Steel camels: Harleys rumble across Saudi sands
America's ultimate icon of letting loose has gone from Milwaukee to the land of Mecca and Medina, where members of the Middle East Harley Owners Group (HOG) held their ninth annual rally this weekend.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A half-moon directly overhead glows in the gathering daylight as Adel Mallawi straps on his helmet.Skip to next paragraph
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His tall legs, sheathed in leather chaps that match his black leather jacket, drape over one of the loves of his life: Harley-Davidson's 105th anniversary Electra Glide Ultra Classic. Copper and black. Same colors as his helmet.
Birds chirp and a solitary trash truck gorges on rubbish in the empty downtown street as Mallawi and 12 other bikers, most of them Saudi, rev their engines. "Yallah!" someone yells. "Let's go!"
The sun rises as the bikers ease onto the highway for a 750-mile ride through the Saudi desert to the United Arab Emirates to join hundreds of other bikers at the ninth annual rally of the Middle East Harley Owners Group (HOG). As they thunder toward the horizon, the crisp dawn air promises a perfect day on the open road, which Mallawi, a banker, finds exhilarating.
"It's the sense of freedom you get on the bike," the 30-something Saudi says. "It's just you and the air. It's a great feeling."
America's ultimate icon of letting loose, the Harley-Davidson, has gone from Milwaukee to the land of Mecca and Medina. Dire warnings from religious conservatives about the sinful pitfalls of imitating a Western lifestyle are no match, it seems, for the allure of soft leather, gleaming chrome, and the purr of a perfectly pitched motor.
Mutlaq, who keeps his favorite bike, a cherry-red Screaming Eagle, in Europe, and who once rode from Saudi Arabia to Ireland, also heads Riyadh's Harley Owners Group. The chapter started four years ago when the showroom opened. It has about 300 members, 60 percent of them are Saudi. As befits the country's nascent biking culture, most are clean-shaven, short-haired, and tattoo-free, though one member sports a helmet decorated with skulls.
Saud bin Driss, a young employee of an investment firm, says his initial impressions of Harley riders were formed by Hollywood: "Mostly gangsters ... very dark," he says.
But when his cousin announced he was getting a Harley, Driss says, "as a competition to him I saved my money and got one."
Although Driss's family is conservative, they encouraged him to get a Harley because "they know some of the people here and what their mentality is; that they're mature men, not like 20-year-old kids with speed bikes" who might be "a bad influence."