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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Jeddah: the Battered Bride of the Red Sea

November 19, 2014
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Jeddah – Balad District

I’ve just spent a few lively days in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city. It’s often referred to in the local media as The Bride of the Red Sea. These days, sadly, the term is used more out of affection than admiration, and is often followed by a lamentation over its shortcomings. But although the city has seen better days, I still love it.

Once upon a time Jeddah was the commercial hub of Saudi Arabia. For centuries it has been the main sea port of entry for pilgrims on their way to Mecca and Madinah. For the first 50 years after the Kingdom’s foundation it overshadowed the capital, Riyadh, both in terms of population and development. All the foreign embassies were there. The ruling elite would spend at least as much time in their palaces overlooking the Red Sea as they did in the dusty plains of central Arabia.

Whereas Riyadh’s visible heritage was limited to the ruins of Diriyah, the original oasis settlement from which the city sprang, Jeddah boasted a heart of elegant multi-story coral buildings with wind towers and wooden shutters, where merchants, fishermen and functionaries rubbed shoulders in the grubby streets, each doing their best to extract the maximum profit from the pilgrims passing through on their way to the Holy Cities.

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Balad District

The Balad, as it’s referred to in Arabic, is still there, officially designated as a heritage site. But although public money has been pumped into an effort to reverse the ravages of time, many of the buildings are in an advanced state of decay. Demolitions on grounds of safety are frequent. The souk is still thriving, though it’s no longer as free from petty crime as it was decades ago. Some older residents mutter darkly that things were better when thieves had their hands chopped off.

These days the Balad is something of a side-show. The Red Sea Palace Hotel, a stone’s throw from the souk, where we used to meet friends for a sumptuous brunch on a Friday, is way past its sell-by date. The rich have long departed to their palatial villas in the north of the city. The south is a sprawl of ramshackle housing around the port and along the Mecca highway. Further out lie huge industrial areas criss-crossed with dusty roads rutted by the thousands of trucks that wend their way to and from the factories. To the west is the sea, and to the east are mountains that inhibit further urban growth. As the locals say, the only way for Jeddah to grow is to the north.

Thirty years ago, when I lived in the city, the northward sprawl petered out a few kilometres away from the shiny new international airport. Now the office blocks and malls reach up the Madinah road to its boundaries. The airport – not blessed with the amenities you would expect these days from a major international destination –  will soon be replaced with a more spectacular version close by the original.

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Henry Moore on the Corniche

The Corniche, one of many Middle Eastern coast roads named after the French original, has turned from its origins as a sparsely-populated four-lane stretch notable for its eccentric monuments and not much else into something resembling the Jumeirah district of Dubai – full of high-end apartments and plush hotels. And close by, the Kingdom’s premier plutocrat Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is constructing a one kilometre high tower. The Prince already owns Kingdom Tower in Riyadh – the one that looks like an inverted bottle opener – which is the tallest building in the Kingdom. He’s clearly a man who doesn’t believe in competing with anyone but himself, so he’s building the tallest tower in the world in Jeddah.

So Jeddah has developed into a city with two sides. The bright side facing the sea, and the dark side, all urban sprawl, choked with traffic, full of crumbling buildings and half-developed infrastructure.

Tales from the dark side are legion. Five years ago the city suffered from a disastrous flood that took more than a hundred lives, carried away hundreds of cars and damaged thousands of houses. This video tells the story better than I can. The catastrophe was blamed on botched civil works designed to protect against the deluges that occur quite often during the winter. Prosecutions for fraud and corruption have resulted in several people going to jail, though locals believe that those convicted are at the tip of an iceberg of malfeasance. By a quirk of the Saudi legal system they are not named, to save their families from reputational damage.

More recently there have been two cases of people dying after falling though uncovered manholes. In the first case the municipality, that owns what lies beneath, won itself no friends by pointing the finger of blame at the supermarket in whose grounds the hole was located. An example, say its critics, of the kind of blame-avoidance tactics that characterised the reaction to the 2009 flood.

They are perhaps being a little unfair. There have been improvements. It rained heavily on the last day of my visit, and though the city was gridlocked for a few hours, nobody lost their lives, and the flood channels by the side of the highway that took me to my hotel seemed to be working well. But the disaster of 2009 has left a permanent imprint on the psyches of the city’s residents. In the aftermath of what in England would be described as a heavy summer storm, my driver was distinctly nervous, and motorists kept to a sensible speed, except possibly those involved in the smattering of accidents we encountered on the way.

One of the additional hazards of driving in the rain is that some motorists don’t replace their tyres when they get worn, and that windscreen wipers unused 360 days a year often don’t work when called upon on the few occasions when it does rain. Unfortunately the average Jeddawi doesn’t drive like Lewis Hamilton, though I’m talking about his handling of wet conditions rather than his speed.

Then there’s the traffic itself. I wrote recently about the coming of the Riyadh Metro, but if ever a city needed an alternative to cars, it’s Jeddah. It’s known around the country as “the city that never sleeps”. And indeed there’s no such thing as a rush hour. Unlike the more sober residents of Riyadh, which tends to quieten down – somewhat – during evenings and weekends, the people of Jeddah seem to delight in taking to their cars at any time of day or night. For reasons of access to my client, I stay in a hotel far from the glimmering towers of the north in a central district I used to know quite well. Today I would never be able to find it myself, such are the complexities of the road system. What makes things worse is that the municipality has an annoying habit of changing some of the road names from time to time, so if you want to go somewhere you have to choose the name that the taxi driver might recognise, which of course depends on how recently he arrived in the city.

No doubt at some stage there will be an urban Metro, but for now the main focus is on the construction of a rail link from Jeddah to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. But if you’re an ordinary Jeddawi, wending your way across the city to get to work will continue to be the kind of energy-sapping ordeal encountered by city dwellers in countries far less well-endowed than Saudi Arabia.

Though the flood defences are becoming more effective, the treatment of sewage still leaves much to be desired. In the poorer areas, residents still rely on septic tanks, and battalions of “honey trucks” still make their way to the infamous Musk Lake up in the hills. This is a dumping ground for raw sewage that one local I spoke to referred to as “our secret shame”. A few years ago it nearly overflowed. Had it done so it would have sent a cascade of nastiness flowing down towards the city. The municipality took emergency measures to reduce the lake, but it’s filling up again. No prizes for guessing where most of the sewage eventually ends up. It’s blue, shimmering and fish live in it – or try to. Worse still, sewage has polluted the ground water, and some farmers use it to irrigate their vegetable patches. Not good.

Another perennial source of tut-tutting in the media is the youth of the city. Full of energy but short on outlets, young men cruise the streets looking for excitement, which, according to a recent story in the Arab News, often takes the form of harassing women. Those with a more creative bent devote much of their time to customising their cars, sometimes with outlandish results – an art form for which Jeddah has become famous. If anyone doubts the inventiveness of Saudi youth, you should check this video out. You would never describe these guys as feckless wasters.

For all its problems, I still love the city for its vitality, its ethnic diversity and for the relentless good humour of its people. You can sample the cuisine of dozens of countries, you can still go for a walk by the sea and there are still empty beaches to the north and south to which you can escape, and where you can sail, dive and snorkel without too much risk of encountering things that started out from a porcelain bowl in the city. And if you hanker after a biblical vista, you can drive up to Taif in the south, and look down from the top of the escarpment at the Tihama plain, a view that will have changed little since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

The people of Jeddah are still proud of their city and of their regional identity. A Saudi born in Jeddah, Mecca or Madinah will be far too tactful to say that they are from the Hejaz first, and Saudi Arabia second, and there are no obvious signs of any separatist sentiment. But ask them about their history and they will speak of their city’s central part in the network of commerce and devotion that stretches back well before the Islamic era. The dominance of Riyadh, until not so long ago a small oasis settlement in central Arabia, covers but a small portion of remembered time, even if the unification of much of the peninsula under the Saudi banner has brought the western region unprecedented wealth and prosperity.

Because of its long history as a centre of commerce and transit port, Jeddah is also more cosmopolitan than most other parts of Saudi Arabia. You can see African, Asian and European faces in the national dress. The proportion of women wearing face veils is far lower, though greater than it was when I was a resident. Access to the performing arts is limited – as is the case elsewhere in the Kingdom – but you can still find home-grown theatre both among expatriates and Saudis. Jeddawis appreciate sculpture, painting and graphic design. There are plenty of bloggers (take a look at the Jeddah Blog, for example), video makers, writers and fashion designers, and the two main English-language dailies have their headquarters in the city.

Jeddah has the feeling of a city that will survive the worst and still come up smelling of roses – provided, of course, that Musk Lake doesn’t overflow. And the next few months are the best time to visit. The temperatures are cooler, with none of the suffocating humidity of the summer. If you also visit Mecca or Madinah, friends who hail from those cities tell me that this is a time when the locals rediscover their neighbourhoods now that the flood of pilgrims has subsided after the Haj.

As for me, I’m heading back in a few days. As always I’m looking forward to saying hello again to a city where I spent one of the best decades of my life.

2 Comments
  1. Thanks for mentioning Jeddah Blog! Great blog post too.

    • My pleasure! I must try out one of the restaurants you recommend in the coming week. S

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