Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt

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By: Pascal Menoret

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 250pp. $85.00. ISBN: 978-1107035485. Pbk.: $32.99. ISBN: 978-1107641952.

Volume: 2 Issue: 7

July 2014

Review by:

Feras Klenk, MA

University of Arizona

Tucson, AZ

Scholarly works about Saudi Arabia usually focus on issues of regional security, energy policy, Islam, and democratization. Joyriding in Riyadh, I am delighted to write, is not one of these types of work. Pascal Menoret’s book is an excellent ethnography of youth culture in Saudi Arabia that unpacks the connections between the social practice of joyriding as a form of political dissent with the questions of oil, urbanism, and power. It provides new insight into the categories of masculinity and gender in the Middle Eastern context and the spatial politics of the Saudi state. This work contributes to a growing body of critical scholarship (e.g., Adam Hanieh’s Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States, Madawi Al-Rasheed’s A Most Masculine State, and Toby Craig Jones’s Desert Kingdom) that seeks to re-conceptualize the studies of the Arabian Peninsula and situate the region in larger political, economic, social, and cultural contexts and global processes.

In the introduction, the author lays out the conceptual and methodological framework of the book. Instead of seeing drifting as a criminal youth activity, Menoret re-frames it as an activity that is “embedded in global networks of power and knowledge” (p. 5). It is a product of rapid urbanization and road building, the emergence of a car as the primary mode of transportation anchored in an oil-based economy that fueled rampant land speculation. Menoret then moves to the discussion of politics and sees joyriding as a part of an emerging “plebeian public sphere” which challenges the state through “various genres of opposition (p. 11) and conveys the dissatisfaction of young Saudis with state policies. The final points of this section focus on the author’s concern with self-reflexivity during the course of his fieldwork. In the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu, he reflects how his positionality impacts the direction and content of his study and the representation of Saudi youth both at home and abroad.

In Chapter 2, Menoret demonstrates the reality of state surveillance, repression, and violence that Saudi citizens face and how it configures social relations in distinct ways. He remarks that the work of the anthropologist cannot remain unaffected or undistorted in such an environment, and recounts an interesting personal vignette that shows the trajectory of his own research agenda. Chapters 3 and 4 examine how, after the 1972 oil bonanza, Riyadh was transformed into a modern suburban city which has been dominated by the car and underpinned by an oil economy. The process was driven by mass — rural to urban — migration in search of economic opportunities, real estate speculation on a spectacular scale, and the large importation of foreign manufactured cars that reflected material affluence of certain segments of Saudi society. However, in a familiar story around the world, the process of development was contested in different ways. It was accompanied by episodes of violence and expulsion, which contradicted state narratives of harmonious development of the Saudi nation. The following two chapters shift focus from the creation of modern Riyadh to the stories of the young drifters. They are the children of Saudi rural migrants, but unlike the well-connected Saudis, they, by and large, have not benefited from the new economy. Largely located on the margins of society, they inhabit the new urban landscapes and shape them according to their “use, misuse, and abuse of cars” (p. 20). Indeed, young disaffected, rebellious and marginalized drifters create a new map of the city through driving practices. Menoret conceptualizes these practices as a form of resistance to state policies. The state, in turn, brands the drifters as a deviant element and politicizes their actions.

One of the avenues that could have been explored more explicitly in this book was the multilayered connections between gender, youth culture, urbanism, and political dissent. The brief portion of the text that analyzes the sexuality and masculinity of the drifters was theoretically suggestive.

Joyriding in Riyadh is an excellent and scholarly work that makes a valuable contribution to the field of Middle East Studies. It will appeal to anyone that has an interest in youth culture, urban and gender studies, urban history, and anthropology of the Middle East. Moreover, the book can be assigned to classes on Middle Eastern politics, Arab Uprisings, or any course that deals with the issues of social violence and economic inequality in a comparative or global framework.

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