Renaissance of a neglected Saudi city

Jeddah officials are focusing on preservation, with ambitions of Unesco heritage recognition.

JEDDAH // The Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second largest urban enclave, has ambitious plans to list its historical district among Unesco's World Heritage Sites to increase tourism revenues. However, with its Al Balad district losing seven historical buildings a year on average since 1980, the task has become more challenging for local authorities.

The number of houses classified as being of historical interest has gone down to 350 in 2009 from 557 in 1980, according to Jeddah municipality figures, and last week, the district lost seven houses in one day after they collapsed in a devastating fire. "The situation in Al Balad district is alarming and needs immediate treatment," said Sami Nawar, the former director of the Historic Area Preservation Department, who is now head of tourism and culture for Jeddah.

The struggle between modernity and tradition and changes in demographics are at the centre of the problem, according to Mr Nawar. The area was under strong management for almost 30 years as many buildings were preserved and discoveries of antiquities in the area were made. "We were holding the area so tight to preserve it that we didn't allow for any major development," he added. "People have left the district that was the heart of Jeddah to other new areas in the city to build bigger and better houses. This is a natural phenomenon that occurred in every major Arab city."

The original owners of the historical buildings have left the area, and the new residents are mainly poor expatriates who cannot afford to care for them, Mr Nawar said. Municipal officials echoed the claims of Mr Nawar, though locals blame the city for the poor infrastructure in the area. Mohammed al Amri, the executive manager of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) in the Mecca region, said the agency plans to restore the historical district.

The head of the commission, Prince Sultan bin Salman, will make public announcements during his visit to the historical area this week, he said. In January, he told the Saudi Gazette daily newspaper that his organisation is co-operating with the Jeddah municipality to preserve historical sites from fires and collapses. "The responsibility for the historical city's restoration has been given to both the Jeddah municipality and the SCTA; both of them have defined their requirements and decided the future steps needed to improve the whole situation," Mr al Amri told the paper.

"It's unfortunate to see the old town lose its heritage to fires. We have been hearing about a partnership renovation project between the municipality and the private sector for a quite long time, but I guess the will has not matured yet," Wael Abu Mansour, a Jeddah-based editor at Al Watan newspaper, said. "The other unfortunate side is that despite the rosy promises from the municipality, and the tourism body, people have lost faith, and they feel that there is an intentional neglect," he added.

According to a study carried out last year by Jeddah municipality, the city, which is growing at a rate of 2.5 per cent per year, has great tourism potential. The sea port is Saudi Arabia's major tourist destination as 25 per cent of visitors to the kingdom stay at the gateway city to Islam's two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, according to the 2007 figures produced by the SCTA. The city, however, would like these visitors to spend more time in Jeddah.

Mr Nawar, who managed the historical district for years, said the historical area needs at least five years to develop into a major tourist destination. "The requirements are a lot and we need information signs, awareness campaigns, developed roads and street paths for the tourists among so many things." The tourism commission has presented several of its requirements on the restoration and preservation of sites to the municipality. These included increasing the number of information centres; transforming some of the buildings into hotels, museums and presentation centres; and upgrading all electrical connections and systems to prevent fires.