Sometimes an opportunity falls into your lap that you can’t pass up, prompting you to risk everything to make it happen. For me, the moment came when I was invited on a press trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
My fascination with the Middle East began during college while taking my first journalism class. One day we had a visit from a woman who ran the university’s study abroad programs. With pale skin and blond hair, she passionately shared details about the journalism program in Jordan.
Nearly ten years later, what I remember most about that day is her response when someone asked if it was dangerous or scary for her to be there. Without hesitation, she said “absolutely not,” and went on to add that the region is like any other major city – there are places you go and places you don’t go.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing a dramatic transformation – opening up its borders to tourists and relaxing many of its conservative laws. Among those, women can drive and travel abroad without a male “guardian.” The social change is part of “Vision 2030,” a plan to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy by welcoming other industries with a series of special events called the Riyadh Season.
Needless to say, when I was invited to experience the inaugural Global Auto Salon (GASR), I knew it was something I just had to do.
The event took place on November 21-26 in Riyadh at the Janadriyah Cultural and Heritage Festival Grounds. It featured a variety of muscle cars, exotics, hot rods, trucks, and race cars, along with aftermarket performance parts and accessories manufacturers.
Automotive leaders and influencers, many who exhibited at the SEMA Show just weeks prior, were offered to take part in GASR’s “no-loss incentive program.” It covered the cost of travel, booth space, shipping products or vehicles to and from the Kingdom, in addition to cash for signing up – with all expenses paid by the government of Saudi Arabia.
During SEMA, I asked many of my friends if they were invited to GASR and what they knew about it. Most of them seemed skeptical of the event. Others expressed concern about me going to “such a violent part of the world,” in part, because I am an unmarried woman traveling alone.
Despite this, the most unnerving part was that no one had received their travel arrangements yet. I soon discovered this was part of the Saudi culture, and most people, like myself, did not get all the necessary travel information until the day before departure.
Riyadh has a lot to offer: a booming economy, dozens of upscale malls, stunning architecture, and incredible infrastructure that spreads out amongst the desert landscape.
Western culture often portrays the Middle East as a vast sandy desert with lots of camels, populated by men in long white robes, and women regarded as objects clothed in black.
In reality, the traditional dress varied radically I saw women working and being treated as equals. On group outings to sight see and learn about the cities history, I dressed conservatively, and my hair remained mostly uncovered.
I admit, I felt uncomfortable a few times because of the interest in my light-colored hair from locals. Everyone I encountered was incredibly friendly and accommodating. Information and signs were written in Arabic and English.
I never really felt like I was “in the Middle East” other than when the group I was with specifically ventured out into the desert to go off-roading and see camels.
The Riyadh Car Show is part-SEMA Show, part-EDC, and part-Pebble Beach.
You would think, given it was described to me as “the Middle Eastern version of SEMA,” that I wouldn’t be surprised at how large the venue was, but guess again.
Within the show, the Auto Salon segment had some of the best muscle cars, hot rods, and collector cars on display. Many of the builders that shipped vehicles to Saudi Arabia had cars displayed in the Auto Salon area, and guests had the option to make an offer on most of them.
Among the most eye-catching was the Ridler-Award-winning 1957 Chevy known as “Imagine” alongside the iconic Chip Foose-built “P-32,” a custom ’32 Ford Highboy Roadster. Additionally, the Ringbrothers, fresh off its Battle of the Builders victory at SEMA, had several builds on display, including a never before seen K5 Blazer.
The Auto Salon was like a mini SEMA Show with booths for automotive aftermarket companies to conduct business with the locals. However, unlike trade shows in the States, this event was geared more towards families and general spectators, it’s number one priority was entertainment.
According to locals, the extreme heat is why the Saudi culture starts everything late and goes well into the night hours. Consequently, each day the show began in the late afternoon and shut down sometime after midnight. The venue allowed the show to have many dedicated areas for different activities, like the full-blown rave with more laser lights then you can imagine.
In stark contrast to the custom builds and dance music, there was a dedicated space for eight-figure Ferraris and elegant pre-war tourers on a Concours show field. The high-caliber of cars can only be compared to that of Pebble Beach.
Top automakers like Pagani had booths to display some of the most expensive rides on the market alongside some of the most collectible vehicles, like the Ayrton Senna McLaren F1 car and a row composed of 16 Bugatti Veyrons and Chirons.
Worldwide Auctioneers was the leading auction house at the show. The company had an impressive docket composed of rare cars and high-dollar customs from builders like Dave Kindig of Kindig-it Design, Richard Rawlings of Gas Monkey Garage, and legendary builder Chip Foose. During the sale, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia even made an appearance.
Besides the show cars, the on-track action brought another dimension to the show.
Starting with the elephant in the room, Hot Wheels put a giant stunt together in the middle of the track for driver Terry Grant. Before the trick, Grant mentioned if he completed the entire loop, he would set a new Guinness World Record as this was the largest ever built, standing at 64-feet tall. His vehicle of choice? A brand-new Jaguar F-Pace.
The Jag may not have looked like much, but it’s important to note the stunt is a 6G maneuver at 50 mph, which is not for the faint of heart.
My exposure to Monster Jam has been relatively limited. Typically when an event advertises monster trucks, that usually means you can grab a photo of how tall you are compared to its wheel and tire.
That said, I had no idea that the series has become so family-friendly until I got to see a portion of an official Monster Jam series competition that took place during GASR. Spectators could watch several tricks performed by eight different teams, including the iconic Grave Digger truck, GasMonkeys 1970 Dodge Coronet Super Bee, and a Riyadh Season truck.
Due to some shipping issues, the Hoonigan vehicles didn’t arrived by the start of the show, and the Hoonigan Burnyard got off to a slow start. Once people could hear the first cars start to rip in the Burnyard, everyone flocked to see all the carnage as it unfolded. The drivers were shredding tires, ripping bumpers off, and the crowd couldn’t seem to get enough.
My favorite part of the show was seeing Vaughn Gittin Jr. drive alongside Muath Al-Essa, Loren Healy, and Nick Nelson. The RTR team made good use of the track with lots of high-speed drifting and sending the off-road trucks off a ramp.
The best part was the finale when Healy jumped over both Mustangs as Gittin Jr. and Al-Essa drifted by. The “hang-time” stunt shows the precision, skill, and incredible timing these talented drivers have.
The variety and number of vehicles displayed at the GASR was something to surely send any automotive enthusiast’s heart racing, and it’s all part of history in the making.
Since the Global Auto Salon was the first of its kind in the country, the event is regarded as a massive success with the number of visitors exceeding expectations. And let’s be real – if the government was going to put on a car show, it was going to go big.
The biggest takeaway: Saudi Arabia’s love for American car culture is vastly underrated and is more alive than I could have ever imagined.