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Four cars in a week

It was the band Crowded House that had the hit song Four Seasons in One Day in the 1990s. I don't think it was written to celebrate the weather of Biggar, but between the months of April and September it could be quite appropriate.  Here in Riyadh, we are lucky to get more than one season in a week. But this edition of the blog is written abut a more variable activity, motoring. I drive a hire car, something that I had intended to be a stop-gap until I acquired my iqama, and then I would buy a car (and sell it again when I leave, a common cost saving tactic for ex-pats).

I have commented repeatedly on the state of the driving in Riyadh. I don’t think I have commented on the cars, though. By and large they fall into three categories:

  1. Clean and in good shape: this is about 40% of the traffic and I am guessing comprises mostly new cars and hire cars;
  2. Battered and bruised: about 40% and seems to comprise of privately owned vehicles that have suffered over six months of use in the city;
  3. Visibly struggling: Anything over two years old and with serious damage, usually a piece of bodywork missing such as a fairing, bumper, fascia or wing. This forms the other 20%.

This is just to set the background for the last week in which I have had four different rental cars from the hire firm I use which is based at the airport. I have been driving a Nissan Sunni and had the first car for several weeks. It had been almost new when I collected it seven weeks ago and I had clocked up about 4,000 km.

There is a roundabout (rarities in KSA) not far outside my compound and I came out for work one day last week and met someone who was coming the wrong way around it. Emergency braking and a swerve was not enough to prevent a collision, and my front right wing slammed into his right rear quarter. Fortunately neither of us was injured. I took photos on my phone and called the car hire company to report the event. By the time I had done all that the boss of the other driver turned up. The driver was an Asian ex-pat who worked for a local gangmaster. The boss looked at my car and offered to pay for the damage as long as I didn’t report the event, as his car and driver were uninsured. I explained it wasn’t my car as it was hired. He said he’d give me extra if I let him get it fixed privately. I also said I had reported it as being damaged, and I was going to play things by the rules. He then asked if he could replace his damaged car and driver with insured specimens, and I said I had already photographed the vehicles and was not prepared to take part in a deception. He offered to actually damage the intended replacement car so that it looked as if it had been involved in the accident. This attempted horse trading was interrupted by the arrival of the police who took statements and looked at my photos.



I was given a 0% blame chit for the hire company and the other driver was arrested and taken away. I felt really sorry for him as Saudi jails are reportedly not for the faint hearted. Colleagues and friends were less sympathetic saying that the only way to improve the appalling state of driving here is to be tough on wrongdoers. Fair point, but I am guessing he was just a hired worker with no say in what he was driving, and the boss man was the one with the option to pay for insurance. On the positive side I heard later that the other driver had been bought out of jail by the boss.

I was able to drive the car back to the hire depot and after filling in some paperwork I was given another car, this time a Renault Fluence, one class up from that I was paying for. Three days later a brake warning red light came on, accompanied by an audible alarm which wouldn’t clear. I drove the car back to the airport very gingerly. Once there I showed the problem to the car hire staff, who were unable to clear the warning light. The staff said that they did not have a replacement car and asked me to take the Renault back out and bring it back the day after next. Yes, honestly! This I refused to do pointing out that even if it was an indication fault I wasn’t prepared to go back out on to the roads with the car in that state. They relented and gave me another Sunni that had been prepared for someone else, and off I went. I hope the next person wasn’t fobbed off with a dodgy car with the brake alarm disabled.

Next up, on Friday I was driving with Elaine to meet friends at another compound, and two miles from our destination the car just conked out and wouldn’t restart. I coasted to as safe a spot that I could find on the side of the highway, and we got out. As even this was not a safe location, I hailed a passing taxi and we took all our personal stuff out and left the car there with the hazard lights flashing. Being a Friday, all of Saudi society stops during the day and the “24 hour” helpline wasn’t answered until 16.00, over two hours after the event.

An hour after that two staff turned up from the hire company with another hire car for us, and picked Elaine and me up to go and find the demic car. Amazingly, it was still in the same place at the side of the highway and undamaged. This is one big difference from the UK where there is every chance it could have been stolen or stripped. Here the main risk was collision from a driver who was not paying attention. After a cursory inspection the staff declared it to be out of fuel. This was surprising as the fuel gauge had shown a third full prior to starting the journey about 30 minutes before it died. Presumably the sensor had stuck and the electronic display was fooled into thinking there was fuel there, and there had been no warning light either. We left the car where it was once more and headed off to get petrol.

At this point the story turned even more alarming. Not having a fuel can, the two chaps took possession of an empty 12 litres water bottle from the garage shop and filled it with petrol. A snap-on cap was found and the bottle lugged into the car to sit in the front passenger seat footwell. In this perilous state we proceeded back to the abandoned car with the windows wide open to dispel the fumes. On arrival the chaps filled the tank using a cardboard tube improvised from rolling up a flattened box. (I am not making this up, Elaine is my witness) “Indeedy” – Elaine. The car was then restarted and handed back to us.

Looking back on this whole episode, as someone who is hired as a safety advisor for the Saudi railways, I cannot believe the risks that we took with these guys. I have omitted a description of the route that they took which included some highly suspect and dangerous reversing. It just shows that once you get into a situation it is difficult to get off once the ride has started.  

So after all this I have resolved not to buy my own car, as I can imagine the hassle and paperwork in keeping it in one piece and on the road will be out of proportion to the potential money saving. Even though the hire company has proved to be less than 100 perfect, at least I can hand a damaged car back and get another one quickly. Except on Fridays. 


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