As Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues have tumbled, the kingdom — once sealed against Western values and visitors — has tried to soften its image and has opened its borders in an attempt to appeal to tourists. The Saudi government has paid for YouTube ads and Instagram influencers to show off the nation’s natural wonders.
But other wonders in the country are manmade — such as the Riyadh Car Show, an extravagant and massive auto trade event funded by the government. The six-day show in Saudi Arabia’s capital — it ends Tuesday — features scores of exhibits and hundreds of vehicles and is expected to draw a crowd of 250,000.
And the man running this operation just happens to live in Boston.
For a decade, Massachusetts native Peter MacGillivray, 55, has helped run the world’s largest auto show, SEMA (for Specialty Equipment Market Association), held annually in Las Vegas. But even with that credential, MacGillivray wasn’t sure what to expect when Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Entertainment — a newly minted government agency in charge of building up the country’s entertainment industry — came calling in February.
“It wasn’t clear to me at first whether they wanted a trade show, or a consumer show, or some kind of hybrid festival,” MacGillivray said. “And it became clear to me that the show that they were putting together was unique and never had been done before.”
The lineup sounds less like a convention for automobile enthusiasts than a sort of high-octane motorized Disneyworld. Stars of the auto world — including race car drivers, TV show hosts, and the people behind the custom shop made famous by MTV’s Pimp My Ride — grace the exhibition halls. There are monster truck demonstrations, drift racing (in which cars skid sideways around corners, rather than turn), musical performances from Middle Eastern DJs and rappers, live auctions of rare and vintage vehicles, car-customization workshops, and an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the farthest distance a human has been launched from a cannon.
A dramatically scored video of a CGI mockup shows the sprawling scale of the event, as the frame soars over rows of exhibition tents, luxury popup stores from brands like Rolex, a chandeliered VIP lounge, a castle-like “Saudi cultural hall” (also filled with cars), and a long racetrack that splits most of the pavilion in two.
Dominating the skyline is a bright-orange life-size Hot Wheels track, where stunt drivers and motorcyclists will complete loop-de-loops, pinned to the circular ramp only by sheer force as they ascend and hang upside down.
On the auction block will be so-called supercars — glitzy high-performance vehicles from names like Pagani and Ferarri — and “hypercars,” the highest-performing vehicles that money can buy, including the Bugatti Veyron and the McLaren P1, which have specifications and proportions that make them more practical for street racing than for picking up lunch at a drive-through.
“Each one of those verticals [niche industries] could be a show unto themselves,” MacGillivray said from Riyadh. “When I worked on the concept and the vision with the organizers, this was something that they wanted — a little bit of something for everybody.”
It’s a lot of car stuff for a man who says he’s “not a car guy.”
“I’ve been described as kind of an accidental gearhead,” MacGillivray said. “I started out as a journalist, and it really didn’t matter to me what I was reporting on.’’
After studying journalism at Boston University in the 1980s, MacGillivray moved to California and became an editor at Petersen Publishing, which produces special-interest car magazines like Motor Trend and Hot Rod. The position became MacGillivray’s launching pad for a string of gigs hosting auto shows around the world from a home base in Boston, leading up to his current role in Riyadh.
“And here I am today,” MacGillivray said, “surrounded by some of the biggest brands in the world, putting on this show where we expect hundreds of thousands of people show up.”
MacGillivray says he enjoys organizing massive events, and just happens to have a knack for auto shows.
“Nothing makes me happier than looking down the aisle of my event and not being able to see the carpet,” he said. “That’s success. People tend to vote with their feet.”
And while MacGillivray harbors no illusions about Saudi Arabia’s controversial policies and actions — including last year’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi, its ongoing involvement in Yemen’s brutal civil war, and its cultural and legal treatment of women— he believes the country’s recent overtures to the outside world are sincere.
“My guiding light here has been that you can watch change, or you can be a part of it,” MacGillivray said. “There’s no question in my mind that I’m part of a change.”
Max Jungreis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.