Al Balad, Jeddah, the door to Mecca


SAUDI ARABIA welcomed me with such a blast of heat that made me feel my eyelids burning. I Landed on Jeddha’s airport at 3 am and to pass the check points I had to fill in some papers indicating that I was aware that drug and alcohol trafficking are punished by death.

I was new in the traveling business and very inexperienced so the I accepted the first Saudi taxi driver that offered his service, and I asked him for the fare before getting in, (something you shouldn’t do). The driver was a very agreeable man and he asked me to seat in the front so we could talk. The car didn’t have seatbelt in the passenger seat but at night the roads were not very crowded.

As we reached the hotel he asked me for 500 riyal, that was too excessive I thought, since I recalled a workmate telling me that 50 was the usual fare from that course. When I told him that I would only give him 50 riyal, he went mad and we had a huge argument inside the car. Being in that foreign country for the first time and extremely tired after a long travel, I agreed to give him 200 riyal, that he took with an angry gesture. That didn’t stop him from throwing my suitcase to the ground and leaving the place, cursing in Arabic. It was 5 am and I was to be at the factory at 8, nevertheless in my hotel they didn’t have my registration ready and I had to wait for an hour, so I did not have time for any rest. At the hall I met my workmates, Javier and Domenico, a Spanish and Italian technicians. A minibus picked us up and I told them about my quarrel with the taxi driver. – How furious he was when I told him I knew the fare was 50 riyal! – I said, my friend looked surprised –  I meant 50 Euro! not 50 Riyal! – I felt like an idiot. I had made a fool of myself, but since 50 euro was around 200 Riyal, I guess we both got what we deserved after all.

We reached the dusty factory after an hour of traffic jams, and work was difficult and slow. Most of factory workers were Filipinos, doing the hardest work but always with a gentle smile. No Saudi Arabian was working outside the offices. Any position without air conditioned or in which they could get stained their white unsullied robes was not appropriate. They had aristocratic manners and walked always without hurry.


Jeddah, is the so called door to Mecca, by the Red Sea, the most important Saudi Arabian city after the capital Riyadh. All city was full of people from all the Muslim world, many of them wearing the white robes, they are near to the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to their Holy City.


By the car window I could see that there was an historical old town very near to my hotel. In reception I was advised not to go there on my own, it is not a safe place for westerners those days, but my desire to know was stronger than my prudence. There was a particular smell that only Arab towns have. A mix of scents, spices, swamp and car fuel.


Balad was founded in the 7th century and historically served as the centre of Jeddah. Al-Balad’s defensive walls were torn down in the 1940s. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Jeddah began to become wealthier due to the oil boom, many Jeddawis moved north, away from Al-Balad, as it reminded them of less prosperous times. Al-Balad had insufficient parking space for large cars. Its stores did not sell expensive designer clothing. Poor immigrants moved in place of the Saudi population. The municipality of Jeddah began historical preservation efforts in the 1970s. In 1991 the Municipality of Jeddah founded the Jeddah Historical Preservation Society to preserve the historical architecture and culture of Al-Balad. In 2002 $4 million United States dollars were earmarked for the preservation society.In 2009 Al-Balad was nominated by Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities to be listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage site and it was accepted on 2014.


In order to preserve the old structures within the Balad, the Historical Area Preservation Department was established in 1990, hoping also to help promoting cultural tourism in the country.

Many Jeddawis have moved away from Al-Balad by 2007; the streets of Balad were still packed with people during the month of Ramadan. Around that year the Jeddah Urban Development Company was formed to restore Al-Balad.




Domenico an me decided to go to the seaside for some scuba diving.

There were two women dancing in bikinis and cowboy hats. As soon as they crossed the fence they had transformed into two black gosts walking through the desert. It was all a mirage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s