Book Review: Divergent Urban Spaces in Pascal Menoret's "Joyriding in Riyadh"

In Joyriding in Riyadh, Pascal Menoret uses “joyriding” and “drifting” as a lens through which to analyze the political, social, and economic experience of Saudi citizens in the massive urban center of Riyadh. Menoret’s discussion focuses on how Riyadh’s inhabitants, in particular the city’s marginalized Bedouin migrants, navigate the complex political, structural-economic, and social barriers devised by the state to control and divide the Saudi population. These policies, while harmful to the population, also render them absolutely dependent on the state. Menoret then delves into the development, mechanics, and culture surrounding joyriding, arguing that this practice challenges the state on multiple levels, including their economic monopoly over the public space and their ideological monopoly over what is deemed acceptable. Menoret also addresses how joyriding and the ideology supporting it is both produced by and resists the fetishization of largely foreign products that erupted in Saudi society after the oil boom of 1973. He deftly provides an overview about the making of the Saudi city as we know it today while remaining true to his mission of shedding light on the ways that Saudi youths interact and subvert the multiple repressive apparati that are brought to bear on their ability to not only simply subsist but also to lead meaningful, enriching lives.

Menoret’s text places joyriding “at the meeting point between local and international politics, national and global markets, state and economic violence,” (18) and must be understood “in the light of the global importance of Saudi Arabia… as a major oil exporter, commodity market, and inventor of traditions” (5). These interrelated contexts distinguish Menoret from conventional Saudi and Western thought which considers joyriding the product of Saudi youths being “idle pests, culturally unsuited for regular employment, and prone to enrollment in violent activities” (17). Menoret, commendably, chooses a complex but ultimately enlightening approach that blends political economy, sociology, history, and ethnography. He offers a sober analysis of how the Saudi government’s efforts to disenfranchise its poorest citizens, rapidly modernize its urban spaces, and clamp down on social freedoms has produced the very violent form of resistance manifest in joyriding.

But the gradual modernization of Saudi Arabia’s urban spaces, and the subsequent importation of Western neoliberalism, has played an equally important part in joyriding’s emergence. Menoret recounts how the royal family commissioned Constantinos Doxiadis and his company Doxiadis Associates (DA) to form a master plan for the future growth of Riyadh. DA’s vision for Riyadh was one of a “city along the motorway,” composed of highly centralized economic and administrative hubs that would develop around an established city center, aided by the high mobility provided by large, modern highways, as opposed to the urban sprawl created by unchecked, decentralized expansion (72). The DA’s vision was only half-implemented, due to the massive windfall of the 1973 oil embargo that culminated in the royal family’s profligate handouts of land grants to real estate investors and developers. This created a situation where “community centers didn’t develop” and instead “urban highways, at the superblock’s periphery, [became] more attractive for commercial activities than superblock cores, less accessible by car” (106). The two-pronged influx of capital from oil rent, which was distributed primarily through the massively profitable housing market and automobile market (99), and Bedouin and foreign migrants from rural areas and abroad necessitated the expansion of Riyadh; however, as Menoret argues, this suburbanization occurred at the expense of the neediest Saudis, building “huge real estate empires and commercial monopolies...which only further deepened social and economic inequalities” (114).

Credit: Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/hamzafarooq/12294365584

Bedouin and foreign workers were pushed into dilapidated slums, producing what Lara Deeb and Mona Harb call a “moral geography,” one that has “generat[ed] systems of exclusion and inclusion related to classifications of good and bad behavior” (Lara Deeb and Mona Harb, Leisurely Islam, 26). The shantytown suburbs inhabited by Bedouins “presented ‘many moral… problems’” and were seen as hotbeds of “promiscuity, immorality and vice” (87). This exacerbated middle-class Saudis’ already condescending views towards rural migrants and thus, Bedouin and foreign migrants, “politically isolated, socially singled out and spatially marginalized in ghetto-like areas,” were forced to subsist in an overwhelmingly oppressive landscape “which resulted in durable economic relegation” (78).

The book pairs this detailed look at how Bedouin migrants found themselves in a structurally and morally oppressive living situation in Riyadh with a broader conception of how Saudi society is segregated. Socially, Saudi society is “[atomized]” (53) through the construction of small and scattered housing, paired with overbearing influence by the secret police within the public spaces of mosques, parks, and malls (54). Saudis’ ability to access housing and cars is heavily dependent on the class-based geography of the city, a geography that parallels and intersects with the aforementioned moral geography (54). Gender-based and generational segregation overlap with this social segregation by ostracizing females and male bachelors, who are labeled menaces to the moral order of society at large (49, 54-5). Both groups are structurally discriminated against by respectively the reliance on a male guardian or the inability to find employment. Compounding this is the massive youth unemployment problem facing Saudi Arabia today. Only within this complex urban and social history can we analyze the idea joyriding as a form of resistance.

Drifting in Saudi Arabia

Menoret’s treatment of joyriding as a violent reprisal against the oppressive nature of Riyadh’s urban environment and Saudi Arabia’s neoliberal consumerism provokes interesting questions about the nature of resistance. In Riyadh, urbanism has atomized society to the point where cars, along with isolated houses, became the only vehicle for Saudis to “passively consume their allotted share of space and mobility” (132). Joyriding instead serves as an active assertion of this consumption of urban space and mobility through the violence it inflicts, be it physical or ideologically. It “reclaim[s] and re-creat[es] the space of the city” against the “artificially tanned space” that’s been created by suburbanization (162).

However, this argument is problematized by joyriding’s dependence on the vacant developments that are created by Riyadh’s ever-expanding real estate market. This real estate craze furnishes freshly paved roads shooting out into the deserted margins of the city. In this sense, joyriding is not a subversion of the Saudi royal family’s vision of urbanity, but rather a negative affirmation of it. By re-appropriating the space provided by the royal family’s clientele of real estate developers and investors, joyriders resist the state’s ability to dictate what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the city but not the state’s ability to produce that space in the first place. Do we then find resistance embedded within joyriding’s other manifestation as a retaliation against the social and moral fabric imposed by the royal family?

In this space, I would argue that joyriding in some ways resists notions of corrupt behavior, and stereotyped notions about Bedouin more generally, but in other ways parallels the Saudi state’s imposition of gender roles and norms. The example of joyriding as integrated with homosocial culture provides an interesting field of analysis for this question. Joyriding relies on exaggeratedly masculine gender norms to match the aggression embedded in drifting and its frequent violence. While it has produced a “celebration of macho male-to-male sexual practices” that thoroughly rebukes state segregation of genders, it contributes heavily to binary understandings of masculinity and femininity that, despite being detached from biology, oppress “passive partners” who tend to be young boys (167-9). Although it would be easy for a casual observer to remark that the simple presence of homosocial behavior in Saudi joyriding represents a ‘resistance’ to the state’s moral and legal precepts, a more detailed study reveals that the same oppressive binaries used by the state to subjugate women are brought to bear in joyriding culture against young boys and other men who are considered ‘feminine’ in comparison to the aggressive masculinity of the active partners.

Lastly, resistance in joyriding can be analyzed within the context of the neoliberal reality of Saudi Arabia’s consumer society. In this space, I would argue, joyriding does indeed present a resistance to the fetishization of products that the neoliberal economic reality of Saudi Arabia encourages. Menoret compares drag racers and joyriders in their consumptive habits directed towards automobiles. While drag racers “were enhancing the value of their cars, which they took amorous care of,” joyriders concentrated on “using – and abusing – them” (155). Drag racers prioritized modifications and improvements that made their vehicles “faster and safer,” while joyriders instead “focused on the performance itself rather than on the object-car” (155). These two modes of consumption demonstrate two routes of active consumption of a product. While drag racers seek to engage positively with the object of consumption, the car, joyriders seek to negatively express the fetishization of the “object-car” by actively spurring it towards destruction. Thus, although these joyrider poems tend to deify the object-car (154-5), it is in the context of the exhilaration and experience derived from the use (and abuse) of the automobile rather than the deification of the object itself in the form of modifications and enhancements. Additionally, by stealing or renting the cars, they are challenging the very notion of purchase as the impulse upon which consumption thrives. In this way, joyriders are resisting the fetishization of consumption that proliferated in Saudi urban society with the wholesale importation of Western neoliberal understandings after the oil boom of 1973.

Joyriding in Riyadh is a sprawling and enriching study of resistance in Saudi Arabia, but the motivations for joyriding that it describes are not enough to label the practice ‘resistance’ or ‘not resistance.’ It is far more complicated. An act of drifting may be resistant to the imposed, atomized urban landscape, but on other levels it simply imitates or relies on the state’s power. It may violate oppressive state laws or ideology but, as with joyriding’s homosocial culture, represent a different form of oppression. And finally, although they strike at the fundamental norms associated with consumption and neoliberal economic structures, the joyriders also use the products created by these processes to exercise their frustration. What this study reveals is that acts and thoughts are highly complex, and spring from equally complex political, social, economic, and cultural realities. Resistance is never as clear cut as some might hope.

Works Cited:

Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.