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A Survivor’s Guide to Driving in Saudi Arabia

I was driving through downtown Riyadh recently when in my rear view mirror I saw the fragments of a BMW and a Mercedes slowly descending to earth after yet another head-on collision.  I say ‘yet another’ as hardly a day goes by without the Saudi capital being strewn with vehicular debris. And it got me thinking. Why is it that the general standard of driving in KSA is so very much worse than, say, in Dubai or Jordan or Syria?

Part of the reason has to be the fact that the majority of Saudis have never attended a driving school in their life. Instead, the would-be macho-man (women, of course, are not allowed to drive) either goes out into the desert for a dune-bashing weekend with a friend, or signs up at the nearest police station for a driving course where he is shown the basics - such as which pedal makes you go faster and which makes you stop; he is given an eye sight test – unless he wears glasses in which case he is deemed to have had one already; and he is then required to drive about 100 metres in order to get a licence to drive, irrespective of whether he has actually mastered the finer points of the highway code. That’s assuming there is actually a code to master in the first place.

Let me explain. Imagine you’re on a three lane highway and you wish to turn left at the next lights. So you move across into the left lane, right? Wrong! The left lane is for making U-turns (Saudi main roads have a series of service roads that mean you are obliged to drive in the opposite direction when you get to most junctions and then to make a U-turn at a later point.) So if you want to turn left you should move into the centre or right hand lane.

What if you want to turn right?  That’s easy. You do so from the centre lane or the right lane. But if you’re in the left lane by mistake, don’t worry. You just have to edge your car slightly more forward than the next guy and rev up fast when the lights turn green.

If you want to drive slowly, then you drive in the centre lane. All lanes can be used for overtaking, so you might as well give the other chap a choice as to which side to use.

Speed limits are the next thing to master. If you pass a round sign with 120 written in it (in Arabic or Latin text) it means that others are advised to limit their speed to 120 kph. Saudi princes (of which there are an awful lot), important businessmen, freewheeling individuals and, of course, yourself are not affected by this ruling. This especially applies to the inside hard shoulder known locally as the lane of death where anything slower than around 160kph (100 mph) will be in the way of other Saudi princes, important businessmen, freewheeling individuals and so on.

Saudi drivers care about warning signs too: a pedestrian crossing is a warning to them that stupid pedestrians might leave a mark on their car if they don’t move out of their way fast enough.

Hazard lights are used when there is fog or a sandstorm, since Saudi cars do not have rear fog lamps. So as the forward fog lamps are not now needed for their original purpose they in turn are used to warn other drivers to make way for a Saudi prince, important businessman, etc etc.

The horn is used to let other drivers in front of you know that the lights changed to green half a second ago. If you don’t use your horn you are in danger of being thought of as a wimp - never a good reputation to have in the Middle East.

OK; let’s be serious for a moment. The authorities have recently brought in new rules and regulations aimed at improving driving standards generally. There is a new points system modelled on the points systems of many western countries. Get too many points and you’re banned from driving – unless you are a Saudi with plenty of wasta of course. Driving whilst under the influence of alcohol is an immediate 16 points deduction – enough to lose your licence in one hit. Drive without having suitable brakes on your car and it’s four points away. Drive your family goat whilst not having suitable brakes on your car and it’s two points away (presumably the goat can act as a buffer in the event of an accident?).

But the question on everyone’s mind right now is what will happen when women are allowed to drive. For the signs are there right now for all to see. A new driving school has recently been built in Riyadh. Half the building is up and running; but the other half is totally empty. Everyone assumes this is in readiness for when women are given the green light, so to speak.

The problem is a serious one. Embedded in Saudi law is the fact that unrelated men and women must not socialise or even be seen talking to one another. So what will happen when a car driven by a woman is involved in an accident? Do the two drivers not talk to one another? And who is to say that male Saudi drivers with their racing hormones won’t deliberately bump into the car of a female driver – especially an expatriate female driver - in order to chat her up? No-one is yet ready to offer an answer, which may be why no date has yet been fixed for female driving to be introduced, despite having been mooted for years.

There again, you should never forget the counter argument, made by many a religious zealot, that it shouldn’t be necessary for women to drive as it is both unnatural and unnecessary anyway, as a woman’s place is in the home. Which may be why it is very common to see what at first sight appears to be cars driven by themselves … until you look a bit closer and see a small boy, no more than 10 or 11 years old, peering over the steering wheel as he manoeuvres his mother and sisters to a pressing appointment. But that, as they say, could be the start of yet another article on life in the Middle East.