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The Streets of Jeddah: That Was Then – This Is Now

February 25, 2015


I’ve always enjoyed writing about Saudi Arabia, as regular readers of this blog will know. The other day I was delving through my digital archives and I found this piece from 1985. It was one of a series of vignettes I wrote mainly for my own amusement. To accompany them I asked a Filipino artist who worked for me to draw a series of illustrations, of which the one above is an example.

Here’s what I wrote back then about the Kingdom’s eclectic buildings:

“One of the remarkable things about Saudi Arabia is that you can live in one of its cities for five years and never see a building more than twenty years old.

This is largely because before the oil boom there were no cities in the Kingdom worthy of the name. In one of the most intensive and chaotic building sprees the world has ever seen, armies of foreigners in the space of twenty years turned villages into towns and towns into cities.

The result is an interesting mixture of conflicting styles. Almost every modern school of architectural thought is here, often juxtaposed in hideous discord. Multi-story, concrete-and-glass monsters spiced with arabesque twists so that the designers can call them examples of Islamic architecture. Outrageous Hollywood set pieces, like the full-scale replica of the White House that an admiring prince built for himself in Riyadh. Monolithic apartment blocks that could have been transplanted from Stalinist Moscow. Startling water towers, shaped like giant earth mothers, looming mountainous on the skyline, and towers rising like fertility symbols.

Some say that Jeddah and Riyadh closely resemble Dallas, that paragon of Texan good taste, in the vulgar showiness of their buildings. Having sat at the top of one of the huge buildings in central Dallas and gazed out at the rampant ugliness of that city’s golden-windowed towers, I have to agree that Jeddah could indeed be Dallas’s little sister. Perhaps the secret of the longstanding Saudi-American love affair is that when the oilmen from Texas deflowered the east of the country with their drills and derricks, they also taught the Saudis an American sense of scale. After President Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz in 1945, he followed the meeting with the gift of a Douglas DC-3 airliner; such grand gestures were bound to strike a sympathetic chord in a people newly rich.

In their headlong rush to be modern, the Saudis succeeded in obliterating most evidence of life before the boom. Luckily for the preservationists who have begun to surface in recent years, there are still older parts of the big cities where a few buildings have survived the urban planner’s contempt for the past. Wander through the back streets of Jeddah and you’ll still see coral-and-mud houses with wooden lattice window shutters, and ancient whitewashed mosques with leaning minarets. As well as air conditioners hanging out of holes hacked in the walls, and rusting loudspeakers clamped to the balconies where once full-throated muezzin called the morning prayers.

But oases of antiquity apart, the modem Saudi metropolis is very much a product of the brave new world – a place where the people end up serving the environment that was created to serve them.

For me, born and raised within a half-eaten hamburger’s throw of Birmingham’s dustbin of a city centre, urban Saudi Arabia is an endless source of bemusing amusement. To the new city dweller, who grew up under goatskin tents in the desert, it’s a terrain every bit as harsh and hostile as the one left behind, to be negotiated with fear, suspicion and lonely bewilderment.”

Much of what I wrote then still holds true. Admittedly I was gliding the lily somewhat by claiming that it was hard to find buildings more than twenty years old, but this was certainly the case if you lived in one of the newly developed suburbs – North Jeddah for example.

These days the city has more than doubled in size. The swanky new buildings I encountered thirty years ago are showing their age, especially those which were built on reclaimed land on the Red Sea coast. Salt has done its corrosive work, and a number of the buildings have been abandoned or demolished. Buildings that were old then are now in an advanced state of decay.

I still visit Jeddah regularly, and I can just about make my way around the city, but many of the landmarks of the city I lived in are diminished or gone. Our favourite mall, The Jeddah International Market, is a shadow of its former glory. Last time I visited it, half the shops were closed, and the rest were mainly selling cheap stuff. Likewise the Red Sea Palace Hotel, which in the 80s was a five-star establishment that hosted the most glorious Friday brunches. Nowadays it’s a threadbare three-star joint.

But in other respects much of the impression the piece tried to convey still holds true. The architecture of the Kingdom’s main cities remains at times spectacularly eccentric.

The cartoon was not a true reflection of life in the streets of the big cities at that time, though in the sixties and seventies friends assure me that water tanks towed by donkeys were a common sight at least in Jeddah. And even today motorised water tanks still trundle through a city whose sewage and water distribution infrastructure still leaves much to be desired.

All goes to show that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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