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Driving in Saudi

I think I mentioned earlier that I had rented a car, a Nissan Sunni. It has taken me quite a while to get used to driving here, but at last I think I have cracked it. There are two main differences between driving anywhere else I have been and to here.

The first is the road layout. Riyadh does not suffer from a legacy of streets that have grown organically since Roman times and were wide enough for two horse carts passing each other - think London, Edinburgh etc. Neither did these cities have the benefit that Hausmann brought to Paris when he demolished thousands of houses and shops to build the grand boulevards that it is now famous for. Until two generations ago, Riyadh was a small place clustered around an old market district or souk, and the palaces of the sheikhs. The majority of the inland population were nomadic types, herding their camels´╗┐, goats and sheep from grazing spot to grazing spot. Then, the commercial value of their oil was realised and cars were bought, industry and government grew and housing boomed. The population is now around the 9 million mark.

But the town planners got in early and apart from the historic quarter they decided to build straight roads to a grid pattern, like most North American cities have. They went a step further, not being constrained by anything so tedious as rivers, contours, owners of property, public opinion or budgets and built a network of super-highways that criss-cross the city north to south and east to west. These highways are mostly freeways with grade separated junctions and no traffic lights. Speed limits are 80kph (50mph) as a minimum rising to 120 kph (80mph). Most are four lanes wide with a solid four foot high concrete barrier down the middle and then four lanes of traffic in the opposite direction. These highways are flanked by parallel distributor roads, usually three lanes wide with traffic running in the same direction as the adjoining highway, feeding in and out at full speed every 500m or so. The only place in the UK that I can think of that has this type of arrangement is between junctions 5 and 7 on the M20 to the north of Maidstone.  Therefore, typically we have a series of fourteen lane wide thoroughfares through Riyadh, intersecting each other at distances of one to two miles apart. And in between the highways are grid pattern streets.

Navigating is particularly difficult. Not because they drive on the right - not a problem as I just flip the mental switch in my brain. But because with the highways, you cannot make a left turn. You come off onto the distributor roads and from there you can turn right, or make U turns onto the parallel distributor road by way of bridge or subway. So to turn left you either have to do three rights, or a single right and a U turn. Once you have grasped the logic it all makes sense. As a result the traffic usually flows reasonably freely. However many roads in the city are closed/restricted for the civils works to build the metro system. Therefore whether or not you can actually achieve the three rights is a lottery, and I have been forced to take very lengthy detours as a result. 

Secondly, once you know where you are going, the other bit of fun is coping with the Saudi driving style. Basically, the trick to surviving is to develop 360 degree vision, using all available mirrors, sense of hearing and develop a sixth sense to predict what everyone else might do. You need to continually expect the unexpected. The markings for four lanes on the highways are only a rough guide, in reality there will be five or six flows of traffic going along them. Under-taking and high speed lane weaving are the norm. Add at least 20kph to the speed limit to get the flow speed. At junctions and traffic lights on city streets vehicles will jockey for position and if you think you are sitting pretty in the queue for the lights, someone will cut you up squeezing their nose into the 3 foot gap you foolishly left in front of you. Bigger is better, and larger cars bully smaller cars into submission. At lights, of the four cars in the two lanes at the front of the queue, any of them may go in any direction - right, straight ahead, left, or left U turn. The same goes for all the cars behind them too.

If this all sounds too scary, and you are wondering why I don't stick to the (very cheap and plentiful) taxis, it's because they, along with the native Saudi drivers spend most of their time with one hand on their mobile phones talking, or even worse, texting.

Grand Theft Auto, anyone? 

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