We’re just approaching Jeddah for a 3 day stay. A cloud of smog in the distance was the first indication.

Arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, earlier today. Out now mooching about. JM&J, its hot here, and humid too. 30°C and its the middle of winter. I shudder to think what it’s like in the height of summer. Connected with some friends of Bill W here and meeting them tomorrow.

Jeddah has a population of just under 4 million, smaller than Riyadh. It is supposed to be the most Liberal city in Saudi Arabia but I guess that’s a relative term here.

We’re here until Saturday morning when we head off again to Medina via Al Wahbah Crater and arrive in Medina on Christmas Day. Medina is a holy city, 2nd to Mecca. I guess we won’t be having Christmas dinner there. Maybe a chicken biryani instead

Reflections on Jeddah

I must have walked a few centimetres off my shoes over the past few days rambling around Jeddah. The place is like a mangy old neighbourhood dog who’s full of fleas, bites and pisses on the carpet. A bit hard to love! Despite my desire to be positive, or at least say 2 positive things for every negative, I really struggle with Jeddah. It’s a bit like mediaeval London with LED lighting and SUVs, lots and lots of SUVs. Let’s start with SUVs, or rather, roads.

A litre of diesel costs 0.63 Rial at the pump, that’s about 16 Cent; yes, 16 Cent. According to official information from the General Directorate of Statistics, the average salary in Saudi Arabia in 2022 is 10,238 Saudi riyals per month, which at the current rate is €2572. As housing is subsidised and education and health care is free, Saudis have a lot of disposable income. The country is also huge with most private houses low rise and on large plots of land, which makes for spread out cities. From our hotel to downtown Jeddah is 27km. With no public transport, enter the car.

I’m not sure why, but most cars seem to be SUVs and monstrous ones at that. And there’s a lot of them. I’m not sure if driving lessons are mandatory to get a driving licence but if they are, they must be very basic. The standard of driving, to my Irish eye, is very poor. It also seems very aggressive with that very Asian notion that might is right. Big cars force their way through before little cars.

As for pedestrians, pah. Very few roads, even major ones have footpaths or pavements. Some of the more salubrious shops or restaurants have lovely marbled footpaths in front of their establishments but these end when the shopfront ends. There’s often a huge drop from the pavement bit to the road below. Not good for aul wans like me with banjaxed knees; entertainment for onlookers, I’m sure, as I do the arthritic chicken shuffle to get to the next level down.

Crossing the road is nerve-racking and dangerous. There are only pedestrian crossing traffic lights at major junctions but these are very few and far between. Traffic here is insanely busy and fast with little of no lane discipline and beeping of horns is constant. You wait at the side of a 6 or 8 lane road until a rare gap appears and then dart across hoping some mad eejit is not suddenly going to change lane and mow you down in his huge tank. It seems like direction indicators are fashion accessories here and no one uses them. I amaze myself at how fast I can move, when Valhalla is close-by, by darting across like a young gazelle. The adrenaline rush is quite invigorating.

Then there’s the privileged young men with lots of money and big muscle cars, no job, no alcohol or sex or drugs or rock’n’roll and lashings of testosterone. Not what you want to see barrelling down the road towards you.

When it rains, there are huge puddles everywhere, more like inland lakes. There is no drainage and more of an inverse camber than a reverse one. This makes it doubly dangerous. I went out rambling around earlier and had to walk in the middle of the road to avoid huge puddles. Luckily, it was Friday, the Muslim sabbath, so there weren’t too many cars around.

I’ve travelled enough through the world to know that local habits and customs evolve in response to local conditions and this is true for driving styles. This is perfectly natural for Saudi drivers and it’s my job to adapt to local conditions and not be silly enough to expect them to change because of me. I’m not silly most of the time

Yet, the city is a vibrant place with life lived intensely on the street level. However, the people who live this life are generally not Saudis but people from Pakistan,Yemen, Sudan and other countries. Health and safety and worker rights are not exactly a priority here in the kingdom so

There are various opinions about when Jeddah was founded. The accepted one here is that Jeddah was founded as a fishing hamlet by the Yemeni Quda’a tribe who left central Yemen to settle in Makkah after the collapse of Sad (dam) Marib Dam in Yemen in 115 BCE. According to the Ministry of Hajj or pilgrimage, – yes, there really is such a thing – Jeddah has been settled for more than 2500 years. Reading up about the city and area, it’s interesting how many waves of peoples and tribes have lived and expired here. Islam is really the main unifying force and seeing the nature of the land, it’s unsurprising that such an austere version of it grew here. Islam in Central Asia is very different.

Law here is very different to what I’m used to in Ireland where the rights of the individual are enshrined in the constitution and protected by an independent court structure. I can also vote and change the government. Saudi cultural and religious views stigmatise any reference to the “Constitution” other than the Qur’an and the practice of Muhammad. Article 1 of the Basic Law emphasises that “God’s Book (Qur’an) and the Sunnah of his Prophet (Muhammad), are its (Saudi Arabia) constitution”. Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz said that there cannot be “a constitution, a regulation, or a law that runs counter to the Islamic Sharia” in Saudi Arabia. This means that the constitution, courts, the rule of law etc are subservient to a particular interpretation of a version of a holy book. In this respect, the Arab world is ruled on mediaeval lines. Just look at the role of women, LGBT people, foreigners etc.

Yet, on an individual level, Arabs are delightful. They are courteous, generous, hospitable and welcoming. We had several examples of outstanding acts of kindness from complete strangers.

Anyway, enough of me wittering on. The whole experience of being in Arabia is overwhelmingly positive.

(Please click on any thumbnail above to enlarge the whole gallery for full size sliding photos)

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