am so that I could get set up for the event in good time. From previous mornings I had come to realise that this was a notional time agreed upon to satisfy my curious Western obsession for arriving on time. 6.45 was never going to happen, but I showed up in the hotel reception on time, ready to be surprised.

I was not surprised. Abdullah finally showed up just after 7.30 coughing, spluttering and looking like death warmed up. There was a box of antibiotics in his car, so I figured all was not well with him. I made sympathetic noises, while at the same time offering a silent prayer that what he had would not be bestowed upon me. It was to be the first of many silent prayers.

I got in the car and we set off, snaking this way and that between the concrete blocks seemingly erected to deny drivers the pleasure of driving in a straight line for more than a hundred yards, even on the approaches to the highways. As we got started, Abdullah muttered “we will be late, but no problem, everyone else will be late too”, as if that made it alright. Which I suppose it did in a curious kind of way. My philosophy for dealing with the vagaries of a culture very different to my own is, if I find myself in a situation beyond my control, to go with the flow, always provided that the flow doesn’t threaten to send me over a cliff.

Abdullah was always going to be beyond my control. The problem was that his solution to our likely lateness was to drive like a lunatic. Which was how I found myself in a car with a particular type of Saudi driver. The driver whose technique I have witnessed many times when behind the wheel of my own car. The guy who calculates to the inch the space between a car on the outside lane and the concrete barrier, and then goes for it. The guy who spends the entire journey talking on his phone to his wife, his friends and colleagues. Who when he has no call to make or receive is watching YouTube videos out of the corner of his eye. Who, when he passes a traffic policeman, hitches his seatbelt over his body, and then lets it snap back to the side of the car when the danger of being caught unbelted recedes.

I had been warned about Abdullah. Someone else who had experienced the joys of riding with him described all these habits, and added that on occasions I could expect him to be driving with his knees controlling the wheel.

All this came to pass, except, I’m relieved to report, the bit about the knees.

You might ask why my instinct for self-preservation didn’t cause me to protest, and to let him know that actually it wasn’t so important for us to arrive on time, and that I’d rather arrive late than end up in a morgue. I could say that my ingrained British politeness stopped me from questioning the tactics of my new best friend. But the truth is that I found it all quite exhilarating. I’m not a great fan of sky-diving or bungee-jumping, but Abdullah’s driving offered the next best thing – an extreme sport without my having to haul my considerable bulk into a parachute or get strapped onto the end of an elastic band.

So there it was – the authentic Riyadh driver experience, not once, but four times over two days. In that time, I had little glimpses of his life. When he wasn’t overtaking at 140kph while talking to his wife, I got to see pictures of his delightful kids on his phone. After the first long conversation with his wife, he explained that she needed money. “Wives”, he said, “always wanting money!” When she called again later, I could hear the frustration in his voice. Clearly being the breadwinner was no easy ride.

At this stage, I must point out that I have ridden with many Saudis, and the vast majority have been responsible and temperate drivers. My friend Abdullah was one of maybe 5% of his countrymen who see the road as an opportunity to multi-task in the same way as they might in the office. The fact that he was hurtling down the road at high speed was no reason to focus on one thing at a time. And actually, he was a very skilled driver. Lewis Hamilton would have been proud of his breath-taking manoeuvres, though I’m not sure Lewis would take hairpin bends at Monte Carlo while watching YouTube videos. Also, to be fair to Abdullah, he was pretty much within the speed limit most of the time, except when he did one of his turbo-charged overtakes six inches from the concrete barrier. Another plus was that he didn’t treat me to a demonstration of drifting, which is a popular though highly illegal pastime in the city. He was far too sensible for that.

Anyway, I survived, and it was comforting to note that his car didn’t appear to bear the scars of his daily battles with water trucks, taxis and boy racers.

But I did wonder about the effect on the workers of Riyadh of their extended journeys to work. Driving through heavy traffic is tedious and often stressful, especially when you don’t know where the blockages will come next. Saudi Arabia doesn’t do flimsy plastic cones, by the way. They would soon be crushed to the thickness of a dinner plate. The obstacle of choice is concrete blocks solid enough to stop a steam roller, for the good reason that anything less would be insufficient to deter the ubiquitous SUVs that rule the road – and the pavements when the occasion demands.

So for several more years the hard-working people of Saudi Arabia’s capital will be arriving at their offices, shops and factories in varying states of frazzle before they even hit their desks. What will be cost of lost productivity thereby? The Metro is due to be finished by 2018, but there’s a big question mark against that date in the light of the government’s economy measures. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the project’s end date slip for at least another couple of years, which would mean five more years of torturous journeys. What’s more, the Kingdom has seen a huge baby boom over the past twenty years. Every male teenager from a middle income family and upwards expects to get his own car as soon as he can drive, so each year more cars clog the streets. What’s more, in the current frenzy of building, city planners seem to have forgotten the joys of trees and green spaces, something that prompted this article – Our streets are barren – in the the other English daily, the Saudi Gazette.

Sooner or later, regardless of when the Metro gets finished, Riyadh is going to have to get to grips with the problems that have beset cities like London and Los Angeles, where congestion has long been a nightmare and a thick yellow haze can be seen from the commanding heights. Already the traffic cameras are in place, a welcome innovation for some, but an irrelevance to others who happily shell out the fines in return for the freedom to burn up the road. How will Saudi drivers – long used to exclusive and unfettered use of their four-wheeled castles – take to congestion charges, car-pooling lanes and other tactics beloved of western cities? Not well, I suspect, especially when the government is making noises about reducing subsidies on petrol, water and electricity.

You might think that, as in London and many of the cities of Europe, bicycles would be part of the answer, even if their use was confined to the winter, when the heat is less intense. I don’t think so. If there is a city less cycle-friendly than Riyadh, I can’t think of it. There’s simply no room on the road, and even the sidewalks would be fraught with danger. In the major thoroughfares the steps, potholes and barriers obstructing the pavements would force you to spend more time walking than cycling. As for motorbikes, the Harleys and Hondas you see occasionally are strictly for recreation. Look out over the relatively empty streets of the centre on the weekend, and you might see (or hear) a dozen or so bikers rearing up on their back wheels, leaving clouds of dust and testosterone in their wake. But biking to work? Never.

Something has to give. When I stepped out of my hotel each morning, the smell of the fumes was noticeable even to someone like me whose nose is far from acute. Riyadh is not yet in the same league as Lagos, Manila and Cairo for traffic problems, but it’s getting there. The main arteries are getting increasingly blocked, and pollution is getting worse.

Before long, my friend Abdullah will have to travel many kilometres beyond the city limits before he can open up the throttle. Even so, I suspect it will be a while until he decides to let the train take the strain.

Metro or no Metro, until someone invents teleporting, it seems that the automobile will still be the transport of choice for those can afford to own one, even if most could reach their destinations faster on the back of a camel.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply