The new Saudi war on car drifting: Why is it relevant?

Saudi Arabia announced a significant increase in penalties and traffic fines, in hopes that it will curb the phenomenon

Ismaeel Naar
Ismaeel Naar - Al Arabiya English
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According to Saudi traffic authorities, at least one driver gets into an accident in the kingdom every second, while at least 20 people - mostly young Saudi men - die per day to speeding, drifting or reckless driving.

The subculture of joyriding has become such a phenomenon in Saudi Arabia that it has its own label: “tafheet,” or drifting. It is the act of tyre-burning performed by cars before a flash mob of youthful admirers.

The kingdom has just announced a significant increase in penalties, such as traffic fines and stricter legislation, in the hope that it will curb the phenomenon.

New amendments to the traffic law code stipulate that a driver caught drifting on a first offense will receive a 20,000-riyal penalty ($5,330.85), in addition to the car being impounded for 15 days. A second-time offender will be fined 40, 000 riyals ($10,661.69) and referred to court to determine whether a prison sentence will be handed down.

A third time offender will see that fine increase to 60,000 riyals ($16,000) in addition to potential jail time and car being confiscated permenantly.

“Drifting is viewed as a national hobby in Saudi Arabia, just like football,” Saudi photographer and car enthusiast Erfan Matcharan told Al Arabiya English.

“Unfortunately, I don’t photograph those who drive on the streets and highways because many don’t like their license plate and faces seen in public… they can get in trouble with the authorities.”

Efforts to provide legal and safe spaces for car enthusiasts have been evident over the years. “I’m one of the most ardent of those opposed to tafheet being practiced on the roads, after I personally experienced the deaths of two friends,” he said. “One died a few years ago, while the other died just last year.”

The statistics regarding deaths due to reckless driving are so daunting that it prompted Saudi writer Adel Alharbi to call for the criminalization of drivers caught speeding and joyriding.

He recently wrote an article in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh where he compared the number of deaths due to dangerous driving to those dying at the Saudi-Yemen border because of the war.

“A reckless driver should be treated equally to terrorists who commit suicide attacks in the name of religion,” Alharbi told Al Arabiya English.

“Just like them, dangerous drivers are attempting not just suicide, but also harming innocent people around them.”

According to him, while most Saudis welcome the stricter rules and increased fines on drifting, many think it is not enough.

“While raising awareness is obviously a first step in getting our youths to understand the dangers of driving recklessly, we need to criminalize the act to get people to think twice next time they drift, speed or even cross a red light.”

Drifting in Saudi Arabia has received considerable attention from global media in recent years. VICE Sports was so interested in the issue that it dedicated an entire documentary to it, garnering nearly 1.5 million views.

British-Sri Lankan singer M.I.A featured drifting heavily in the video for her song “Bad Girls,” with men in thoubs (Gulf robes) attempting the infamous “Saudi glide,” where they hold on to passenger doors while gliding the roads on sandals.

“Car drifting emerged after Riyadh was planned, and oil became the main driver of the economy,” Pascal Menoret writes in his book “Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt,”

“All of a sudden you have wider roads and 18, 19, 21-year-olds with access to cars and the space to make drifting easier,” Menoret told Al Arabiya English.

Saudi professional drifter Saeed Almouri, who was featured in the VICE Sports documentary, told Al Arabiya English that there’s no definite solution at the end of the day: “Attitude and mindset has to change inside a Saudis’ homes. It starts with the family who have to show their son has to earn the right to drive a car, not simply giving him one and then allowing for abuse of skills later.”

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