Our guestblogger Abu Muhammed from Saudi Arabia muses upon his disappointing first impressions of Jeddah, and remembers how he learned to appreciate the city after all.
Living in Jeddah compared to the rest of Saudi Arabia is reminiscent at times of the “Bizarro Dimension” from the Superman comics. Being from a port city myself (Philadelphia), I expected most retail products like food stuff and the imported odds and ends, which may be unavailable deep in the interior of Arabia, to be on the shelf and cheap in copious variety here. You would also think this to be the case since Jeddah is rumored to be a city run by expats who exert a liberalizing influence on the social scene.
To my surprise, the opposite appears to be the case. In Riyadh you can get grits, beef bacon, Hanes underwear for the western full figure gent (as opposed the stuff tailored for the Asian community), and smoke oysters at a reasonable price. Jeddah has none of these things. Despite its seaside location, most things are more expensive in Jeddah than Riyadh (even seafood).
Someone explained to me that the seat of government in the realm is Riyadh. It is also said that certain elements of the administration have a pronounced dislike for Jeddah and refer to it disparagingly as (in Arabic translation) the “sludge of the sea”. Hence Riyadh is a family-oriented place with a good standard of living at a reasonable price while Jeddah has been considered a crowded, expensive and dirty city.
On the other hand, I have observed that a woman can get away with wandering through the malls without an overgarment while wearing designer jeans, while in Riyadh she would be fined and possibly taken into custody by the Mutauwa (religious police). As a matter of fact, in the two years I’ve lived in Jeddah, I can’t remember ever seeing the Mutauwa anywhere. I suspect maybe the real differences between the two cities are concern and apathy.
Recently, Jeddah changed its local governance and the city is being transformed by an infusion of urban planning and renewal (which don’t necessarily go hand in hand in Saudi Arabia). Roads once riddled with potholes are now being mended and expanded to accommodate its “gateway to Mecca” location, and the Corniche (beach front) is undergoing a facelift that seems designed to improve the lot of the residents of Jeddah.
Jeddah also has an international reputation for its display of outdoor art. I miss my grits and eggs, but there is nothing like going to the beach when the mood strikes you. Though we miss the cosmopolitan feel of Riyadh with its ultra-modern architecture and cold winter nights, I found that one of the oldest cities in Arabia has its secret rewards and benefits some locals and expats seem used to or too busy to see.