What it’s actually like to visit Riyadh, alone, for Formula E
This is a piece about me visiting Riyadh, several times, for Formula E.
Formula E is an electric racing series that says OK, boomer to 20th century petrolhead culture.
I am a high-performing, self-absorbed diva who writes about cars for a living.
Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh. It’s not a place, in the western imagination — which despite my scattershot efforts to broaden my horizons I definitely have — it’s a synonym for the Saudi Arabian state. Which, again, in the western imagination is one millennial and a network of shadowy contract killers.
The name Riyadh inspires fear, like a monster under the bed, something unknowable and threatening that doesn’t say anything about a city nine million people live in. Like most people, I hate admitting I’m afraid of anything real so in my mind it’s never been more than an imaginary metaphor to shield my own delicate ego.
I don’t think about the place much outside headlines. Or well, didn’t used to.
If you asked me if I’d ever imagined going to Riyadh a few years ago, I would’ve had to first work out if I could imagine Riyadh. In my mind — and I have an international relations degree so this is extra embarrassing — it was a mediaeval fortress. Perhaps some heads on spears on the walls. I’d seen some pictures on the Daily Mail or something and for some reason never considered whether this was a bit racist.
This starts in Berlin, 2018. Formula E, a street-racing electric motorsport series, announce the championship is going to Riyadh. Which is a ridiculous concept because Riyadh isn’t even a place with streets, in my mind, because I have not yet managed to stop being racist about this and actually learn anything.
More ridiculous is that I can’t go — I’m one of half a handful of full season journalists in this series that I decided to upend my life for completely a few years ago and I can’t go to the season opening race for the next ten years.
Because of strict Sharia law in the Kingdom, I can’t work in Saudi Arabia without my dad or husband giving me permission. Which at then-31 years old, divorced and resigned to my parents disapproving of everything I do for some time now is extremely laughable. I can’t work in motorsport there at all, classed as a dangerous profession. And how the hell am I going to get in in the first place?
There is some quite emphatic shouting on a street near Tempelhof when a fellow journalist asks me what I think of it and accidentally triggers the nuclear codes on my brain. I can’t do this, are they joking? How can I even continue in the series, I used to work in the humanitarian sector, for crying out loud.
I spend a night stewing in my hostel bed and wondering how all this can be thrown back into my face so hard. And then, trembling with rage and the less hot emotion I don’t like to think I’m capable of, demand answers from then-Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag in a press conference where he’s meant to be passively introducing Nico Rosberg.
The press conference is important because he tells me that there will be women there, that there will be arrangements made, that I can go. Which is the moment Riyadh has to stop being a fictional, mythical fortress to me because if I can, then I can’t not. No matter what else I think right now, I can’t let my male peers go and exclude myself so now even worse than being banned from Riyadh I have to actually go there.
Then my handbag gets stolen on the U-Bahn and I have bigger problems in the immediate, because the British embassy’s closed for a royal wedding.
Why is going somewhere so bad? Especially if you’ve already sucked down the moral serving of working in motorsport, gone the distance and done the deeds to get there.
I don’t want to shy away from the facts, here. Firstly, that motorsport is an intensely conservative world — all sport is. Formula E is by miles and miles the most liberal, even confrontational element of at least the cars bit of it but there are no openly gay drivers at a top level, there are very few women.
It’s bizarre to me, as someone who lives in London’s very leftwing queer scene, to work somewhere where shaving half my head was a bit edgy not just ‘had a breakdown on Tuesday, lads.’ I am more left wing than most normal people and motorsport as a whole is considerably more right.
I love my job. I whine about doing it, constantly but I love motorsport. I am obsessed with it, it’s what makes me feel the most and I am fascinated by the tech and I adore my friends in it, this is a job I have worked insanely hard to get — not something I am being forced to do, disinterestedly. But there is a disconnect between the realities of it and myself as a person.
Even motorsport people, however, were shocked by us announcing we were going to Riyadh. Until this event, the FIA (motorsport’s global governing body) had never sanctioned an event in Saudi Arabia, not because there was no interest from the Kingdom (Saudia, the national airline, have been an F1 sponsor for decades) but because until recently, women were completely banned from driving.
That changes, in the months between the announcement and the race — because it had to, as a condition of the event happening. You can view that as the Eprix clearly directing positive change or not if you want but the fact that it had to is important as part of the situation, as part of understanding why people were shocked we were going there.
Saudi Arabia operates a guardianship law for women, who require their husband or male relative’s permission to do things like open a bank account, get a job or a passport. Women are required to wear an abaya (the usually-dark coverup garment that covers you from foot to neck) as well as modest clothing and muslim women must wear a hijab. All Saudi Arabians must be muslim and a religious police force exists to enforce strict adherence to sharia law.
Kissing in public is absolutely banned, as is alcohol and western music. There are no cinemas and media is restricted. LGBT acts can get you imprisoned, publicly whipped or even executed. Human Rights Watch lists the “dissidents” who are detained on long charges in Saudi Arabian jails — they are women’s rights activists, people who have criticised the government, protestors who in most countries would be considered very mild. Torture is documented by HRW as being widely used as an interrogation tool against detainees.
It’s not fully whataboutism to say “well, other countries have terrible records on human rights, too and sport still happens there.” But Saudi Arabia has been off the table for a long time, not least because events like this — people congregating and especially in mixed gender settings — have been banned for a long time by the government themselves.
So is Formula E so financially or morally bankrupt to take the Saudi Arabian money and go there? It’s not like the country has a longstanding connection to electric technology and green solutions — absolutely the opposite, Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest producer of crude oil.
It’s complicated. WWE were the first big sports brand to announce an event in Saudi — but WWE isn’t really a sport and isn’t governed by a sporting body, wrestling a strictly choreographed entertainment product, despite the athleticism. As a consequence, the event in Riyadh could be bent to meet existing Saudi restrictions — no female wrestlers, no women in attendance, etc.
The FIA couldn’t do that and neither could Formula E. The event was somehow going to have to cater to, well, people like me. And they could have done that by spending the Saudia money on ferrying us around so we never saw anything but for whatever reason, they didn’t. They’ve never told me what to tweet or what to write about it. I don’t work for them, they didn’t sign this off and if anything happens to me as a consequence of writing it it’s not their problem.
They’ve got me access to princes to ask questions and put me in front of an exhaustive list of local TV and newspapers to prove that, yes, there is a woman — I’m aware I’m a bit of the PR to all this. And that that’s why people question whether what I think about it is true and why I’ve spent over a year writing this and why it’s so long.
I am incredibly sick of the persistent accusation Formula E journalists do not ask about this. That the media has not had to think about it, that nothing’s been written. So here you go, I’ve written it all.
There’s a view that these big, international events happening in Saudi Arabia is ‘sportswashing’ — that the intention is for Saudi Arabia’s international reputation to be rehabilitated by being thought of as a sports venue. That brief, highly-controlled environments are giving an unrealistic view of life there.
The events are short, for sure. I have made three brief trips to Riyadh and I am not about to pretend that I know about ‘normal’ life there in any meaningful way. This isn’t intended to be documentary about Saudi Arabia writ large, it’s about what it’s like to go there as a journalist to cover the events and what I’ve seen and the people I’ve spoken to. A lot of it’s just about what goes on in my head during the weekends — it’s part travelogue.
I don’t think about Riyadh very much for the next few months because I don’t know what I’m going to do about it, until Formula E call me a few weeks before testing and ask if I’d like to go on a trip. Would I. My entire method of managing my fragile psychology is dependent on going off somewhere every few weeks and the pent up home time is sending me scratchy, I say yes before I’ve even heard where it is.
It’s Riyadh, obviously. They post me some abaya and I read some not very reassuring travel advice, most of which doesn’t make much sense, while trying to work out a way of covering up my confrontationally queer hairstyle.
At Jaguar’s season launch I scope out who else is going — it’s all men but then again, there are not many things like me in motorsport. I contemplate my own death in a mediaeval fortress a lot, because this, for some reason, seems likely to be something Formula E would be sending me to.
The flight over is blandly sober. My hobbies and interests are pretty much covered off by “getting extraordinarily lit on flights” so the self restraint to ask for coffee instead of wine, before we enter Saudi airspace and they stop serving it, is an immense struggle. I also keep falling over my abaya and still can’t do anything with the headscarf to save my life.
My male peers are not having these problems. One of them has a gin and tonic, for a start.
In my head, Riyadh airport is a jail. The entrance to fortress Riyadh, machinery of a despot. In my mind, this is where it goes wrong — where my hastily-issued travel authorisation is judged invalid, where the men are let in but I’m not, where somehow this turns into The Gang All Go To Saudi Prison. Sitting nervously on plastic chairs, we wait for our visas to be done and I try to be sanguine about my upcoming, certain death and consider if I could actually fancy one of the dudes or if I’m just surprisingly horny about my own mortality.
Spoilers: I am not dead.
When we get through customs, the Saudi fixer shakes my hand. My very limited googling has informed me this is absolutely illegal unless we are married and my heart leaps out of my chest because oh here we go, here’s where I die. It’s so stupid it’s unreal, my tabloid-mythological Saudi overlayed like VR on what’s in front of my face.
I’d say it’s the fact it’s 40 degrees centigrade at 1am but realistically it’s just me being ignorant as all get-out and believing whatever I read, especially the most ghoulishly outrageous bits, instead of being willing to find stuff out. Which is a particularly stupid situation for a journalist.
Riyadh is, through the window of the taxi, very clearly not a mediaeval fortress. It has Starbucks. It has Nando’s. Its late but there are people walking around and when we get to our hotel, it’s easy enough for me to buy a coffee, go for a quick wander around the block and then stare out of my thirteenth-story window at a sprawling city glittering with lights. Not as built up with forbidding glass as Dubai, not quite as antiquarian-ramshackle as my beloved Marrakech and there’s something somewhere to it, a little chaos and disorganisation, a little… rule-breaking tendency that twangs on strings tied to Tbilisi.
Riyadh suddenly isn’t a story to scare naughty children with, it’s a place — where nine million people live. And I realise I have been quite stupid about this. Embarrassingly, shamefully so. I don’t get anything like enough sleep, thinking about it because I hate being wrong and I’m not quite sure how I so bullheadedly was so off the truth.
At the showcase I interview some Saudi princes. In the back of my mind lurks a vociferous argument I had with my ex-husband once, where I called him morally bereft for even considering working with the Saudi state. It is funny when you schadenfreude yourself.
My image of a Saudi Prince at the time is very limited. And by limited I mean I can name one.
I have not thought about HRH Abdulaziz bin Turki AlFaisal Al Saud. At this point, he’s the person personally tasked with making Formula E happen and he is vibrating with anxious tension about making it work. In my steady realisation that Saudis are people, too, I clock that they’re as nervous about screwing this up for us as we are of doing something wrong. Maybe a lot more so.
Abdulaziz is funny. I worry halfway through the interview I’m going to get in trouble for flirting with him because when I listen back to it, we laugh a lot. It’s the slightly anxious giggling of people doing something weird they’re not sure will work, at the start and then just genuine jokes. We “do a bit” about everyone telling Saudi they need to make changes for decades and then telling them they’re going too fast when they do.
I find out most Saudis, in fact almost all Saudis, are aged between 15–30 and think about what that means for the life expectancy in this bakingly hot, dry country. 90% of the population works in agriculture, which must be backbreaking in the extremities of the peninsula’s climate and that quality of life is poor, especially compared to the state’s wealth. It is very obvious he is a devout reformer and wants to urgently improve things for Saudi Arabians, starting with what he knows (he used to race in Blancpain GT in Europe) by bringing motorsport and technology to push the country away from the oil enriching — and endangering — it.
He’s not a cold despot, or a charismatic liar — there are plenty of both in motorsport let alone other fields I’ve covered — he’s a little bit thousand-miles-an-hour, talks more like Formula E’s bouncy kiwi Mitch Evans than a politician and with slightly more honesty, not offended when I push things and offering more to ask about than he tries to hide.
If the whole trip has wrongfooted me a little by just bringing Riyadh out of the mythical then this does something else. I do some gormless, rapid recalculations, brain as vacant as that meme because despite my almost unshakable sense of western entitlement it has finally got through that there’s a chance the race in Saudi is not actually about me.
In all my righteous, ask-a-manager fury about having to do this myself, I haven’t thought about the Saudi equivalent of me. Who wants to watch motorsport, work in it, has been denied it right up until now unless she was privileged enough to get to other states — and 90% of the population isn’t. Doing the maths in my head, that 70% 15–30 year olds includes about 13.6 million women my age or younger who’ve just got the right to drive as part of the FIA negotiations for the race. And the right to work at it. And here I am pitching a fit because I have to comply with what might as well be a uniform, to a tourist, for a weekend.
Ok, somehow I have got some perspective. But that doesn’t make this all automatically fine, does it.
Aseel Al-Hamad, a Saudi woman who’s just driven an F1 car at the French grand prix, is there. There’s a flamboyantly camp young Saudi YouTuber or something who is flirting with everyone. I still can’t drink coffee without dripping it on my headscarf.
Everyone keeps saying “it’s just a normal place.” Which is true — it has coffee shops and supermarkets and I eat an extremely salty salad with two other journalists after we get back to the hotel and none of us get arrested for not being married to each other. But also that dumbs it down, to just our own flighty concerns about how to exist here.
I can’t stop thinking about those stats. Saudi, which I’d thought of as ruled by old zealots, is so modally young that I am above the average age here.
There are young, excited Saudis at the showcase. Obviously, because that’s what 70% of the population are. 39 million people live here, who I’ve either thought of as generically oppressed or generically oppressive, drawn on some very primitive gender grounds. When I worked in humanitarianism, no one ever mentioned being humanitarian to Saudis and to my genuine horror, against all my ethics, I’ve casually dehumanised an entire population.
Don’t tell me, sitting from the west and spitting blood on social media at the idea of racing series going to Riyadh, you haven’t done something the same. Because I’m pretty good at this and yet somehow I can get my head around going to New York while toddlers sit in ICE detention, can get on with living in the UK despite knowing full well the horrors my own government is committing but I didn’t know any Saudis, you see. So somehow it hadn’t occurred to me they might want things like entertainment and sports and other things I take for granted and don’t assume I should be denied just because the prime minister’s done a racism again.
Formula E wasn’t taking a compromised event — not like WWE’s male-only show for a select few. It was going to be an Eprix like any other, bar the podium champagne. Not only that, there’d be women on track.
Saudi Arabia was about to go 0–60 by never having had women driving to hosting an event where, during a test, the largest number of women, anywhere, ever would be driving current, top flight machinery alongside men. A statement, yes but not intended to me about Saudi but to Saudi women about motorsport. I mention it to the prince, who thinks it’s quite funny as a statistic — he’s raced in Europe, after all, he knows what the numbers are like in our glorious egalitarian societies.
(If you don’t: they’re atrocious. I can name every woman who’s ever got as far as single seater racing, while I can’t remember which men were in F1 5 years ago, there’ve been so many.)
I tell someone on Twitter that if other countries wanted to do it they’ve had the preceding 70 years and well, where is the lie?
The flight to Dubai, en route back, is weird. I rip my hijab off in the airport terminal, no longer able to cope with my own inept wrapping and try to stop the side-shaved bit of my hair standing up. A male journalist asks me why I bothered with it in the first place and I try not to give him too much of a death glare because actually it’s becoming apparent things aren’t what I assumed.
I absentmindedly delude myself into thinking I’ve been invited to hang out with the guys, not just tagged along by proximity, for the rest of the journey and it hurts for about half the subsequent season that I’m incapable of learning not to make assumptions, despite the big ol’ wisening experience I just got lavished with. But those are other places.
Jamal Khashoggi is brutally murdered in an embassy in Turkey shortly after our showcase trip and the number of names of Saudis most people can think of increases to two. One deceased.
I nervously ask Formula E, at testing, if we’re still going. We are. It’s fuel for some very gory nightmares for a few weeks and can I really go there? I feel pretty strongly about dismembering journalists.
As the days tick down to going, mythical Riyadh re-descends on my mind. I forget the place I saw in broad daylight and brood on the fact I’ll be arriving at 1am, totally alone. It’s stupid fear, not the healthy respect I have for the fact travelling so much on my own, anywhere, is generally dangerous.
My usual attitude to being presented with a dangerous opportunity is to immediately take it. My sense of self-preservation isn’t impaired but my survival skills are over-developed, it’s left me with some excellent stories I can never put my name to and which I often only tell softened versions of, to avoid upsetting anyone. I can think or… Well, let’s say manoeuvre or lie or cheat or manipulate myself out of almost anything and the things I can’t, I can chalk up to a big bucket of Things That Are Making Me Weirder And Weirder But I Just Can’t Stop Doing Them.
I don’t think that will work in Saudi Arabia. And I’m so incapable of behaving myself. I’ve already forgotten the manifest demonstrations I saw that Saudis handle strict rules the same way everywhere else with them does, ie by each pretending they must apply to other people and look like you’re doing it when it matters, my own MO for everything.
Meanwhile my own unelected leader in the UK nearly tanks us out of the European Union for the first of what will be several, increasingly grim times and I have this vague feeling of unassailable doom.
All the thinking about going to Saudi has stopped me doing any thinking about actually going to Saudi, which because I booked my flights late and am permanently broke, is via two Ryanair flights, a gruelling overnight layover in Milan Malpensa (0/10, do not do) and 11 discombobulated hours in Jordan that I thought I was going to enjoy but it turns out the fear is kicking in.
The silly thing is, the thing that scares me is a taxi driver in Ammam who I throw some Jordanian dollars at while bruising my thumb forcing the lock down at some traffic lights to escape after he tries to essentially extort me. But if I can’t handle Ammam how am I going to handle Riyadh? A lot of me wants to turn around and go home.
I get to the airport for my final flight much too early and when they tell me I can’t check in yet, it all suddenly hits and I unexpectedly sit down on the terminal floor and cry hysterically for ten minutes.
By the time I get on the plane, I’m delirious with panic. The insane idea I am going to get arrested at the airport dominates my entire thoughts — after all, last time I was with Formula E but I’m not normally in the group, the showcase a one-off excursion.
Also, most pathetically given I’m 32 not five, I have not told my mother I’m going to Saudi Arabia. My mother disapproves of most things I do but I feel like there’s a relatively legitimate case for that here and also that I am a gutless coward for not being able to take that on. Gutless cowards afraid of being told off probably shouldn’t be trying to do this.
I cry so pathetically with fear the Flynas staff, who are spectacularly kind, give me a free coffee and one sits with me, thinking it’s the thermal-buffeted take off that has me hysterical, not the country they live in.
It is, obviously, not Formula E’s responsibility to check I get anywhere. Or where I’m staying or in particular I’d really rather they didn’t attempt to regulate what I’m doing because I reserve my right to get up to all kinds of things without them trying to stop me. But sometimes there are moments when I think anyone would quite like to think there’s someone who’ll know if they don’t make it to their hotel and I’m having one, feeling much too vulnerable to be able to do this. The monster under the bed is scaring me, mooom.
Needless to say, it’s fine. Uber is very well-regulated in Saudi Arabia and the process of transferring to my apartment hotel is extremely straightforward and despite my sudden inability to do maths convincing me it costs three times more than it does, really cheap from a London perspective.
The guy at the check-in desk thanks me for respectfully wearing Saudi-compliant clothes; my hair at this stage is still difficult to not look aggressively asymmetrical and I’ve finally learned how to do a hijab but it sort of unnerves me. Am I either appropriating or colluding with something, here? After all, I’m not muslim. I’d be a terrible muslim, I already miss wine.
I really need to sleep but don’t, which turns out to be basically what I spend most of my time in Riyadh doing because my brain won’t stop turning over and there’s not enough hours before I have to get up and go to the track anyway.
Here is where things get interesting, of course. Because I’m not staying in a hotel full of Formula E people, I’m not staying with anyone else at all, I’m just any old regular person in Riyadh, staying in the kind of place an average-income Saudi might if they were visiting from Jeddah.
Formula E don’t have my address, I didn’t have to put it on my visa application (handled by the championship so I have no idea how difficult it would be to get one as a journalist otherwise) and unless someone very carefully trailed me from the airport then I’m just out here alone. I’m staying in Al-Aqiq, which is a neighbourhood sort of near Diriyah and as decentralised as the whole of Riyadh seems to be.
Riyadh is a weird city, from my perspective — it seems to have no centre and there’s motorways everywhere. In any 500m walk, you can find at least two demolished buildings with the rubble in situ and another one under construction, a petrol station and a kebab shop. Every road feels like a dual carriageway and I don’t understand the shops.
Not for the reason I assumed I wouldn’t understand the shops, which was more specifically cultural issues. I don’t understand the shops because they sell things that make absolutely no sense to me whatsoever — I’m staying in an apartment hotel and there’s a petrol station nearby, a coffee shop on the forecourt.
That’s reasonably sensible to me. I can also get my head round the oddly Roman-themed kebab shop and the phone shop the other side — fine, that’s how modern life works right?
What I do not understand is the stationery warehouse that also sells party gear and interior design trimmings that seems, by all accounts, to be the big shop in the area. It’s sized for a DIY shop and stocked by the crazy crap aisle in Lidl and although it sells me an exceptionally good pencil sharpener that I’ve jealously guarded ever since, I cannot work out what the heck its deal is. It opens at like 7am and has supermarket trolleys available but every time I go in everyone’s buying like one box of paper plates?
There will be no answers. Some elements of Riyadh, I have to accept, I will not fully understand.
But I find myself going in a lot. I buy some weird new stationery that doesn’t really set me up for the season, because Al-Aqiq doesn’t have much else going on. I get really invested in trying every type of latte flavour the petrol station coffee shop does because it sort of gives me a sense of direction in my attempts at exploration that are otherwise coming up short because I can’t find anywhere to poke around, sleepy residential and mosques the main features of the area.
I assumed it was because I was sort of on the outskirts but this continues to puzzle me a year later. I’m used to cities with centres, high streets — I don’t know if it’s the heat or just a different, dispersed way of doing things or because (and I definitely have noticed this) Saudis don’t really have a culture of congregating places, turning up in crowded scenarios or what. But the structure of the town kind of makes no sense to me, and maybe never will.
There’s, seriously, no public transport on the enormous roads and coming from London that confuses the heck out of me. Contrary to the imagined SUVs of gulf state, most of the cars on the road are old and Japanese — Toyota Camrys and Hyundais, clearly proudly cared for but long in the tooth on mileage. There are almost no European or American cars and the ones that exist look weirdly out of place, a Renault Megane looking like an undersized curiosity in a line of Honda estates.
From that, you can probably gather I walked around a bit. I actually walked around a lot more than I initially intended to, especially on the first day I was trying to get to the track.
This is where it gets a bit technical about the business of motorsport, which is that for the first and only time this year, I need to get to the accreditation centre and pick up the pass that will let me into the circuit — and the rest of the season. This is a very minorly stressful process — and only so because I haven’t been to the circuit before so there’ll be a degree of wandering around trying to find the right place.
What happens is that I initially book a taxi to the wrong place, as it turns out there are several bits of Riyadh called Diriyah. Then I rebook a taxi and it goes to a different version of the wrong place, including having to get through several military checkpoints that my taxi driver is increasingly confused why I think I should be going through — and to be fair, so am I. There wasn’t any of this last time.
I bail out when I see some Formula E hoardings on the basis I must be nearby. This is a stupid idea. I’m the wrong side of the track and have to walk through it to get to the thing that will let me get the lanyard that says I am allowed to go through it but there doesn’t seem to be any other sensible way of making it there.
This feels like the sort of thing you could get into a lot of trouble for. It feels more like that when I get to some catch fencing that hems me in so totally I realise the only thing I can do is walk a long way back, to possibly not be able to find a way through or to climb it. Reader, despite the clothing situation and the fact I am carrying a rucksack full of precious scarred Macbook, I climbed it.
Jumping down the other side, I realised one of the reasons was because it was next to what looks really like a military compound and there’s a bored-looking dude with a gun staring at me. To quote Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye: ok, this looks bad.
There’s a sort of weird thing that happens when you are in a genuinely bad situation. Like, this is obviously not what I am supposed to be doing and it’s hard to guess whether the FIA or the Saudi government will get angry at me wandering into places I am clearly not meant to be first — or most severely. Technically I haven’t signed my behaviour waiver with the FIA for the year yet and also they probably have fewer guns.
As you can probably guess by the fact I’m writing this a year later, the next 45 minutes are quite stressful but ultimately end up in the accreditation office with extremely smudged eyeliner but no permanent damage. And for the record, the Saudi soldier I end up speaking to through Google Translate is nothing but helpful.
Which should probably be the end of me getting lost in various places in Riyadh except it’s kind of only the beginning. I very rarely get lost, I’m great at yeeting myself round the world and reading cities from their layout alone — I don’t know if it’s just that Riyadh is so decentralisedly alien to me or if it’s just the same thing that happens where I cannot stop myself trying to read Arabic the wrong way round and it’s just that I’m too stupid to understand it.
Whatever it is, I get lost a lot. Nearly continuously. I have to develop an uncharacteristic level of chill acceptance for not knowing where I am or when I will next be able to work that out. For sometimes wandering at length down motorways, in the rain, trying to hope that there’s a point on the horizon where GPS will work and maybe I won’t run out of road before then. It’s never that horrible, as an experience — Riyadh actually has fairly decent pavements — it’s just slightly bizarre and adds to my sense of being constantly wrong-footed and out of my depth, which is the kind of on-the-edge-of-fear feeling that makes me crotchety and unobservant and the whole problem ten times worse.
Anyway, that’s for later.
Occasionally, people call me inspirational. How inspirational of me, pursuing a career in a male dominated field. How inspirational of me, tootling round the world on my own and with no budget. How inspirational of me to not have ended up dead given all that.
It’s a weird feeling. I am outrageously flattered by it but I don’t feel very inspirational; I’m broke, I have a professional respect level probably best described as ‘tolerated’ (and barely that) and I’m hardly out here getting awards. When I finish a season I mostly feel a crushing sense of disappointment at myself for not having done that better.
Which is the kind of thing, when the drivers say it, you feel moved to say something encouraging. But it’s true — I’m frustrated by the number of times the titanic effort to get to a race limits the ambition of what’s possible there. And I’m kind of breaking myself a bit and in denial about it.
Anyway, should I really be an inspirational figure for dragging myself to Saudi Arabia on budget flights and white-knuckle bracing to hang on for another season? Probably not. After all, the whole reason I can do this sort of thing is because I’m an overpaid London media professional with a devastating sense of entitlement about travel.
It gnaws at me a bit, because all weekend when I’m in the Riyadh paddock young women keep coming up to me. They grab at my media pass, newly-minted and full-season heavy in the folds of my abaya and we stagger through conversations in Arabic via google translate or if they know enough English to talk.
It’s very exciting and inspirational, seeing a woman journalist succeed. I know because a few months previous to this event, I got amazingly drunk and embarrassed myself telling Suzi Perry how much she inspired me. I look up to the broadcasters and the journalists I find digging through old magazines and suddenly realise that’s a woman’s byline, often from a point when I assumed there weren’t any.
To be honest, I think most people just assume there aren’t any of us either way. Women in motorsport are grid girls or PRs — at least, in that same spooky, popular imagination where Riyadh’s barely a map location but you definitely have an opinion about it even so.
As far as the young women grabbing at my pass are concerned, I’m as ludicrously mythical as I can’t seem to stop myself thinking about their city if I let my mind wander for even forty seconds. A female motorsport journalist, travelling around on her own and from their perspective the most extraordinary thing, which is that I’ve apparently come to Saudi Arabia of my own volition. In fact, I’ve had to work really hard to do so, when I could have just… not.
This is kind of incomprehensible, to the Saudi teenagers. They’re excited by the idea I’d do it but when I live in London and can go anywhere, why would I? And on my own? I must obviously be the kind of incredibly celebrated and important person who thinks they can get away with that sort of behaviour and I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m actually panicking a bit about whether I can get anywhere to even take my coverage this season.
Riyadh’s one of the problems, actually. Editors don’t want to be seen to be endorsing it and the ones I can get to take it say they have to include critique of the situation, which is maddening when they won’t let me write about anything I’m actually seeing.
Ok, yes. Here is the situation: the Saudi government has paid for the race. Someone, somewhere, always pays for a race — championships sustain themselves on hosting fees and Formula E doesn’t go for the scalp like F1 but ultimately ‘who is willing to pay’ is a major persuasive factor to an events’ viability. Not to peel back the final veil but this is how big sporting events work, everywhere.
It’s proved controversial in the past. Montreal paid extra to host a season-ending double-header over several seasons, then it turned out the (I’m compelled by journalism standards to write the word ‘allegedly’ here) corrupt mayor had made promises the city wasn’t willing to keep.
It put Formula E in a position where, contractually, they had to sue the city for a settlement — not the most popular thing to do but FE itself can hardly just wave away a contract or they’d look like mugs everywhere else. Also probably, you know, needed the money for something because no one knows more about how much doing all this costs than my Ryanair-seat-shaped arse.
And why? Why wheel and deal to make a global car racing championship happen. Well, I don’t know — there’s no actual point, is there? There’s not a moral at the heart of this, a heartwarming lesson for humanity that’s perfectly illuminated by the chance to watch one millionaire athlete smash another millionaire athlete into a concrete barrier in a shower of carbon fibre.
You’ve got to tell yourself something to sleep at night though, right? There’s got to be some reason you’re doing it. We make it up for any job, the reason you’re logically doing these things. Here’s mine.
The planet is dying. That’s not hyperbole — the seas are emptying of whales drowned by plastic as fast as they fill with Antarctic meltwater. We can’t put either of those things back, there isn’t a fix except prevention.
The sky is choking, we’re shutting off the stars with satellites and smog and after a few hundred years of building a world dependent on massive — and mass — mobility, we’ve realised we can’t use the types we’ve been reliant on. We talk about the screaming, hurtling destruction of the only place we can live in bland, corporate terms, these words like ‘mobility’ and ‘transitive economics’ neatly editorialising the end of the world as the closing remarks of a conference on disaster mitigation.
It’s terrifying. It’s so incomprehensibly, mind-crushingly fearful that even if you can somehow get yourself together enough to think about it, it’s really hard. Scientists say the risk numbers are into the bit where human minds actually don’t understand them because we just can’t really be that scared.
Which is a problem, because the last thing we need right now is numbness. A few years back, I’d slipped a long way into it — not really specifically the planet but more that some very immediate things were going very wrong in my life and the only way I could continue to get up and go to work instead of lying down and screaming was to just not feel anything. Which isn’t very sustainable, you need a cathartic ability to make sense of things even if they’re terrible.
There’s lots of crutches people use — alcohol (a generally reliable and disastrous one for me) and other mind-altering distractions, getting overinvested in box sets, obsessively hyperfixating about your OTP, pinning your emotional wellbeing on the success of a sports team.
I went for pinning my entire psychological and professional future on Formula E being the thing to dive into right that moment. In the moments where I couldn’t think of a reason to carry on, there’d be another race on the horizon. In the long nights where I didn’t want to live anymore I could motivate myself with the sheer, stubborn desperation of throwing myself into getting in.
Frivolous, yes. But Formula E does also have a point: on this dying earth, amidst the keynotes on the end of transport, we need to do something. Just stopping flying or transporting or using the massive systems we’ve rigged to plug the earth in won’t work. Same as we can’t put the whales back in the barren sea, we can’t just pull the brakes on a tangled juggernaut we’ve spent decades chaotically assembling because as much as we urgently need to, to save lives, if we do then people will literally die.
It’s complicated. It’s those things too big to think about and we needed solutions before I was born, are living through the dying moments of panic while we scrabble for a fix that makes things least-bad. The trolley dilemma between apocalypse and slightly mitigated endtime.
We’ve got to be brave. We’ve got to do things like say ‘we actually cannot use oil anymore’ — for fuel, for plastic, for millions of things that keep us alive in abstract or direct ways. The 20th century was built on such a proliferation of oil products it’s hard to imagine extracting them from your home, you can’t even extract them from your supermarket trolley without making a very contorted list.
And there’s so little time. There’s so much to do. We’ve got to fix cars and planes and medicine and supply lines and food and it’s really hard to think about it all because there’s nothing you can do, you need some sort of thing to rally around.
Yes, it’s cruder than a barrel to say that Formula E can be that thing. It’s a racing series, it’s a day out, it’s entertaining sport — but it’s also a test of shame for automakers caught out in dieselgate, it’s an on-track annoyance that says actually it is possible to make electric cars populist, you can do this.
If all the absurd, awful things we have to deal with now were built in the panicked competition of the twentieth century, then welcome to the 21st edition of that scrap. There’s no time to tear into the companies and people that have orchestrated it — half of them are dead and none of them care but if you can make a system where to succeed, they have to do what you want then that’s something else.
There’s never been and I hope there never is again a moment where motorsport, as inch-grabbing competitive hot lab for transport, has had such a crucial moment. All the years of F1’s development need to be drowned out in the next half-decade by the wind-up banshee howl of electric technologies making up for decades in absence.
And you can’t politely do that on the streets of Monaco as a nice little spectacle. You have to go where you’re not wanted and explain that, actually, you are what is needed. You can’t disrupt anything without causing a little chaos and you’re gonna have to do some stuff that scares you and other people might not approve of.
So for all that, I’d better be fucking inspirational. If I’m the in, I’d better live up to it. If I’m, somehow, the lens that someone can see something worth getting excited about through then I’d better wipe off the grime and get on with it. If I’m how someone can see themself being part of this, across whatever incomprehensibly vast gulf, then I’d better not be churlish about it.
Yes, I am a colossally privileged westerner. Yes, I am ignorant and disastrously naiive — no one looks at me in a paddock and takes me seriously. Formula One journalists consider my curious electrical proclivities like discovering the intern is into something kinky and I’m never going to get a Pulitzer.
But in a paddock in Riyadh I’m a thing people haven’t seen before because all that colossal western privilege means I get to do things they’re not allowed to. And things people have never seen before are inspiring, whether they’re race series screaming round a UNESCO world heritage site or grandstands where women sit with men or Jason Derulo’s shiny jeans.
And the government paid for it, yeah. It’s a little incomprehensible. Why would the Saudi government pay for an event that’s hardly aligned with an oil state’s economy?
One answer is the propaganda. A greenwash over ARAMCO’s continued production of the majority of the world’s crude oil. But New York has an Eprix and no one looks across the Atlantic and says ‘well, the US is green now’ any more than anyone thinks of Oman as the home of football.
So if you talk about greenwashing, you either think the Saudi government is hopelessly naiive or that the entire world is, stricken by lack of knowledge about the place. Formula E is part of a plan, though — the Vision 2030 programme of reform and transformation, which includes a focus on opening Saudi to visitors.
Saudi Arabia has a lot of visitors per year, to Mecca. But visas for non-Muslims were very hard to come by until recently, with tourist visas not at all and a lot of the country restricted.
The first year, lots of journalists were flown out by the Saudi tourism board and taken on an ultra-luxury, whistlestop tour of the Kingdom. I obviously wasn’t one of them. This doesn’t come from a place of delusion where I think those lovely people from Saudia took me on such a nice trip, I learned so much during the cultural briefings between private jet flights…
The thing about being the unexpected element, that weird thing no one expected to see in a paddock anywhere let alone Saudi Arabia, is that no one notices what I am doing most of the time because they assume I’m just recording a Vine or gazing wistfully at a drivers’ hairline or something. I don’t really get fussed around by teams or pushed out of garages or moved away from conversations because despite it being pretty obvious by this point that I do know what I’m looking at, I am also still the comedic relief.
It has turned into a bit of an act. If I actually am I tremendous dumbass then I can’t get mad when everyone treats me like one.
And no one cares what I do or where I go. As soon as I leave the circuit I’m a black shape as swaddled as any of the others. Which is why I think I can trust what I saw and what I think about Riyadh, why I don’t think anyone there was trying to impress me.
The teenage girls, after all, were there for the Black Eyed Peas concert. It was purely incidental that they discovered nice western ladies women could be motorsport journalists in the process, that my big, heavy permanent pass drew so many eyes because I couldn’t get the lanyard to bend to sitting right yet.
One of the women I speak to wistfully says she’d like to be a journalist herself but she’s been arrested before and couldn’t face it happening again. Which is where the teenage excitement melts away.
The reality is that I’m seeing Saudi Arabians get to do stuff they haven’t been able to previously which I take wholly for granted. I’m not inspirational, I’m just an exotic glimpse of someone who, for all my bleating and crying about going to Riyadh, is in absolutely no danger whatsoever.
And when I blend away into the night the only thing that stood out was I have no cocking idea how to keep an abaya out of the puddles from the unseasonal downpour. But going to Saudi is not about me.
I don’t think you can fake teenage girls. You can fake loads of things but you can’t pretend it’s plausible a restrictive state faked teenage girls’ enthusiasm. (the next year I’d get in a mosh pit with them but that’s later)
I meet a really lovely, wonderfully dedicated Saudi journalist out there. She’s a credit both to her youth and frankly to motorsport and I don’t think she even half realises how great she is at making both internet content and quality traditional journalism.
(I’m not putting her name here because this is a reasonably low-risk piece for me, I think — but I wouldn’t force anyone else’s name to be put to my words, any more than I was willing to let my own be edited)
So there are Saudi women doing this. And you should listen to them about the race far more than me and what they say is obviously the same thing I say about the London Eprix; of course you want the sport you love in your city.
Boris Johnson’s an odious prick and I’m allowed to say that. I don’t have to express gratitude to him for facilitating the event, when it happens next year. He didn’t have anything to do with it and I can be British without having a single miligram of respect for the people running the place.
I can’t tell you what Saudis think about their own leaders because I don’t know — but the attitude is definitely quite different. The situation is different, the structure is different. I don’t want to say that people are lying when they say they’re grateful to the leaders for bringing sporting events there because I don’t know that they are.
The politics of anywhere is complicated. There’s not a requirement to engage, except when there is. When you have to go somewhere the issues loom in massive print or your prime minister keeps straight-up lying about things that will get people killed.
People think we don’t ask about this. But what is there to say? I can tell you what was said in a press conference, I can tell you what I inferred from the total disregard for a lot of the stricter rules that’s obviously running through Riyadh.
Saudi Arabians like being Saudi Arabian. Much more than I think most British people like being British but that’s kind of cultural. It will come as no surprise that a young population finds strict religious law grating and wants reforms, that the handful of cinemas that have opened in the past few years are popular, that people like being able to go on dates and go out for dinner without being strictly separated into male and female and they love to party. Some of them probably wouldn’t say no to a beer.
If I tell you that Saudi Arabians (largely) approve of the race, will you approve of the race now? If I tell you that there’s young Saudis, especially women, getting the chance to do stuff they really want to do because we bring the circus to Riyadh, are you onboard? Not if you weren’t before.
I would say: why do you think you deserve the opportunity to go to things and they don’t? What are you gonna tell my friend, ‘hey, an accident of your birth location means my politics ban sport from your country?’ I don’t know if that sits right with me, personally.
Here’s some tea: the Riyadh paddock, in that first year, is the nicest motorsport paddock I’ve ever worked. As a woman. I mean, I always work in paddocks as a woman but like in terms of me being there, womanly, it was the nicest.
Within the Formula E paddock, people behave pretty much like they do in a lot of the rest of Riyadh, from what I can tell. Western women uncover their hair and some fully do away with the abaya, by year two that ratio increases to pretty much everyone but me shedding it as soon as they’re through the gates.
Women have never been banned from motorsport, in liberal western Europe. We make up 1.5% of race license holders — over the course of 125 years of motorsport events — and it’s conventional for men in racing to be able to say wildly misogynist things without it affecting their careers but we’re not banned and never have been.
Women always have been in motorsport, working and as pure fans. Most people in it start as one, end up as a combination. It’s a passion field, you can’t commit to the schedule otherwise.
But we’re a minority. And people quite often either forget we’re there or forget that any group who are so completely marginalised actually kind of needs some extra catering-for. You get used to it after awhile and kind of forget but you will never be one of the boys.
Riyadh isn’t like that because this is a totally new event. They have to make sure that it caters to a population not used to attending these kind of events at all and also that it specifically advertises to and makes itself welcoming to women, because otherwise they’re at risk of getting in trouble with the FIA. The organisers here 100% have to prove how liberal and reformed they are.
Which means everything includes me. People add “and ladies” every time they say “guys,” everyone asks for my opinion about things, I get brought to the roundtables and possibly actually given more time with people than the men.
It’s so strange and flattering, it gives me not a weird impression of Saudi Arabia, who I completely understand the motivations of about this and yes I know it’s PR and an act. But it’s an act that’s working, I do feel welcomed not specifically to Riyadh but to motorsport in a way I simply never have back home. It makes me a bit genuinely hysterical about having to go back to normal paddocks.
I don’t think Riyadh deserves a medal for it or anything — but it makes me think a lot about the ‘regular’ motorsport events.
Back to that first year; it’s fine. I distract myself by looking after one of my friends, who is finding it all much harder and who I designate myself the food and drink carer for the majority of the season.
By the time we’re leaving the circuit I promise to come back for a week next time, to see more of the city. I’ve already made myself a playlist for the way home and although I’ve been cheerfully, relentlessly convincing myself I am coping fine and the kilometre and a half down a dark motorway I’ve walked every night doesn’t bother me and I feel perfectly safe, there’s a cathartic reason it opens with the Pet Shop Boys’ Home & Dry.
But it’s done. We’ve been to Riyadh and nothing bad happened and I ate some really great falafel. Also had one of the best experiences of my life when I walked up to media pen on the test day and there was a near-equal number of female to male drivers due to a test stunt where teams were allowed to run a second car if a woman drove it.
Yeah, it’s a stunt. But it’s the one that means Saudi Arabia has now had the most women driving in a mixed-gender, top flight motorsport series, simultaneously, of any country ever. If anyone’s mad about that then motorsport has been happening for 125 years and somewhere else could have done it first. I mean, this is just sport. Somewhere could have done that. Somewhere could do it now with a larger number. In the interim, well played HRH Abdulaziz.
I decide maybe I don’t want to drink any wine in Cairo airport on my way back, for roughly the amount of time it takes me to get off my plane, walk to a place that sells wine and immediately order some. It tastes so good, I have a little cry.
Thus ends year one of what’s going to be ten years of me taking myself to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as a lone woman and trying to get around.
Something weird happens the day after that season’s final race in New York, which is that I go to a lunch with a load of other journalists. They’re all F1 and important and cool, I probably shouldn’t have even been invited. Especially given I’ve just got off a heavily delayed overnight flight from JFK and I am not feeling it.
Anyway, I inevitably mention I’m from Formula E and this guy goes off at me about Riyadh. Then when he discovers I actually go, he goes even more in on me and my moral decay. I’m genuinely shocked by the ferocity of it, especially from a group of people who go to Bahrain.
I’ve got used to having to explain myself but this guy just won’t let it lie, says I’m dancing on Khashoggi’s grave and and mocking the idea of journalism, supporting crimes against women. I kind of think, privately, that that’s a bit much coming from the lofty podium of working in, uh, famous humanitarian agency Formula One but then at the time I also do that so perhaps that’s not a great stone to start throwing in a room full of people who do too.
I don’t manage to get my brain together enough to sell it to him. I mean, I don’t know if I want to sell it? Do I actually think it’s good that we go, not just survivable?
You know what, I do. I think it’s difficult and it stresses me out and every year it makes the season opener tough and you know, people shout at me over lunch and things. But look, if you just close the door on Saudi Arabia then how’s there gonna be reform? How is freedom of the press and rights going to improve if you don’t know anything about anything that happens there? Or anything about the country? The people that live there?
It’s 2019; the same way that Saudi Arabia can’t stop the flow of information as a young, internet-savvy population gets extremely online, you can’t stand in the way of things
My most succinct summary of why I think we should go, though, is simpler: Formula E getting paid to race in the home of oil and sit there going ‘that’s bad’ without getting censored is the biggest middle finger move.
Ah, Riyadh alone: round two. Now, surely, I would be armed with enough knowledge to not screw up constantly by disappearing into my own bizarre alternate reality.
Guess what? I absolutely do not. If anything else I’m even worse. I get really, really anxious in the runup — partly because this year my mother knows I am going and oh boy am I getting told off. Which is pathetic, what the hell, what kind of tiny, baby child am I?
I booked my flights really early this time, before testing. They were way better flights and I was excited to be going home via Beirut because apparently I am a lot better at inventing fictional versions of countries that sit in my brain like mirages than I am at reading the news.
Anyway, great life choices aside (it’s not like this is even my worst one) I, in theory, should be really chill about this. Except I miss the FIA email to apply for a visa and end up doing it late and it doesn’t turn up for ages and I get really stressed and then also ill and I start a new job and everything is really full on and I want to throw up.
I don’t do my packing until the last minute, then prepare by drinking too much wine and sleeping through my alarm so I have to book a last minute Uber to Stansted. Which isn’t ideal because I’m not sure if I’ve been paid but better than missing the whole thing.
Anyway, my point-blank refusal to ever check my bank balance is very much a me thing rather than anything directly connected to Saudi Arabia. So, off to Stansted and I have to re-buy everything I need and obviously forgot in the airport but again, this is pretty standard behaviour for anyone who’s as much of a total mess as me.
This doesn’t seem like the way to do it. I can get most places half-cut and sloppy but this is not most places. Nevermind — also it turns out Pegasus serve surprisingly pleasant in-flight wine and by the time I get to Istanbul I’m feeling quite relaxed; I have hours of stopover for it to wear off in, don’t worry.
I don’t want to go. It’s got into my head. I’ve been getting all these weird emails with hate-filled fantasies about me getting killed and I keep thinking about the guy at that lunch and also about the texts from my mum and the way I don’t feel cavalier enough to be doing this.
Why am I going? Because it’s my job to go. Because I have stuff to do. Because I have this endless compulsion to do it and it’s a massive privilege. I don’t know. It’s all weighing on my brain, am I an instrument of state PR now? I wouldn’t put up with that from anywhere and besides, I don’t think I am. I’d probably be on a fancier flight if I was.
But getting onto my late-night flight in Istanbul, I know it’s descended again. The fictional, fearful Riyadh is in my head and every radical thing I’ve tweeted from the past year is haunting me. What the hell am I doing going to Saudi Arabia?
And the thing is, I can’t (at this point) recognise it’s the VR. Yet again, I’m expecting to get arrested at the airport, to get trailed, a million paranoid things that won’t happen. But now they’re incredibly real in the sort of simulated reality everyone’s told me definitely exists and is more important than my own memories.
I’m not normally like this. I haven’t been sleeping enough (I’ve had ten hours sleep over five nights) and it’s really starting to show.
Still, on the plane now so better live with it — obviously I get to Riyadh without incident and am through the airport with a warm bag of falafel and a coffee, into an Uber where I manage to stagger through a mostly-Arabic conversation and send a selection of my wilder and more enthusiastic tweets about politically safe but morally questionable topic: Lando Norris is really hot lately.
I know I said I’m never going to win a Pulitzer but with that kind of bold reporting, I really should.
Finding my hotel takes a bit (it’s another, different dubious apartment hotel) and by the time I’m in and arrived, it’s like 3:30am so I just pass out in the massive bed. By which I mean, look at memes on my phone and rewatch the camping episodes of It’s Alive and wonder at which point I stopped just writing about semi-teenage idiot sportspeople and actually became one.
Nevermind, anyway, soon enough it’s time to revisit ‘finding the accreditation centre.’ This year I am determined not to have to climb any catch fencing so pick my Uber dropoff point VERY carefully. It is to absolutely no avail and I end up lost in the enormous Diriyah Season compound down near where Ruiz and Joshua will be going at it in a few weeks but certainly there are no electric cars currently.
Because I’m still freaking out and only managing to psychologically sustain myself by internally commentating on the situation it gets steadily worse as I wobble across the paddock on a combination of caffeine, adrenaline and inadvisable 4am hotel tap water. Once I actually find the place, collect the thing and get in the media centre things feel less out of control, except that I need to write two season previews before anyone wakes up in the UK still.
At least there’s fruit and coffee.
Thursday is a bit of a mess, for me. I don’t eat enough (I’m vegan and it’s a genuine problem in paddocks) and I’m so sleep deprived I’m really not coping very well and keep having to watch Calming YouTube Content to get a grip on myself and churn out another thousand words. To be fair, all of this is just the business of being me, doing journalism so can’t really be attributed to Riyadh or anyone there.
A team are doing an event later where I’m meant to be interviewing someone who I inevitably don’t get to interview because scheduling is a nightmare and also it’s really obvious that I am about one second from falling asleep on the floor and considerably over my stress limit. Another woman in Formula E asks me why I’m letting the side down by wearing an abaya (most team personnel are taking them off the second they enter the paddock) and I just snap.
It’s because I’m on my own. Because I arrived at 1:30am. Because everyone’s spent the last month telling me how stupid I am by going here and how certain I am to get killed and it turns out even I have a limit to self-determined risk enthusiasm. Because if anything happens to me, no one knows where I am and Formula E don’t look after me -
This comes as a surprise. They don’t? Surely no one lets me run round Saudi Arabia totally on my own?
Oh, they do. And being alone is psychologically testing and I feel so pathetic at how pitiable it all sounds. One of the drivers sympathetically tells me that sounds “really fucked up, to be honest.” It, err, doesn’t help.
By the time I get back to my hotel the absolute most I can manage to do is go to a shop and buy the ingredients for a big night in in Riyadh. Which is to say, some crisps, some mystery thing in a jar that turns out to be definitely not vegan kind of fake cheese with the consistency of mayonnaise that tastes amazing on crisps (food waste is bad) and one of everything from the drinks section.
I love foreign supermarkets. Full of weird stuff. This one is crucially full of men who are understandably surprised to see a western lady wandering around shaking like she’s on a billion drugs and trying to find the hummus (I can’t) or work out which colour of water is fizzy in these parts.
Obviously there’s no beer in Saudi Arabia but there is a wide selection of like beer-adjacent malt drinks that have weird fruity flavours and also cider-adjacent things with frightening coloured labels. I go for a beer-adjacent thing in flavour ‘original’ and a threatening can of Mirinda which poses the question about itself: watermelon or cantaloupe?
(my investigative powers don’t stretch that far, it mostly tastes of heavy-handed corn syrup)
I’m freaking out, though, because when I was in the supermarket the guy packing my bags gave me a present. It was just a chocolate wafer thing and I was concentrating on understanding what number I needed to pay so didn’t really pay any attention until I left and suddenly thought: what if they’re setting me up to be done for stealing it?
There was no evidence for this at all. Every Saudi I’ve met has been genuinely helpful or openly friendly, the worst reaction being a kind of morbid curiosity about why anyone would do what I am doing. But instead of using all 10ft-across of my weirdly gigantic hotel bed to get the sleep I really, really desperately need I obviously just send myself insane googling ‘setup to be arrested Saudi shops’ and variants thereon. It’s so stupid and I am only getting stupider as I waste precious resting hours on doing the opposite of that.
Now fully convinced I will be in jail before the end of the day, it’s time for the Friday race. Either you’re into motorsport and therefore know how race day works or you’re not and so don’t care but basically a lot of things happen all at once and I have to stop writing worryingly thirsty things about drivers in other series and do some work for once.
I’m really in the toilet, brain-wise, by this point and have to cry in the loos three times during the day. Which is difficult when the loos keep being closed because of some kind of water supply issue (Formula E uses temporarily-built paddocks so these things happen) and requires quite a lot of timing effort.
Also people keep interviewing me, which actually now seems to happen more than I interview other people and the whole thing feels completely ridiculous. Why are you interviewing me? I’m an idiot and I can’t remember my own name or feel most of the left side of my body because I last had ‘adequate sleep’ about three weeks ago and for some reason I forgot to bring any socks with me so I have these really aggressive blisters and I’m probably going to go to Saudi jail over a chocolate bar.
A lot of stuff is happening to me and very little of it is conducive to doing anything useful. Which then gets in my head more and this is how every weekend goes, except with an added, imaginary carceral threat.
I relay my woes to one of my friends who advises that maybe it really would be a good idea to eat something that isn’t crisps and get more than three hours’ sleep and like ok, I can believe that.
My Saudi friend notices I am having a meltdown and says she’s worried I hate her city. It finally kicks me into functional gear — I can’t be coming over here, making people feel bad about the fact I have a wholly imaginary version of their country down over my head like a visor.
So that night I first go to the concert after Formula E and purchase ‘potato,’ the most vegan thing I can find to eat. This helps somewhat and gets me into the mindset where when my taxi drops me off, I head off to the malls near where I’m staying (which are not the grander, designer sort you find in some of Riyadh) to complete the incredibly trivial task of buying socks and ordering stir fry.
Socks it turns out are easy, as there’s a shoe shop nearby and I could’ve saved myself a world of pain really easily. Which is pretty much the moral of this entire episode: stop making your life really hard and driving yourself insane and instead of just doing things like a normal, woman.
Dinner is also easy in that I get an absolutely monumental quantity of stir fry vegetables from a mall food court place and eat them in a sort of blissful semi-coma while listening to the sounds of Dr Dre’s seminal album 2001, over the mall tannoy. I seem to be staying in a very Asian district this year and most of the restaurants seem to be authentic Indonesian places.
This helps the sleeping problem enormously. It turns out just ‘not being scared’ is really key to getting six straight hours in bed and so being able to operate normally. And that’s the thing, what am I even scared of? Myself?
(to be fair, I am definitely the biggest danger to me)
It feels better. But I’m still relieved when I leave — it’s all the things: my own stupid ideas, the judgement from other people, the pressure of trying to make sure I’m doing it right.
Before I do though, I go to the last concert with a group of Saudi young people who I’ve tagged along with. Everyone is covered in glitter and dancing suggestively and jumping on each other and starting mosh pits. It feels like being at a gig I am about 15 years too old for in any other country, except that unlike if it was in London no one sloshes a pint of Tuborg down my back at any point.
It definitely does not feel like government collusion when at the end of his set, a Lebanese rapper does a dubstep version of Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do (I Do It For You) and I, an old person, absolutely lose it in front of this surreally gigantic stage, surrounded by excited young people.
For me, I could go to a gig like that every night of the week in London. But this is one of a handful. The first western music concerts were played at the Eprix the year before and there’s something there that feels big. You can claim the sport is a distraction for the rest of the world but you don’t televise concerts, these are for the Saudis.
(The concerts actually caused a really problematic ticketing situation this year where people were buying them, looking like the Formula E numbers were good because it was a combined ticket and then not turning up — when the organisers were asked they admitted they screwed up and would be trying to fix it next year)
This is what it comes down to, about the race. It’s a good track, it’s one of the best ones we have in fact — it’s produced two exciting races this season and despite torrential rain making the first year difficult, it worked then too. And yes, we have done all the bits about turning up to torrential rain in Riyadh; it snowed on the Sahara when we were in Marrakech once, too.
Climate change doesn’t really deal in imaginary metaphors.
So it’s a good track, the drivers like to drive on it, it produces a genuinely good sporting event. It takes electric racing and green principles, confrontationally, to one of the homes of oil. It has forced some small changes — which should not overshadow the achievements and struggles of Saudi Arabians themselves in getting those.
If you think it is just sportswashing then that’s too simple, it isn’t. It depends if you think the Saudi 2030 Vision plan is for you, probably sitting in the west and still thinking of this as some distant horror theme park, or for people there.
There’s an open PR angle, but those stats — the ones from way back at the show case, about how low life expectancy is in Saudi Arabia and how generally Saudis have a poor quality of life — well, a lot of this is not about how you see it. It’s about things like the massive investment into grass roots sport (especially motorsport, a nice upside to the now-head of the Sports Authority being an ex-racer) might improve things for regular Saudis.
You want to know what going to Riyadh is like? It’s a bit boring. People want stuff to do, same as you. And to meet people — each other and weird, jetlagged British women who can barely hold a coffee without tipping it down themselves.
So long as we acknowledge the other stuff (and we should do it everywhere) then I think you’re taking the wrong side, if you believe your opinion trumps their right to access that.
Ok here’s some more tea: Riyadh is covered in rubbish. If you want proof I’m not lying, here it is: the whole place is absolutely bedecked in trash.
This happens a lot in places with poor infrastructure, which Riyadh absolutely has. Because making life easy for people to get around and to meet up and to get places hasn’t been a social or specifically political priority, Saudi quality of life suffers in more ways than one. Who cares if the streets are filled with garbage if you never go out?
But people do now. Young Saudis go out in big groups and nearly all Saudis are young. Stepping around overspilling rubbish becomes the first thing I get the hang of keeping my abaya out of because man, it does not smell ok.
Rubbish in a city is a pollutant and I really hope, for the people living there, that Riyadh sorts this out. It’s all the ‘being a metaphor’ thing, isn’t it? Metaphors for governments don’t have extensive municipal recycling programmes.
I can’t tell you to unconditionally support Formula E racing in Riyadh. I don’t think you should unconditionally support anything, really, apart from maybe Lando Norris but we’re all just having a big one about that at the minute.
But anyway, this wasn’t to tell you what to think. It was slightly just to write about going there because not many people do and slightly because everyone keeps insisting no one in the Formula E media is thinking about this stuff when I have tortured myself for weeks with it. Also some of the anecdotes are funny. I could write a lot more, from my run-ins with ‘rose Lattes’ to the time I bought a lime juice and recklessly refused extra sugar in it only to discover I’d got an actual pint of just undiluted lime.
But this is long enough and it’s already much too much about me, for something that really shouldn’t be. We all have to live in our own heads.