Racing In The Desert: An Inside Look At Car Culture In Saudi Arabia
It’s late afternoon somewhere outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Khader and some friends have driven their Mustangs out to an empty desert highway to wait for a few challengers that are supposed to show up and race. Khader’s car, a modified New-Edge Mustang, is a rare sight in the city. His friends are in new Coyote powered Mustang GTs and Shelby Gt500s. One of the cars, a 1,000hp GT500 called the “Time Machine,” carries with it a huge reputation on the city’s streets as one of the fastest street legal cars in the country.
As twilight passes into darkness some friends stay, some go, and others arrive. Finally the challenger arrives, with a new Camaro. Khader’s friend and the Camaro line up. They race down the deserted highway for a quarter-mile. Khader’s friend returns; the guy in the Camaro is gone after losing. The two friends hang out for a little while longer, and then head to a local shop to enjoy some tea. They look for their other friends to share their story with about their experiences that night.
Life in Saudi
What comes to mind when most of us hear Saudi Arabia? Oil wells in the desert? Men dressed in traditional long robes? Women covered head to toe? Camels and sand? While all of these things exist in Saudi Arabia, those stereotypes are no more of an accurate depiction than cowboys with guns blazing on horseback and cattle drives would be of life in the USA.
In a country with a limited availability of activities, due to the strict rules and extreme summer climate, a lot of young men have turned to the world of cars. It is, of course, no surprise to us that this is happening in a land where fuel is cheap and the roads stretch out for miles over the vast open desert. After all, a car is an extension of one’s character and in a part of the world where there is a limit on what you can express how better to illustrate your personality?
On many nights men can be found hanging out at cafes or driving around on the main roads of the city center. This lack of “something to do” for younger men, as well as their love for pretty much anything with an engine, is feeding a car culture. It has made demand for American muscle cars huge in Riyadh. While most westerners think of Saudi car culture as robed sheiks owning Ferraris and Bugattis the truth is that the majority of the youths in Riyadh are drawn to American Muscle. Cars like Mustangs, Corvettes, Camaros, and Challengers both new, used, and even classic are found scattered around the country. A combination of cheap cars, cheaper fuel, and no tax makes owning an American muscle car an attractive proposition for young men with plenty of free time on their hands.
Parts and Service
We’ve developed a relationship with Ahmed Khader, a UK citizen of Arabic origin, who grew up his entire life in Scotland. Khader originally moved to Saudi Arabia for short term work. After buying an old beat up Mustang GT he used it to break the ice with the locals who are now some of his closest friends. When the time came for Ahmed to move to Australia the tragic death of his best friend broke his life apart and he found himself losing everything.
Khader tells us, “I was depressed and couldn’t think straight for a while; I lost my job and found myself working in an old factory in the middle of nowhere getting paid less than minimum wage. Despite that I had my Mustang and even though she was barely running, she held on, she could have broken down at any point on those desert highways. It’s only until I finally pulled my life back together that she died on me. Literally, on the day I signed the contract with my new job and drove home she broke down as I pulled into the garage. I owe this old beat up mustang for not giving up on me. Now that I’m doing well I want to build her into something beautiful.”
Khader says that getting your hands on aftermarket car parts in Saudi Arabia can be tough. “All of the parts have to be imported and are subject to inspection by customs officials. It can take weeks and sometimes even months to get a part from the USA to Saudi and costs hundreds of dollars in shipping. Sometimes you find yourself paying the price of the part just in shipping,” he says.
“Customs can sometimes be a little tough to get through when it comes to car parts. Once a nitrous kit coming from America wouldn’t get through until it finally got in under SCUBA gear… in the desert?! It’s really just who you know. Some companies can bring in parts better than others. The more connected you are in the car world, the easier it gets.”
Adding to the frustration for many Saudi gearheads is the lack of shops and skilled technicians to work on their cars. Often due to a lack of knowledge when it comes to modifying cars, many garage facilities end up experimenting on cars by trying to make the modifications through trial and error. It is not that they have bad intentions; it is simply that they don’t have the experience. Again it’s about who you know as there are a handful of workshops that specialize in modified cars. Of course, finding a tuner and a good dyno for an uncommon car can also be a problem.
Still, amidst all of this adversity a car culture continues to thrive. Young men are buying up new and used muscle cars as well as performance automobiles from Asia and Europe. In Riyadh, Khader’s friend, Khalid, has opened a shop called Torque Speed Automotive, one of the only quality performance shops currently in the city.
Torque Speed has managed to acquire reputable technicians and developed relationships with many suppliers and manufacturers in the USA. Those companies include SCT, Adam’s Polishes, Lethal Performance, and Addictive Desert Designs. This gets them the support they need in terms of getting parts shipped, tech support, and the ability to buy parts. It has made life very easy for Ahmed and his friends now finally have a speed shop to work on their cars without the headaches.
How big is the aftermarket business potential in Saudi Arabia? At the 2013 SEMA show a large percentage of the attendees were Saudi citizens. Additionally, several specialists and shop owners were there to make their case for support from American companies in getting parts to Saudi. This is a market that every American performance company should look at reaching as its potential is huge.
In the USA street racing is played out on movies and reality TV shows as glamorous, a little dangerous, and fun. In reality those of us who know about it know it’s very seldom like the scenes on the screen, extremely dangerous, and typically everyone is on edge the entire time.
It’s a whole different picture in Saudi Arabia. Although illegal drag racing still exists on the empty highways out in the desert. There is a huge subculture unique to the country that greatly outnumbers the drag racers. They are the illegal drifters. These are not legitimate professionals like in the USA, or even amateurs tearing up a parking lot late at night. “Typically these guys get high on pills or just get crazy and go driving down a public road extremely fast swerving side to side, trying to slide their car and ‘drift’ around the traffic, they’re idiots and they’re the reason why police crack down on the street racers,” Khader says. The drifters often end up crashed, in a best case scenario only hurting themselves or their cars, sadly in many cases they take out innocent commuters as well. The increased police presence has all but completely shut down street racing on the desert roads near Riyadh, this has forced many in the hobby to sit around and wait until a time when they can race again.
Dirab Motorsports Park has stepped in as the answer. The newly opened race track in Riyadh is actually the country’s first official drag strip. Their mission is to take the young men off the street and give them somewhere safe to race. Khader has developed a good friendship with the people behind this park and says, “These guys are passionate. This isn’t just some method of milking money out of the gearheads in the country. I see the manager of the track walking around in the pits talking to the driver. I see him out there on the strip inspecting and working with his team. He has good intentions and wants to build a strong foundation for the young drivers in the country. He wants the motor sport to grow and has big plans such as possibly working with the country’s dominant training company, Al Khaleej Training and Education, to help guide the young kids getting into the car world safely and correctly.”
Here in this desert oasis of speed is a place for these once street racers to make a new start and legally race their cars. Khader and a handful of others are helping lead the way, by trying to bring in their friends off the streets and on the track for legitimate, legal racing.
Dirab Park looks like any top NHRA facility in the USA, with massive grand stands, a beautiful tower and media/suite area, along with a nicely finished track surface. Sand blows onto the track daily and must be removed, but rain is almost never a problem in the arid climate. The park has now developed a relationship with the government sector in charge and the owners hope to promote motorsports with their support. Dirab already offers drag racing, drifting, autocross, and karting. They plan to continue building the facility to feature a variety of other activities. They even train willing drivers and rent out Coyote powered Mustangs for those who don’t want to risk their own cars.
Khader who is highly skilled in presenting and video production had originally built his skills by working previously within the entertainment industry in Scotland. He has produced a series of videos not only on street racing in Saudi Arabia, but also on the track.
His latest projects are one-hour long videos covering the main events at Dirab Motorsports Park. They are the first of their kind in the region with humorous expert commentary and walk arounds that make you feel like you’re part of the action. He tells us, “Previously no one doing this type of coverage knew anything about the cars or the drivers. The coverage was stale and the interviews were boring. I have nothing against them and wish everyone the best, but my friends and I are gearheads, this is our life, so the commentary and videos come naturally to us”.
Khader’s endeavor has lead to other opportunities for him in terms of video production. He’s currently working with track owners and others to produce more videos and shine a light of legitimacy on motorsports in Saudi Arabia. The hope is that they will gain enough recognition to help accelerate the world of Motorsports in the country and present a good image to the public that car guys are not these idiotic drifters on the public roads of the city.
Torque Speed is thriving as well. The shop already worked on over 50 SVT Raptors and countless other vehicles. They are also working with Khader to produce a video series called Wrench Time, which will detail installs and projects. Their first project together is a supercharged Addictive Desert Designs SVT Raptor build -a truck immensely popular in this part of the world.
Watching Khader’s videos and speaking with him several times a month on the phone we realized that car guys are all the same no matter what continent we’re on. We love to hang out with our friends, we love to talk a little trash to each other, and talk about our own cars. Wrenching, modifying, and racing are all part of the life. We’re all human, we’re all horsepower crazy, and we’re all looking for some fun with our cars.
As for Ahmed Khader and his team, we’ve seen them go from underground street racers playing shadow games and racing on desert highways, to now being influential figures in the legit Saudi car world. We’ll be keeping an eye on these rising starts of the Saudi racing world and wish them and all the gearheads of Saudi Arabia the best of luck for the future.