Home to expat life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Newcomer's Guide To Driving In Jeddah 

“What’s the Saudi definition of a millisecond?” Answer - The time between traffic lights turning green and the driver behind you honking his horn. Perhaps that old joke is something of an exaggeration, but the newcomer to Jeddah will soon encounter no shortage of drivers who are discourteous, not to mention downright dangerous. Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, a source of frequent complaint. But if they only knew the toll driving can take, perhaps they’d be counting their blessings instead. For the newcomer the whole motoring experience in Jeddah can be nothing short of terrifying at first. But knowing what to expect will help to keep your temper and nerves intact and you and your car in one piece.

First, before you even think about getting behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia, make sure you have insurance. Motor insurance is not compulsory in the Kingdom, but the consequences of not having it are too dire to contemplate. (More about that later.)

Secondly, although westerners are generally initially permitted to drive using their foreign licence, it makes life simpler if you take out a Saudi licence as soon as your iqama (residence permit) is issued. The procedure takes at least one whole morning and you must attend in person. It is enormously helpful if your company can provide an Arabic speaker familiar with the process to assist you, guiding you from one counter and office to the next and back again. Be aware that you will have to undergo a blood test. This came as a nasty surprise to me. When an official guided my hand downward to what looked like a pad on his desk, I thought he was going to take my fingerprints. But then came an unexpected sharp prick. I looked down to see scarlet blood oozing from the middle finger of my left hand, blood which then curiously turned green on contact with a transparent liquid solution in the pad. At least now for the first time in my life I finally know my blood group.

Okay, you’ve checked that you have insurance, you’ve got your nice new shiny laminated Saudi driving licence and you’re sitting behind the wheel of your car raring to go. You notice that the steering wheel is on the left. No big deal to North Americans and continental Europeans, but it may take a little time for British, Irish, Japanese and Antipodeans to get used to. Remember, steering wheel on the left means drive on the right. Easy enough to bear in mind on a straight road, but don’t forget it when turning off. You don’t want to find yourself going the wrong way down a dual carriageway. And remember to overtake on the left, even when ancient wrecks dawdling along in the central lane leave you sorely tempted to dash past inside on the right. Also beware the hazard posed by slow-moving empty taxis looking for trade. 

Jeddah is above all a city of roundabouts, most of them with a sculpture or other exhibit as their centrepiece. Some of these are quite spectacular - a giant penny farthing bicycle, a flotilla of full size ex-navy gunboats complete with fighter escort, even a decommissioned DC 10 airliner! But leave the admiring gawks to your passengers. You concentrate on driving. As far as right of way is concerned, the rules are that there are no rules. The only law that applies is that of the jungle. You might expect that traffic already on the roundabout would have priority. Forget it. It’s simply a question of survival of the fastest. If you are already on the roundabout, keep your eyes peeled to the right. If you see vehicles approaching at speed and think that they are likely to reach the point of intersection before you do, don’t stand on your dignity or try to be a hero. Slow down. If needs be, stop even, and let them on. This is particularly important when you wish to turn off at the following exit. At all costs avoid being rammed from the side.

If you yourself are approaching the roundabout and the momentum is with the traffic already on it, you may have to wait to get on. Look left to gauge the flow, not forgetting to check out those vehicles seeking to enter from the road 90 degrees to your left. When you are approaching the roundabout from a three-lane carriageway, take the right lane if you are immediately turning right or the central lane if you are continuing. Try to avoid the left lane as not only can you end up going round the roundabout on two wheels, but you also run the risk of being cut up by a car from the central lane as the traffic bunches up on the roundabout itself.

Most main roads have at least two lanes in each direction. Many are dual carriageways, the remainder have a (sometimes faded) double white line down the centre. The problem with the dual carriageways is that you often have to go a long way in the wrong direction before an opportunity presents itself to do a U-turn and start travelling in the direction you really want to. U-turns at traffic lights are generally safe. This also applies where there is a specially designated left-turning lane. A potentially serious danger arises, however, where there is just a gap of a few feet between the opposite carriageways and no stop sign or other form of traffic control. You can find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having your vehicle’s nose poking out into the fast lane of the carriageway you seek to join while its rear end is protruding into the fast lane of the carriageway you are leaving.

Where you have at least two lanes to chose from, avoid that on the right. Cars on side roads tend to approach at an alarming speed and usually only stop (if at all!) with their noses sticking out a foot or two onto the main road, leaving you with no option but to swerve left to avoid them. At traffic lights the right lane is exclusively for turning right. Provided the coast is clear, you may do so even when the light is on red. You will no doubt often see red when a driver going straight uses the right lane to queue jump. He will sit stationery in the turning lane until someone who does actually want to turn right comes up behind and beeps at him to get out of the way. He will then drive forward and left, plonking himself in front of the legitimate head of the line of traffic going straight. By now, of course, the queue jumper is in front of the traffic lights themselves and cannot see when they turn green. He only knows to proceed when irate motorists behind start honking furiously at him to stop holding them up.

Another favourite trick of don’t-care-for-anyone-else drivers at traffic lights is to overtake the legitimate line on the left, i.e. on the side of the road that is supposed to be reserved for oncoming traffic. If you are the lead car in the proper line and oncoming traffic is stopped at a red light, once your light turns green, put your foot down, cut the miscreant off and leave him stranded until the genuine queue has cleared. He’ll then have to face an angry barrage of honks and flashes from the drivers opposite that he is blocking. It’s precisely what he deserves.

It’s not only drivers who do crazy things. Keep alert and expect the unexpected from other road users too, be it pedestrians in dark clothes crossing ill-lit highways at night, or suicidal cyclists. Recently I only narrowly avoided running down a child who was riding in the dark with no lights, the wrong way down a three-lane carriageway! If you are unfortunate enough to kill someone, it is not just the emotional trauma you will have to deal with. Even if the dead person is entirely at fault, the surviving driver is nevertheless obliged to pay “blood money” to the relatives of the deceased. The sum involved, currently around £15,000, will be taken care of by your insurance if you have any. (Remember, my opening advice!) Otherwise you must come up with the money from your own resources and will be kept languishing in jail until you do.

What happens if you are involved in a more minor accident? Stay put until the traffic police arrive. They will then apportion blame and make a report. Both drivers then accompany the officers to the police station where the police issue a permit that allows the vehicle of the innocent party to be repaired. The police retain the driving licence or istimara (vehicle registration document) of the driver at fault while the innocent party obtains quotations from three workshops for damage repair. The police decide which quote to accept and give the driver at fault back his documentation when he hands over to the innocent party in their presence the money for repairs.

“This guy seems to know the drill pretty well,” I hear you say. Alas from personal experience. I recently had the misfortune to be rear-ended by a Pakistani plumber as I waited to get on to (yes, you guessed it) a roundabout. Fortunately, having been more than a little perturbed by the standard of driving here during my spell of being chauffeured before my iqama was processed, I had managed to persuade my company to provide me with a four-wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser, the next safest thing to a tank. So when the inevitable happened, damage was minor - to my car, that is. Just a £150 dent to my rear bumper. But as the saying goes, “You should have seen the other guy.” In the event, the plumber didn’t come out of the episode too badly. The next day we hired him to clear a blocked drain!

Copyright 2000 Séamus Martin. All rights reserved.