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Tafheet: Saudi Arabia’s Drifting Culture

posted on: Jul 27, 2022

Tafheet: Saudi Arabia’s Drifting Culture
Picture found on Arab Drifting Facebook

By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Writer

Drifting, or “Tafheet,” is a common cultural phenomenon among Saudi youth. Since the 1970s, young men press against social and political conformity in their lives by taking to the streets. This is similar to what American drag racers did in the American 1950s. The birthplace of this extreme sport is the capital, Riyadh. Tafheet events commonly observed on the wide-sectioned highways of Riyadh, Al-Qassim Province, and less notably in other parts of Saudi Arabia. Young Saudis take to the streets to engage in high-speed drifting. They do so with little concern for public safety or themselves. The high risk nature of the sport caused a crackdown by the Saudi government and law enforcement officials in recent times.

What is Tafheet?

PHOTO: (MOHAMED AL HWAITY/REUTERS)

To begin, if you have found this article there is a high probability that you have at least an idea of what this sport entails. Tafheet is an illegal street racing phenomenon that involves trying to “drift” a motor vehicle at speeds of up to 260 km/h (160 mph) across wide highways. Once they reach high speeds the driver will jerk the steering wheel, and sometimes use the hand brake, to cause the rear wheels to lose traction. Racers often drive dangerously close to traffic at high speeds. They slide around on a wide flat straight road section at high speed and drift sideways, ignoring the road barriers. The combination of good roadways and fine desert sand gives the drifter the sensation of driving across smooth water as opposed to asphalt.

Interestingly enough, the participants of this sport don’t drive the muscular sports cars you would imagine. No, they often rent or borrow regular family sedans. Typically vehicles with no modifications done to them like Kia, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Hyundai Sonata.

Dangers Associated with Drifting

**may contain graphic crashes**

For many young men, Tafheet is viewed as a hobby, sport, and a means of asserting and establishing manliness. A way to gain social favor amongst their peers. Such thrill-seeking behavior is very enticing to the youth. It is not unusual to see teenage boys participate in “Saudi drifting” with a crowd of spectators. The crowds line the sides of the road to watch the show without any protection.

Considering the danger, it is no surprise that many innocent bystanders and pedestrians lose their lives due to the high-risk nature of the unregulated sport. Some drifters would be daring enough to carry out this dangerous activity during peak traffic hours, on the main streets of Riyadh! Many young Saudi men choose to drift in and around high-class neighborhoods. Their intention? The want to attract the attention of young women residing in those neighborhoods. As a result, the police had to set up speed bumps to deter them from speeding in these areas.

According to a report from WHO in 2016, Saudi Arabia has the highest car accident-caused deaths per capita. They also noted it is the primary cause of deaths, injuries, and disabilities found in the male, 16 to 36 age group. Speeding plays an astonishing role in about 65% of all accidents, the rest attributed to driver error, traffic law violations at intersections, and illegal U-turning. A small 20% of causes was attributed to the roads and environment.

Tafheet in Pop Culture

Governments have tried to cut down the popularity of Tafheet by increasing fines and severity of punishments. Since 2018, there has been a noticeable reduction in the sport. Prior to this decline, popularity spiked as the music and film industries featured this unique and highly dangerous sport.

In 2012, British band M.I.A. released a video for their song Bad Girls and gained over 100 million views on YouTube. The video is filled with Western stereotypes such as Arabian horses, extended desert landscapes, and big jeeps cutting through the shifting sands. Along with that the video also depicted Saudi women doing something at the time they were not permitted to do, Drive. While the video was orientalist in nature and aimed towards a Western audience, it did give life to the rarely depicted cultural Saudi pastime on a global platform. M.I.A. popularized sidewall skiing (seen in the video below).

In 2016, “Hajwala: The Missing Engine” an Emirati film, released and broke box office records. It grossed more than any Emirati film before it! According to the website Box Office Mojo, the film grossed $832,186. The plot follows Khalid and Kehailan, two team leaders, who are enthusiastic about car racing and challenges. They enter into a crazy competition to win the challenge involving a lot of surprises, which unexpectedly change both their lives. It is an interesting depiction of this sport that helped increase the popularity.

Recent Decline in Tafheet

As the sport increased in popularity, many opened drifting schools and began competing on the track instead of the dangerous highway driving. Unfortunately, since 2018 there has been a freeze on these activities by the Saudi Government. They favor international forms of motorsport like Drag Racing and Formula One because of the crowd it draws.

Over the last few years, there has been a decline in the number of participants. Interestingly, the decline is directly correlated to the Saudi government’s attempts to increase entertainment and recreational outlets. Because of the increase in these establishments, there is less of a reason to take to the streets. Boredom being one of the chief factors behind the initial creation of the art of Tafheet. Video games now feature hajwala simulations, therefore allowing for kids to experience drifting from the comfort of their home. As time continues to pass it is certain this sport will become less relevant, but a unique historical piece of culture in Saudi Arabia.

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