Jeddah is a most curious city.
With about 5 million inhabitants it is Saudi Arabia’s second city, and a major seaport. It is the gateway to the holy city of Mecca, and a thriving economic hub. It has a different feeling to the other Saudi cities that I visited, and perhaps its motto “Jeddah is different”, says it the best.
Jeddah is certainly different.
It is home to extraordinary museums, a fabulous Old City, extraordinary roads and construction on a level unseen in the west. It is busy all the time; noisy with traffic and people, and as with all Arabic cities, the day is punctuated five times by the fervent call to prayer.
Jeddah is, in part, an exhibition of what can be done with sufficient money. Square kilometres of housing have been razed to make way for new developments; dozens of buildings in the Old City are being restored and everywhere one looks, six lane highways slice through the city.
The highlight for me was the Tayabat Museum.
This huge facility covers 80,000 square metres and is privately owned by the charming Khalid Khalil. Charming, I know, because on the day that I visited I was the sole tourist, and he generously spent time showing me around.
I did ask him if he were allowed to take only one artifact away with him, what would it be. He led me to the Persian exhibition and pointed generally to the exquisite calligraphy and admitted that this was his favourite room.
There was a lot to choose from. The museum houses 365 individual exhibit rooms, and frankly, one would need a whole day to really understand and enjoy this collection of the art, music, history and culture of the Islamic world. It was wonderful.
The Old City, Al Balad, is best described as a work in progress. The country has embarked on a massive development program, Vision 2030, a simply breathtaking social and economic reform initiative that will touch every facet of Saudi life.
In Al Balad it means the massive restoration of the old city. Not content with renovating a few buildings, this massive program is restoring dozens of 18th and 19th century buildings and recreating the city’s heart. Now construction is the order of the day, but one can see the green shoots of newly repaired facades, brightly painted buildings emerging, and I hope to return in a few years to see the results.
There may even be some functional public transport. I like buses and exploring cities on the public system, but try as I might, I could not find out how to use Jeddah’s seven bus routes. The location of the stops was a mystery, nobody I asked seemed to know how or where to buy a ticket and although I saw several red buses, I came to think of them as purely decorative. Red streaks in the monochromatic palette of concrete and haze.
Certainly, the Vision 2030 program is evident throughout Saudi Arabia. New roads and buildings are one aspect, but social change is in the air. Many restrictions that women have faced are being lifted: the requirement to wear black chadors and the prohibition on driving are two that have been lifted, and as the next eight years unfold, I am told that the social fabric that has epitomized this deeply religious Wahhabi kingdom will be loosened.
It remains to be seen to what extent this will and can happen, but for now the curtains on Saudi Arabia are being lifted; and as a destination to visit and explore, it is unmatched in its draw and fascination.
For more Max, visit maxglobetrotter.com
Max Johnson’s Globetrotting column appears every month, exclusively in Respect!
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