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.
espite 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.