Saudi Arabia’s hidden diversity

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — “Here’s how to think about it,” a friend told me recently. “I’m Scottish and British, but I’m not English. Jeddawis are Hejazi and Saudi, but they’re not Najdi.”

I have been exploring Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, for the past two weeks. The trip has led me to reflect about this country’s regional diversity—how cultures are expressed in different cities and neighborhoods, and the ties that bind the varied parts of the kingdom together. I found a city with striking differences from Riyadh but whose people face many of the same economic opportunities and challenges as those in the capital.

The differences hit you as soon as you exit the airport. For starters, it’s like a sauna; my glasses fogged up upon stepping outside. Located on the Red Sea, Jeddah is the largest city in the western region known as the Hejaz. Riyadh, by contrast, is in the center of the inland desert region known as the Najd—the summer there brings a dry heat, like someone perpetually blowing a hairdryer in your face.

Jeddah is not only a port city, but a common entry point for pilgrims coming to visit the holiest sites in Islam. Mecca is a mere hour’s drive southwest, and Medina several hours to the north. Muslims from around the globe have been treading this path to the holy cities for centuries, leaving their cultural imprint on Jeddah. Even residents’ names in the city often hearken back to ancestors’ place of origin or occupation, while the most common Najdi names refer to peoples’ tribal origins. One of my colleagues is a Jeddawi whose last name, Turkistani, for example, refers to the family’s origins in Central Asia.

Jeddah also has its own history and mythology, distinct from its inland cousin’s. The city’s name is similar to the Arabic word for “grandmother”; in the al-Balad neighborhood, the legend goes, lies the grave of Eve. There had previously been a massive tomb to mark the supposed location of her body that has since been destroyed. When Saudi forces conquered the Hejaz in the 1920s, Jeddah also held out against a siege for almost a year—Ali bin Hussein, the city’s ruler, tried to purchase several armored vehicles to mount a defense but fell victim to a scam by Lebanese arms merchants, who sold him old trucks with screwed-on metal plating.

The city’s cultural norms are different from Riyadh’s as well. While gender segregation in public places may be starting to erode in the capital, it has completely disappeared in many cafes and restaurants in Jeddah. The areas supposed to be reserved for singles and families have gone, with people freely intermingling. Stores in Riyadh shut entirely during the five prayer times a day, lowering their blinds to signal they’re closed. In Jeddah, however, although establishments also shut their blinds, some still allow customers to enter and even continue conducting business.

 


 

I arrived in the middle of “Jeddah Season,” a month-long series of festivals and events arranged by the government and designed to promote tourism to the kingdom. The event will move to different cities over the course of the year, meant to provide a boost to local economies.

Two events aroused controversy when organizers tried to push the envelope of social change too far: The authorities quickly tamped down the suggestion they had approved the opening of a nightclub when the Beirut- and Dubai-based club White came to the city, and the scheduled appearance of Nicki Minaj prompted a local and international furor until the American hip hop artist backed out of the trip.

Most of the events were decidedly PG-rated, however. One evening, I strolled down the Corniche, where restaurants served hamburgers and chicken shawarma to families and little children scrambled along the playgrounds set up along the strip. A giant projector screen had been erected along the waterline, and young men and women bought tickets to see the live-action movie Aladdin at the makeshift outdoor cinema. At another part of the Corniche, replicas of the Statue of Liberty and Hollywood sign loomed over passersby.

    The Jeddah waterfront at night during “Jeddah Season,” a month-long event of festivals. Families ate at pop-up restaurants along the corniche, and attended an outdoor cinema showing “Aladdin”

One trait Jeddah shares with Riyadh is its residents’ focus on the state of the economy. It is a key issue in judging the government’s successes and failures—they have heard its promises about expanding the country’s private sector and diversifying away from oil revenues, and are carefully watching to see how that rhetoric affects their daily economic lives. Jeddah Season was a positive step in the eyes of many businessmen, who took advantage of the central government’s sponsorship to set up pop-up restaurants, sports exhibitions and art shows across the city.

Many young Saudis are eager to launch business careers, but often have little idea about how to access the resources available to them. I visited the offices of Vibes, a co-working space for new start-ups that wants to change that. The company aims to serve as a hub for entrepreneurs, both connecting them with each other and leveraging its own connections to smooth over any difficulties with the bureaucracy.

I was shown around by Razan, a young graphic designer who spoke enthusiastically and non-stop about the company’s  business. She was educated at Jeddah’s Dar al-Hekma university and had picked up her near-fluent English, she said, from American movies and television programs. She had worked as an intern at Vibes during her university days, and was quickly scooped up as a member of the staff upon graduation.

The office provides no shortage of perks: Its public spaces include swings rather than chairs, inspirational quotations were scrawled across the walls and Vibes even imports decorative moss from Italy that thrives in Jeddah’s humidity. Over 300 start-ups have passed through its doors, from graphic design and jewelry companies to pet stores and small legal practices. The goal is to provide them a home during their start-up phases, then have them graduate to larger offices as they grew.

The creation of a group of high school friends, Vibes is relatively small-scale. In other cases, the government has taken a more direct role in overhauling the country’s economy.

One day, I rented a car and drove north out of Jeddah. The terrain was flat and unchanging, packed brown dirt with small shrubs. Brown signs dotted the highway, each with its own Islamic saying: “There is no god but God and Mohammad is his prophet,” “There is no power and no strength except with God,” and “I seek forgiveness in God.”

    The entrance to Vibes, a co-working space in Jeddah for start-up enterprises. The company, founded by a group of high school friends, opens their Rolodex of contacts to would-be entrepreneurs and helps them navigate the government bureaucracy

After about an hour and a half on the road, I hit the King Abdullah Economic City. The massive government project covers an area the size of Washington DC, and upon passing the checkpoint that marks its entrance, the road becomes lined with palm trees and meticulously trimmed grass. Promotional material lines the road into the area, showing golfers swinging their clubs, an artist’s rendering of a jazz concert and white-hatted chefs preparing a gourmet meal.

I met my guide, Mansour, at the Prince Mohammad bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship, a massive white and red structure at the heart of the city. A Jeddawi in his early 30s, Mansour clearly wanted to give a good impression of the city’s progress—he pointed out the high-tech accoutrements throughout the college, and outlined plans for expansion. The program, a collaboration with Boston’s Babson College, aims to provide Saudis with skills and connections to succeed in the business world. The college is still getting off the ground—it has graduated two classes of roughly 100 students each so far. When I asked what most attendees hoped to get out of the program, a college representative summed it up: “Networking, networking, networking.”

There is no denying the scale of the government’s ambitions. The city was designed to house 2 million people—after leaving the college, Mansour drove me through the residential neighborhoods, which have names like “The Oasis” and were replete with neatly manicured lawns and community centers. We then visited the luxurious 18-hole golf course, the scene of a European Tour tournament in January, which also boasts a spa, billiards room and cigar lounge. The city has plans to build a high-speed rail that will connect its residents to Jeddah in 15 minutes, Mansour said.

So far, however, the city lacks a population to match the scope of its construction. The megaproject was founded in 2005, but so far boasts only roughly 10,000 residents. Although the enterprise was established to attract leading multinational companies to its “Industrial Valley,” which will provide jobs for Saudis living there, foreign companies’ entry has been slower than expected.

Still, several have opened their doors here, including Pfizer and Volvo, and Mansour said another 100 companies are in various stages of beginning operations. For the city to reach its full capacity, however, it will need to bolster the area’s economic life.

    The Royal Greens golf course in the King Abdullah Economic City, located north of Jeddah. The 18-hole course was the scene of a European Tour tournament in January

The challenges are particularly relevant because the government has doubled down on such mega-projects with the announcement of plans for two new economic cities, dubbed Neom and Qiddiya. The authorities plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the two ventures in the coming years—a sign of how economic development in the kingdom remains centralized in the hands of government policymakers. Even smaller enterprises depend on Riyadh’s largesse: Vibes, for instance, receives funding from the MiSK Foundation, an organization run by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

While most businessmen are enthusiastic about the government’s overall vision for economic reform, some view the changes on the ground with a jaundiced eye. This is not the first time there have been grand promises of reform, and Saudis have seen little change in the regular bureaucracy, which remains calcified and outdated. Receiving proper licenses can be a serious challenge for would-be entrepreneurs, who must fit their businesses into an outdated list of categories for potential enterprises. One artist told me he was forced to open his art gallery under a license for a frame shop. A businesswoman who received a license to open a hair salon, meanwhile, would still not be able to sell hair products or offer other services—permission for that requires jumping through another set of bureaucratic hoops.

Events like Jeddah Season and projects like the King Abdullah Economic City have proliferated so widely partly because they represent workarounds to the regular bureaucracy. They centralize authority in specialized ministries or offices, creating economic zones outside the normal process and imbuing the initiative with the support of powerful political figures. One businessman involved in Jeddah Season quipped to me that if he had tried to launch his enterprise any other time of the year, his grandchildren would still be following up on the process to receive the proper permits.

But the strength of such fixes is also their weakness—they are constrained to certain times or locations. When Jeddah Season wrapped up on July 18, all the new enterprises that have sprung up under its auspices will disappear. The same cycle will occur in Riyadh when its “season” comes and goes in October. The two cities may be different in many ways, but when it comes to the challenges of economic development, they have much in common.

About the Author

David Kenner is exploring the economic changes underway in Saudi Arabia. He is focusing on how the new generation of Saudis is adapting to that change, and its members’ hopes for the years ahead. David has reported widely from across the Middle East for more than a decade. He was Foreign Policy‘s Middle East editor from 2013 until 2018, when he guided the magazine’s regional coverage while based in Egypt and Lebanon. A lifelong student of Arabic, David is a graduate of Georgetown University, and also attended the American University of Beirut. He is particularly interested in how American values and interests intersect with Middle Eastern politics.