Jeddah, (Jiddah in Arabic) on the Red Sea, is Saudi Arabia's oldest established city with a rich history, having served as the entry port for pilgrims traveling to Mecca for hundreds of years. See the map. It served as the capital of the Saudi Arabia state from the end of World War I until 1932, when Riyadh was named the seat of government. However many ministries and all foreign embassies remained in Jeddah until the 1980s.
The old city, named Al Balad, was very charming. Its tall, four and five storey, buildings all had balconies enclosed by louvered shutters. These were to allow the interiors to be cooled by the ocean breezes while hiding the occupants from the gaze of outsiders. The narrow streets, lined with open shops selling all kinds of produce, were busy with traffic and pedestrians.
Starting in the 1970s, new modern, concrete and steel , office and apartment buildings started to surround the old city, and then increasingly encroaching upon and replacing the charming old houses. The population of Jeddah rose sharply, mainly foreigners - western businessmen, consultants and contractors - Asiatic laborers from as far away as Indonesia and the Philippines. The character of the crowded streets changed and became much more colorful.
Because of the severe Shariah
laws, crime was virtually non-existent. In the streets of the old towns anywhere in Arabia, piles of money lay in the open on the tables of money-changers and street scribes. I had a personal experience in the early 80s. I was driving a rented car. Fumbling for the keys in my trouser pockets, inadvertently I dropped my wallet in the street. When I returned to my hotel I noticed that my wallet was missing. Quickly I returned to the various places where I had stopped that morning. I found my wallet lying untouched in the street where I had dropped it several hours earlier!
Because of the relatively large number of foreign residents, Jeddah had a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than other Saudi cities. For example, until the early 70s there was a cinema in Jeddah (the only one in Saudi Arabia), and at the international hotel mixed bathing was permitted in its swimming-pool. However about 1975 the increasingly Wahabi influenced government terminated these "decadent foreign" practices.
On the other hand, the city gained a more modern appearance. Numerous wide avenues were constructed to handle the increased traffic, lined with freshly planted palm trees. The old city became surrounded by new residential districts with palatial residences for the newly rich Arabian businessmen and officials. All of these new mansions were surrounded by tall walls to maintain their privacy. The old crowded, hot airport was replaced with a new modern palatial air-conditioned structure with opulent marble floors and walls. Today (2005)the population of the city is over a million and a quarter.
Riyadh, located in the central desert, had always been a relatively quiet, small city. Low buildings, none more than two storeys high, surrounded the ancient ochre colored stucco fortress, Al Masmak. Other than the fort, the largest buildings were the palaces of the Saudi royal family, that were hidden behind tall walls.
Now the building boom of the 1970s totally changed its character. Opulent concrete buildings arose along newly created wide streets to house the new ministries and government agencies as well as the foreign contractors and consultants that crowded into the new center of power.
Retail establishments such as stores and restaurants lagged behind so that Riyadh for a long time lacked the character of a capital city. Needless to say there were no centers of entertainment of any kind, these were not permitted by the austere religious establishment that ruled the country. The climate was very hot and dry in summer, cool and dry in winter. For many years the large new airport had no connections to the outside world except for a few flights provided by the national Saudia airline, and of course there were no foreign visitors other than businessmen who had acquired the hard to obtain visas. There was however an increasing Asiatic presence - Yemeni, Jordanian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indonesian laborers working on the huge construction projects. It was not a city that I visited with much enthusiasm!
The center for all the frantic industrial and commercial activity was the oil basin on the east coast. The oil fields stretch in a 300 mile (480 km) arc from the Kuwait border to Al Huffuf. The principal city of the Eastern Province is the port Dammam on the Arabian Gulf, which is the commercial center of the region and today has over a million and a half population. However in the 70s and 80s the main activities of the oil industry were centered in Dhahran, the compound of the Arabian American Oil Company, ARAMCO, which also served as the residential area for the expatriate engineers, executives and their families. Surrounded by a fence and entered only through gates, it was at that time a completely autonomous city, with its own recreational facilities, clubs, swimming pools, bowling alleys, cinema, schools and supermarkets. Here the expatriate women were able to live a normal life, drive a car, even wear shorts, as long as they stayed within the 4-square mile enclosed area. There was no alcohol of any kind (although there were clandestine stills operated in some private homes!).
In Dhahran there was a low power radio station transmitting local news and music - rock and roll, oldies, country western. There was even a low power television station transmitting American films and TV programs, news, baseball and football matches (in those days before satellites, the films were flown in on American planes). However it was required to interrupt its broadcasting during the five periods of Moslem prayers each day.
The Dhahran airport was crowded and handled Pan Am, British Airways, and several other international airlines. Also 20 minute shuttle flights crossed the 10 mile wide strait to Bahrain with additional international connections. However customs inspections were strict. The baggage searches, primarily for alcohol and any newspapers, magazines or books with girly pictures or any mention of Israel, sometimes delayed arriving passengers for over two hours. Most outgoing flights to western Europe left very early in the morning. Once I overslept my wake-up call and missed my 6 a.m. departure and arrived home a full day late!
The third community within the commercial triangle of the Eastern Province is Al Khobar. It had a more residential character than Dammam or Dhahran, but soon new hotels and shopping malls arose there in the 80s. On the road from Dhahran to Al Khobar the College of Petroleum and Minerals was being built in the seventies to create a new generation of native Saudi engineers. It was accorded university status in 1975.
When I retired 13 years later, Saudi Arabia was completely different, quite unrecognizable. All the major cities had become fully developed modern metropolis with good hotels, reasonably good restaurants, reasonably efficient transportation, telephones that worked. However drinks were not available, except for alcohol-free beer and wine. Hotel swimming pools continued to have segregated hours for men and women. In the summer time blocks of ice were floated in the water to reduce the temperature. World newspapers and magazines were available, but frequently arrived with pages torn out by the censors. ARAMCO had become Saudi ARAMCO with Saudi princes in all main executive posts. Many American engineers and administrators had returned home and been replaced by Egyptians, Lebanese and Pakistanis. Large industrial complexes had been built at Jubail on the East coast and Yanbu on the west coast, producing steel, fertilizers, chemicals. Mammoth desalinization plants were producing good quality water. A couple of international airlines were now allowed to fly into the capital, Riyadh. Dammam had been connected by a 25 km. road causeway and bridge with Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia now also had television but with highly censored content. Everything still came to a standstill during the five daily prayer periods. At one of my last visits in the late 80s, my company was exhibiting at an International Trade Fair in Dammam. For the noon-time prayers all attendees and exhibitors had to vacate the exhibition hall. The doors were locked, then 10 minutes later they were reopened and everybody resumed their business. The Exhibition was permanently closed ten minutes before the late afternoon prayers.