In a Saudi economy where restraint is the buzzword, this week’s small-scale Riyadh Motor Show is a sign of the times.
But following widespread economic austerity in the kingdom hit by falling oil revenues, the fact that the event is being held at all after a three-year absence has given hope to car retailers.
Although it is usually an annual event, the last show was in 2012.
“There was not much interest from different companies to participate” in the intervening years, said Alaa Aboumerhi, general manager of marketing for Hyundai Wallan, Saudi distributors for the South Korean brand.
Hyundai sedans are on display alongside rivals including Japan’s Toyota, China’s Chery and US brands Chevrolet and GMC at the four-day event which began on Tuesday night.
European luxury brands are absent from the show, which is targeted at the average buyer and takes up just one section of a Riyadh convention center. Much of the hall is devoted to auto accessories.
Saudi media described the exhibition space as several times smaller than at the previous show.
Retailers in the kingdom in general are complaining of lower sales and residents say they have less money to spend.
On top of hikes in the prices of petrol, electricity and water over the past year, the cabinet in September imposed a wage freeze on civil servants, who make up the bulk of the workforce.
Among saving measures at the highest levels, top government officials will no longer be given cars.
Economic cutbacks will be accompanied by a drop in automobile sales this year, Aboumerhi said.
“As for Hyundai, we are still maintaining our market share”, with sales of about 50,000 units per year which places it second in the Saudi market, he said.
The motor show, which the Arab News daily said drew an estimated 10,000 visitors on the opening day, is a chance for dealers to show off their latest models and to even take orders.
On-site bankers are ready to help with financing.
“The economy, it’s not really good,” said Hassan Abdulaziz, manning the Toyota display which included a Hilux diesel pickup truck that sells for 104,000 riyals ($27,733).
Around him, Saudi men in traditional white thobes lifted bonnets and sat in the driver’s seats.
Marketing student Waleed Mubarak sounded optimistic about the kingdom’s prospects as he looked for a new car with a budget of 150,000 riyals.
“There’s no problem with the economy now in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Another visitor, Abdullah Bajabar, wasn’t so sure.
Having just returned from several years in Canada, he said he needs a car even though “the economic situation is difficult.”
No scantily clad promoters
Other visitors seemed more interested in filming themselves and the vehicles, which included monster trucks and a yellow sports car slung so low it seemed to touch the floor.
A young Saudi man in Western clothes preened in a convertible while taking a selfie.
Across the aisle, a DJ spun hip hop tunes beside a display of colored wheel rims and a vintage Chevrolet.
Even though the conservative kingdom is the world’s only country where women cannot drive, visitors included a few women dressed in traditional black abaya robes.
There were no scantily clad females helping to promote the cars, as occurs in many countries.
A luxury car show in Saudi Arabia’s slightly more liberal Red Sea city of Jeddah was reportedly sanctioned after it used female sales promoters.
Local media reported last month that pictures on social media showed young Saudi women posing in long white robes with their faces uncovered in front of a car display.
Jeddah will next month host the annual Saudi International Motor Show, the kingdom’s largest.
Organizers of that event say Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s biggest importer of vehicles and auto parts.
A car remains essential for getting around Saudi cities criss-crossed by multi-lane highways, where public transit projects are under development but not yet finished.
For Hyundai’s Aboumerhi, Saudi Arabia’s intensified effort to diversify its oil-dependent economy should lead to an improvement next year.
“By the end of this year there will be a lot of changes, positive changes, which will reflect for sure on the automotive sector,” Aboumerhi said.