Jeddah: Discovering a mega-city

This post is a special one as I attempt to describe this amazing city to my readers. My first visit to Jeddah was within a few days of my arrival in the Kingdom nearly 35 months ago. I went there to stay with my cousin, who lives here with his family. I stayed with them for three nights, and during the day, I went out on my own to see the coastline on the Red Sea. My first impressions of Jeddah were that it was a really big city, perhaps as big as Mumbai, and similar to Mumbai in many ways, as it, too, is vertically aligned, stretching out for more than 75 km with the airport at its northern end; it, too, has a humid, warm climate; it, too, is a happening city; it, too, has sea on its western coast, and, like Mumbai, it offers a lot of sporting activities for the sea-loving person; it, too, has several malls, eating joints, fast-food chains, and so on.

However, while there are resemblances, there are several differences too. Being part of a closed-culture country, Jeddah lacks the vibrancy that Mumbai (or, for that matter, any other mega-city in India or any of the other developed countries of the world) offers. You won’t see colourful women on the streets, just the ubiquitous black burkha (known as the abaya in the Arabian world) – I can never forget the sea of black in the Food Court at the Red Sea Mall during a visit to this huge mall that I made in 2013.

What Jeddah gains over Mumbai, however, is its grand scale. The roads are really wide and well-planned. Most roads have service roads and are highways by nature. Speeds of cars may go well above 100 kmph in the mornings, though, in the evenings, traffic jams are common, esp. on weekends. What you see is all kinds of cars … the most expensive cars are not a rarity in Jeddah. I have seen Lamborghinis, the most luxurious Mercs, Subarus, Audis, stretch limos, and what not. People here are rich, and have immense purchasing power.

From Wikimedia Commons. This is the famous Cycle Chowk of Jeddah

From Wikimedia Commons. This is the famous Cycle Chowk of Jeddah

Next, I must mention that each visit of mine has led me to different areas of Jeddah, and each time, I have stayed in new places. This may seem to be paradoxical to my usual way of touring, where I go back to the same old hotel each time (such as at Taif), but the fun is of discovering more and more places in Jeddah. Thus, so far, I have stayed in over half a dozen different places. The best is difficult to define, since most hotels offer the same fare, but the best in terms of location and convenience, for me, was the Imtiaaz Hotel at Al Naseem street – where I stayed recently when I went to attend a Clinical Training course.

It lacked luxury, and I was allotted their worst located room, but it had all the usual comforts, and I can’t complain since it was offered to me at half their usual rates of SR 200 – i.e. at SR 100 per night (One Saudi Riyal is approximately equal to INR 16). There were plenty of nearby food joints, it was just 5-8 minutes away from my course venue at the King Abdul Aziz University Hospital (named after the founder of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud), and all the amenities were functional. The most luxurious was the place I stayed in about 3 weeks ago, when I went to Jeddah for an exam. This was the Deyouf al-Wattan hotel in Al Rawdah. The rate was SR 200 per night, and the room had a lovely, well-equipped kitchen (which, however, being alone, I never used), plus all the usual fare in a well-appointed studio.

Which takes me back to my visit with a colleague in 2012. We went by state transport, and stayed in a place that was just minutes away from the bus stand. This was the Hotel Janoob (Janoob in Arabic means “south”), and while the room was compact and had no amenities except for the AC and the fan, the convenience of this place was its proximity to several malls in the Corniche area. It was a pleasure to navigate the various malls and do a lot of window-shopping that time.

The Mall area near the hotel Janoob

The Mall area near the hotel Janoob

Another view of the Malls area

Another view of the Malls area

 The prices of this chicken have hardly increased over the last nearly 3 years ... now it is SR 12 per plate.

The prices of this chicken have hardly increased over the last nearly 3 years … now it is SR 12 per plate.

The poor-man's flea market with filth similar to that in Indian cities

The poor-man’s flea market with filth similar to that in Indian cities

The back view from my room in Hotel Janoob, 2012

The back view from my room in Hotel Janoob, 2012

The most popular fast-food chain in KSA where you sometimes need to wait for an hour to have your parcel handed over to you.

The most popular fast-food chain in KSA where you sometimes need to wait for an hour to have your parcel handed over to you.

Jeddah has a city-scape on a large scale. Not for this city the narrow crowded by-lanes of Mumbai; here, every street is built on a grand scale. Most streets (barring streets in old Jeddah and inside residential areas) are at least 8-10 lanes in width, with broad footpaths. There are bridges and under-passes, service roads on the side, and so on, in addition to the main thoroughfare. During most visits, in spite of using Google Maps and Navigation, I ended up getting on to the wrong ramp, or driving past a turn or missing a U-turn and having to drive an extra 5-10 kms to get back to where I wished to go. This, in itself, can be seen as an unwarranted but equally enjoyable exploration of a great city.

I have borrowed some of the following material from Wikipedia.

“Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and the fourth largest in the entire Middle East. It is enviably located, as all ME cities are less than 2 hours away by flight. Being a commercial hub, Jeddah has drawn in people from many other countries of the world in the last nearly 100 years of its modern existence, but the history of Jeddah goes back to nearly the Stone Age. Subsequently, it has been colonised by several kings and dynasties, including the Yemeni Kings, Ottoman Empire, etc.”

Jeddah is also one of the most important cities to display street furniture unlike anything else in the world. It can be called as the world’s biggest open air art gallery. Here are some examples:

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These are just some examples. Most roundabouts in Jeddah are adorned with similar, or even more bizarre sculptures, some over 80-90 years old and done by internationally famous sculptors including but not limited to Richard Moore.

Unlike Mumbai, Jeddah can expand in all directions except into the Red Sea. Thus, if one researches how Jeddah looked like, say, 90 years ago, and compares it to what it looks like today, one would realise that it is much bigger now than it was before. The other thing is that as time has gone by, the government of Saudi Arabia has invested huge resources into creating a modern, up-to-date city that can vie with any other big city in the world. I have already mentioned to you about the large and wide roads. The sea-front is marvellous too. There are places where one may simply go to loiter (esp. if you are a male), sit, relax, lie down, take pictures, do a bit of fishing, etc. The roads on the coast are wide and it is a pleasure to drive down them. Here are a few pictures I took …

This is the pedestrian jetty where people come to stroll, fish, and look

This is the pedestrian jetty where people come to stroll, fish, and look

This man is going to use a squid to catch a big fish

This man is going to use a squid to catch a big fish

 A mosque on the shore

A mosque on the shore

 This is a 5-star hotel under construction

This is a 5-star hotel under construction

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Pleasure of watching birds on Jeddah shore

 

Black-winged stilt

Black-winged stilt

 The pleasure of watching birds on Jeddah shore

This is a variety of tern

In spite of the complexity of the roads and the dense evening traffic, Jeddah is easy to navigate once you get the ropes of the Google Maps Navigation apps on your Android phone, as the roads are parallel to each other like in most developed cities of the world. The confusion arises as most roads in most cities of Saudi Arabia are named after the several members of Royalty from King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud down to the present monarch King Abdullah and his several brothers, off-spring etc. In most of the cases, the road that is the most important is named after King Abdullah, since the history of modernisation of Saudi Arabia is less than 50 years old.

The second thing I noticed was that both, in Jeddah, and in Riyadh, the main roads run on and on for several kilometers, unlike what we see in Mumbai or in most other cities in India. Thus, for example, Prince Majid street runs for over 15 km, traversing many different districts before running into or joining another main road. Also, many roads are known by numerals as well as names of royalty. E.g. the afore-mentioned Prince Majid Street is also known as Shaara Sabaaein or Street 70. Jeddah has Street 60, 50, 40 … etc parallel to street 70. This same nomenclature I saw in Taif and in Riyadh as well.

Jeddah has hundreds of eateries serving food of all the different nationalities that populate it. I can mention that there are many restaurants from the basic to the luxury level that serve Indian-Pakistani-Bangladesh food, and similarly, Lebanese, Indonesian, Pinoy, Turkish, Afghanistani (Bukhari), Egyptian, Chinese, and even Continental food. I have eaten at a Chinese restaurant once, with my cousin and his family way back in early 2012; I have also tried most of the others, except the Continental, the Indonesian and the Egyptian restaurants in Jeddah, although I have eaten Egyptian green bhajias (what these guys call tamia) in Taif. There are great Pakistani/North Indian restaurants in Bani Malik, Ash Sharfiya and Street 70 areas of Jeddah. To look for South Indian foods, you have to dig deeper, but there are several places where you can eat near-authentic dosa, idlis, medu-vada, and south-Indian variations of Fish masala, Avial, etc. From among the Pakistani restaurants, I would recommend Mehraan and Kababish on Street 70, and Nirula in Bani Malik for reasonably priced, tasty food.

Coming now to the expatriates. As mentioned above, the city of Jeddah has expats from several countries, and each of them have coloured and adorned the city with their own, unique signature. This is not to say that expats have all been helpful to the Kingdom. Of course, there are rotten apples in all the world, and Jeddah is no different. Prostitution, drugs, alcohol, robberies, and even murder are all recorded in this old city. No particular nationalities can be blamed for this. Prostitutes include the poorest of the poor women who live in the Kingdom, working either alone or in the company of other expats. Crime levels in the Industrial Port area are highest, as those who are settled here are the oldest inhabitants of modern Jeddah, and this area is also the least well-policed.

Barring these aberrant people, though, the vast majority of expats have infused freshness and variety to the boring monochrome-culture of the Kingdom. They do live as second-class citizens, of course, but this is not unique to Jeddah. It is a malady that affects expats all over the Kingdom. This, however, does not include white-skinned people from the Americas, Australia or Europe, as Saudis are in awe of white skin just as much as all Asians, Indians included. These Caucasians bring to the Kingdom its silver lining. It is their presence that makes malls stock things that Saudis would probably never buy, such as organic foods, special herbs for healing, European and American brands of toiletry, lingerie, cosmetics, apparel, shoes, foods, etc.

Let me end this article with a few personal thoughts. I guess one can really like Jeddah, once one overcomes the cultural differences between a free city like Mumbai and one that is tightly administered with respect to religious and social sanctions. And, believe me, once you begin to like it, you and your family will enjoy your stay in this city.

6 Comments

  • J Mallikarjuna Rao says:

    You say “…. in awe of white skin just as much as all Asians, Indians included”. This is NOT CORRECT. It could be a few stereotyped ‘Indians’ who are ‘in awe of the white skin’, not all, especially, the educated and civilized people.

    It is good to get rid of these kind of fads that belittles our national pride. The Indian Peoples are NOT INFERIOR to any other race, much less to the ‘white skin’. The times are gone when we had to be subservient to the ‘white skinned’ British.

    • Taher Kagalwala says:

      Dear Mr. Rao,

      Thank you for reading and your comment. I wish to say that I respect your opinion, and it is pretty much what any self-respecting Indian might sincerely desire from his fellow country-men, but I do think that we are not yet over it. We still get impressed by white skin, so much so, that at times, we listen to their trash more attentively than wisdom from a brown-skinned co-Indian.

      You are welcome to this debate with me on my email or any other forum [[email protected]]

      Taher

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thats quite a useful guide on Jeddah. I was a little surprised by those art-installations. For some reasons I imagined that such things may not be the accepted thing there.

    I agreed with your observation, in one of your comments that unless one is visiting for pilgrimage, it is unlikely that one would go that side. So, it was nice to read about Jeddah. Thank you Doc.

  • Ameer Burq says:

    Beautiful. I will read a second time later.

  • Arun says:

    Hello Sir,

    Post is so informative and well researched.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Arun

    • Taher Kagalwala says:

      Thank you, Arun, for your encouraging words. Perhaps most readers will never go to Saudi Arabia, except devout Muslims who visit it to perform their pilgrimages. If they get some help by reading this article, my effort will have been worth it.

      Taher

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