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Joyriding as a language of protest

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

What we can learn from how the youth of Riyadh are protesting the establishment.

Amidst the BLM marches, Extinction Rebellion sit-ins and social media activism there are other forms of protest emerging that are less recognisable but arguably far more effective. Like many of my peers, I have grown increasingly frustrated by the apparent lack of impact of our generic protest march. Despite its evident visibility on the ground and on mainstream media, the response from above never seems to vary. In my opinion, this is attributable to the fact that our most used forms of protest are ultimately unsustainable, and the powerful will almost always have the resources to starve us out. I don’t mean to undermine these forms of protest as I think they have a powerful impact on the opinions of many, and visibility of a social issue should never be underestimated. However, it seems that there are forms of protest that are longer term and cause a greater challenge to the power against which we are protesting, and it is one of these in particular that I would like to showcase.

Young people across the world are subverting conventional forms of protest by tailoring their demonstrations to the issue at hand. Youth are weaponising the utility of that which is oppressing them against their oppressor and a perfect example of this form of protest is the phenomenon of joyriding that has grown out of Riyadh. In order to understand exactly how joyriding is a form of political protest, it is key to understanding how Riyadh has been built to structurally oppress its citizens.

Urban planning is an established form of control in Riyadh. The design of the city is intended to facilitate social engineering. Riyadh has been referred to as "the twentieth century city" (Saleh al-Hathloul 2003) as it grew from a population of 14,000 people inhabiting an area of one square kilometre in 1902 to 4.3 million people in an area of 1,500 square kilometres in 2000. The creation of modern Riyadh was a result of post-cold war planning of a modern city “in [America’s] own image” (Menoret 2014), designed according to a neo-liberal market rationality where the demands of economic and political stability outweighed the needs of its inhabitants. Its design deviates from the characteristic labyrinthine layout towards a gridiron pattern. This grid system atomised suburbia and prevented its inhabitants forming a community which might lead to collective revolutionary action. Planners believed that by isolating its inhabitants from social networks, restricting their mobility or collective action, they would contain any socialist threat. It also created a centre which “followed the evolution of the global energy market toward the domination of oil” (Menoret 2014) enabling the promotion of American neo-liberal modernism. Riyadh was designed to be a crossroad in international trade and required a public image to match, thus its highways became “the Saudi equivalent of Wall Street” (Menoret 2014) symbolising a new landed bourgeoisie rather than avenues for the mobility of the everyman. Riyadh provides an excellent example of the Foucauldian nature of urban planning - or more simply put, how infrastructure can control people. However, the youth of Riyadh have repurposed this oppressive urban planning into a space of resistance and revolution.

Joyriding transformed Riyadh from a space intentionally designed to be apolitical into one of acute political resistance. As a very public spectacle of defiance, joyriding completely subverted what Henri Lefebvre labelled “the silence of the users” (Lefebvre 1991), by refusing to participate in the general state of apathy and depoliticisation that Riyadh was attempting to enforce. They drove all over Riyadh’s fragmented suburbia in order to ensure that everyone was aware of and could participate in their activities, thus posing a challenge to Riyadh’s attempt to decollectivize its inhabitants. Joyriders took advantage of the market orientated rationality of the city by utilising vacant spaces “left aside by real estate investors for future development.” (Menoret 2014) By driving in spaces which had been deliberately preserved for the market rather than the people, joyriders transfigured these sites from “signs of capitalism into expressions of escapism and defiance” (Menoret 2014) thus weaponising the city’s intended structural function to plunge a carefully ordered city into disarray. Joyriding’s aggressive mobility can be interpreted as a noisy challenge to the silent immobility caused by Riyadh’s significant lack of investment in public transport. In theory, the car symbolised individual mobility and Saudi Arabia as a driving nation, in reality, the ban on female driving condemned women to a life of stasis or dependency and rendered men as chauffeurs. By using the roads as a space of pleasure, joyriders protest the way in which the Riyadh condemns drivers to be “mere cogs in a disciplinary mechanism” (Menoret 2014), creating a politics of fun in the face of banality and repression. The frequent collisions in joyriding, whilst they should not be glamourised, can be perceived as an attempt to combat the “artificially tamed space” (Menoret 2014) and aura of safety that the city’s new wealth purports to provide. By recolonising stolen spaces and repurposing that which was neoliberally engineered, joyriders reinvented the space of Riyadh from one of submission to one of revolt.

Riyadh youth are achieving survival in a space in which they felt dispossessed by repossessing it as loudly as possible. In the words of anthropologist Bayat they are “reclaiming their right to the city” which has been constructed in order to make them feel socially expendable by placing economic gain and political security over individual welfare. Hence, they rebel against this exclusive infrastructure which has been designed to segregate and isolate its inhabitants by engendering their own form of grassroots mobilisation. The joyriders have turned to the roads to see what possibilities the neoliberal city may “unintentionally furnish for subaltern struggles.” (Bayat 2012) For both anthropologists, streets and roads create a space where collective identity can be forged in resistance; in other words where a city’s design attempts to fragment, its inhabitants find new ways to unite. Where joyriding far outstrips marching as a form of protest is in its careful targeting. Riyadh’s roads were built for the economy, so joyriders took to the roads to protest, and thus completely subverted their intended function. Their success is twofold in that are blatantly visible whilst simultaneously having a tangible effect on the structures they are hoping to bring down.

What can we learn from the youth of Riyadh? That protest cannot sustain itself on presence alone but must be actively subverting the structures intended to oppress.


Al-Hathloul, S. (2003) Riyadh Architecture in One Hundred Years. Centre for the Study of the Built Environment. Amman, Jordan

Bayat, A. (2012) Politics in the City-Inside-Out. City & Society 24 (2)

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell

Menoret, P (2014) Joyriding in Riyadh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Menoret, P. (2017) The Suburbanization of Islamic Activism and Saudi Arabia. City and Society 29 (1)

Kristy Richards is graduate from the University of Oxford, currently studying for her Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies with Intensive Arabic at SOAS. Her main areas of interest are migration and diaspora studies, inter-sectional politics and human rights discourse.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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