Drifting SUVs in the UAE: The hobby of 'hajwalah'

Story highlights

  • Some youth in the Middle East are getting their thrills by drifting vehicles
  • They've moved their meets to private tracks after governments started cracking down

(CNN)An SUV races down an open, desert road. Suddenly, the driver whips the steering wheel as hard and fast as he can in one direction, then back the other way. The vehicle spins uncontrollably, skidding across the road.

This dangerous drifting phenomenon is called "hajwalah," or "tafheet," and in parts of the Arab world it's how some thrill-seeking teenagers get their fill.
    Young men in Saudi Arabia have been drifting cars since the 1970s, and the practice has since spread to countries such as the United Arab Emirates. It was once popular on public roads, but Gulf state governments have since cracked down on hajwalah due to the high number of traffic accidents and injuries caused by drifters.
    Not to be controlled, today's youth have taken to private tracks and unlicensed garages in rural areas where they are free to be as reckless as they please.

    Social media

    Follow @CNNPhotos on Twitter to join the conversation about photography.

    New York-based photographer Peter Garritano traveled to the UAE to capture a part of this subculture for his latest photo series. The photos follow a drifting competition, highlighting different aspects of hajwalah.
    One photo shows SUVs lined up for the drifting meet. The center car is emblazoned with the Arabic word for disaster, also the name of a drifting crew in the competition. Other photos show behind-the-scenes preparation. Mechanics are hard at work under the hoods of these SUVs, which must be modified from their factory configurations to be able to perform signature stunts.
    Another photo shows the asphalt covered in aggressive patterns of skid marks, leaving little question about what transpired on those roads.
    "It's kind of like a demolition derby," Garritano explained. "They get really excited when something explodes or burns."
    Moving hajwalah from public roads to private tracks has given rise to a more formalized, competitive drifting culture, cementing it as a legitimate form of motorsport. In drift meets like the one in Garritano's photos, drivers are judged by panels on their technique and on the audacity of their stunts. But there are no hard and fast rules. Hajwalah is a freestyle sport, and those who display the most fearlessness ultimately prevail.
    "It's like watching a carefully choreographed car accident that hopefully doesn't end in a wreck," Garritano said.
    The huge risks involved in the stunts, and the vast sums of money spent tricking out vehicles that could easily get totaled after one bold move, make hajwalah a seemingly impractical hobby. Its appeal in the Gulf countries stems from a perfect storm of youthful restlessness and fantastic wealth in the face of more socially conservative societies.
    It's "the same as any teenage man seeking an activity with as much machismo possible," Garritano said. "But they have money to spend and only so many ways to spend it."
    Perhaps one of the drifters put it best.
    "People think we're hooligans, but there are hooligans everywhere," the drifter told Garritano. "We just happen to be hooligans with money."