Driving is a big ticket issue here in Saudi, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Many locals and residents protest the status quo which is a real problem for families. Women have to either use taxis or hire a foreign driver to take them places which is expensive, particularly for those on lower incomes. It also means that women have to plan their lives around the availability of transport. Arguments against allowing women to drive include that it would leave them vulnerable to attack if they broke down and that male drivers would seek to intimidate them. I have also seen claims that the driving seat acts as a vibrator and gives women guilty pleasures, I can't say I have ever noticed this but perhaps it only applies to cars in Saudi. It may go some way to explaining the distracted driving we see on the roads!
I know some expats, mostly women and some men who say they would never feel comfortable driving here. I disagree, I love to drive, I love the freedom it gives me and I loathe being dependant on others. With the exception of Mr EE and some other family members I hate being driven. Even when the roads and other drivers are bad I prefer to rely on my own skill as opposed to those of people who may never have been taught to drive properly. Nevertheless the situation is what it is and my opinion will not change anything. I always think expats should be careful when commenting on local issues, at the end of the day it is not my fight to fight, and there are many Saudi women (and some men) advocating for the end of the restriction.
The driving in Jeddah can only be described as ‘fruity’. While it is not the worst place I have ever seen (Lagos wins on that count) drivers are very aggressive, probably because they are all male and the roads seem to run on testosterone. The roads are generally wide and well maintained but, because of the lack of public transport, there are a huge number of cars using the roads at any one time (the photograph above is a quiet Saturday afternoon, in rush hour the same road is blocked). Most people drive the biggest car they can afford to ensure that they can see and be seen. We have seen the odd Kia Picanto or similar but they must be a very uncomfortable drive. Light cycles on junctions are long. There are a few roundabouts to ease traffic flow but roads are generally managed by legal U turn lanes. These are few and far between so you can find yourself driving a few kilometres in the wrong direction in order to get where you are going to. Main roads will have a parallel access road (you can see one above), most of these do not filter onto the main road as such, there are access/egress points at regular intervals and it is not uncommon to see two cars racing, one to get on one to get off waiting to see which one will give way first.
Fines for infractions are high and have recently been pushed up, a friend told us he was caught going through a light as the amber changed to red. He now chooses to stop on amber and will prefer to be shunted than fined. Mobile phone use while driving appears to be obligatory, while use of indicators is optional. Weaving in and out of traffic, standing on breaks, jumping into a stream of fast moving traffic from a standstill, filtering into a 'lane' without looking and of course undertaking are all expected. Less common, but not unusual, is for the driver to hold a baby or toddler on their lap. While it all looks rather chaotic I suspect, as with all places, that there are local conventions that make driving easier which you only find out when you are the driver, like flashing your lights to someone to go ahead in the UK or making eye contact with a driver to be let into traffic on a main road in Kazakhstan.
In terms of our own transport practicalities I don’t need to take the children to and from school as we live in compound that is connected to school. Mr EE has a (very good and extremely competent) driver for all work related travel and we can use him for the odd private trip as well. The compound runs a bus to various destinations twice a day and I can take that for free if I want to. Alternatively if is very easy to hire a taxi through the Uber or Careem apps on my telephone. The app tells me how long I will need to wait, directs the driver to my exact location by GPS and then tracks our journey home. It is safe and the cars are all very well maintained, most drivers speak some English but it is a good idea to learn directions in Arabic just in case. You do get the odd very poor driver and as the law here does not require seat belts in the back and I can't sit in the front with a 'strange' man I do feel vulnerable at times. If they are really bad I stop the ride and order a new cab. We book 'executive' cars when we travel with the children as they are more likely to have functioning seatbelts. Whether or not these apps will continue to work well is not certain. There is a move to restrict the right to drive an Uber or Careem to Saudi citizens only. This will, at least in the short term, reduce the number of cars available for hire as many of the drivers are expats.
We hope to be able to buy our own car as this will allow us to explore further afield. The real pain for us will be that as I will not be able to take over when Mr EE is tired we will be restricted to shorter distances than if we had two drivers available.
How to get about in Jeddah:
- There is no public transport.
- Street taxis are plentiful and identified with a standard livery, I rarely use them. Negotiate a price before setting out and if you are a woman alone be very obvious about texting the number plate to a friend (I do this as a matter of course with street hails in many countries).
- Install Uber and the local (better) equivalent, Careem, on your 'phone. These are tracked apps and therefore safe, you do not need to carry cash or if your card is not registered to the app you can pay with a large note and have it credited to your account.
- Buy a car (and hire a driver if you are a woman).
- Walk! Obviously this is more difficult in the summer when the temperatures get very high and it is not really common to see women out walking on their own as you can be hassled but it is fine for short distances or with your family or a group. Jeddah is not pedestrian friendly, there are very few designated road crossings and traffic is busy. It is difficult to walk and cross roads with a pushchair.
- If you are buying a car be aware that expat ownership of the larger 4x4s is restricted, only expats with larger families may purchase them.
In other words there are plenty of options but you will need to plan.