The Adrenaline-Fueled Subculture Of “Arab Drifters”

Street-racing has been a popular activity in Gulf states for decades. Improbably, a police crackdown has started to lead to its legitimacy.

In the world of motorsports, there are the official, corporate-sponsored affairs, like Nascar and Indycar, and then there are homegrown efforts–the ones that require only a souped-up car and a lot of empty asphalt. In backwoods America, that might take the form of demolition derbies or drag racing. In places like United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, it’s a type of street-racing called hajwalah.


Most people here in the U.S. know hajwalah, or “Arab drifting,” from insane YouTube videos about it, or from the background of M.I.A’s 2012 “Bad Girl” video. But as photographer Peter Garritano recently discovered, Arab drifters have a huge Instagram presence as well. Last March, Garritano reached out to some of these hajwalah Instagram accounts to see if he could photograph the drivers. His resulting series, Hajwalah, originally spotted by It’s Nice That, gives a glimpse inside the underground, adrenaline-fueled culture, and how it’s beginning to change.

Hajwalah was started by young men in Saudia Arabia in the 1970s, and has since spread to other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates. That’s where Garritano went to shoot his series, first to Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, and then to more rural places like Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, where racers have more space and less risk of interaction with cops.

The police have been cracking down on drifters in recent years, particularly since 2012, when a Saudi drifter killed two pedestrians while drifting and was sentenced to death. “As a result, these guys are leaning toward [drifting on] private pieces of land and strips of asphalt,” Garritano says. “There’s still stuff happening in the streets but it’s happening less.”

Through his Instagram researching, Garritano got connected to a guy named Ahmed AlMarzouqi, who frequently shoots video for Arab drifting. He connected Garritano to other drifters–all men, mainly in their early to late 20s–who let him shoot inside their garages and alongside the races for the week Garritano was in the UAE.

Inside the garages, most would take everyday cars like Nissans and Toyota Land Cruisers and jack them up with performance modified turbos or bigger engines. The men Garritano met self-assembled into teams with names like “crash,” “disaster” and “cops.” His photos show cars on empty streets or private lots, many frozen mid-drift. A skilled technique that is often used in official motorsports as well, drifting is essentially spinning out while still maintaining control of the car.

Garritano says that after witnessing the races, he can see the appeal. “There’s something about a roaring engine sound that makes your heart race,” he says. “It’s all burning rubber and lots of yelling.” Eventually, some of his subjects convinced him to go along for a ride in a car with 1,100 horsepower–faster than a Lamborghini–which somewhat tempered the perceived thrill. “I only did it once and that was enough,” he says.


In Garritano’s view, the police crackdown and the subsequent move of many hajwalah events to less crowded areas and even private land is leading the sport to legitimization. In a private lot, hajwalah is legal and innocent bystanders are less likely to get hurt. When it’s legal, hajwalah amasses more of an audience since no one has to fear repercussions from the cops.

Next steps could be actual tracks and official teams. Hajwalah has already been commercializing a bit, with garages sponsoring drivers and decking them out with decals and gear. “Bringing it into the light has helped [hajwalah] for a lot of reasons,” Garritano says. “It’s more safe, and you can develop your technique more carefully and innovate more because you’re not running away [from the cops] constantly.”

[All Photos: Peter Garritano]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.