With the good news that from April Saudi Arabia will issue tourism visas, there is an increasing interest in knowing more about the beautiful places the country. In the previous post I talked about the desert and the archaeological ruins of Madain Saleh, which for me are reason enough to visit Saudi. Now it’s time to fly to Jeddah and get to know the other side of Saudi nature: the limpid and untouched Red Sea.
*Esse post foi escrito originalmente em português.
Jeddah, the most progressive city in the country
The first thing that struck me in Jeddah was the amount of women with colored or open abayas, quite different from what I saw in the capital, Riyadh. They say it’s the “least Saudi” city in the kingdom because of this relaxed atmosphere and for the large number of artists and foreigners who live there.
We had very little time in the city. While I was talking to locals about women’s lives in Saudi Arabia, Paulo went to see the historic center, called Al Balad. Practically an open-air museum, the region – also identified as Old Town – is one of the best places to see up close the traditional Arabic architecture. It is a shame that much of the neighborhood is not very well preserved. There are parts where it looks more like a war zone!
In short, it’s a chance to better understand how the Arabs lived in the past centuries. It was also interesting to have contact with Saudis outside the elite centers we had visited before. And, of course, it was a good opportunity to buy souvenirs in the souks!
But a city is not only made of traditions, right? Especially if it stays in the Persian Gulf! Where oil abounds, ostentation is also present. And to try to match United Arab Emirates, the Saudis are building in Jeddah what promises to be the tallest building in the world. Called Kingdom Tower, the building will reach an unprecedent height: 1 km! The project is due to be completed in 2020 – and God knows (or Allah?) whether or not it will still be the biggest skyscraper in the world. The current holder of the title is the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, with 828 m.
Our boat trip on the Red Sea
What surprised me most about this trip was certainly the boat trip we did through the Red Sea. Because desert and camels I already expected in Saudi Arabia, but crystalline sea? Corals? I was shocked by my ignorance to discover that diving is the second most popular sport in the country, behind only football.
The sea near Jeddah is filled with reefs, with an incredible marine life! As soon as we left the marina we saw a huge turtle swimming near the boat, and a few minutes later we were followed by a group of dolphins. Oh, I felt like I was in Brazil! Hahaha! The experience was even better when, after moving away from the shore, the women were allowed to take off the Abaya. Seeing a group of young girls in their bikinis laughing and diving freely relieved the cultural shock I had been feeling for the past few days.
When we did our first dive stop I could have sworn I was in Maragogi, in Alagoas (Brazil). The only difference is that we were the only tourists to explore all that beauty. We snorkeled among the reefs, the many fish and even some medium-sized sharks that were there. It was a delightful tour and I highly recommend it to anyone lucky enough to visit Jeddah.
Campus of the future: the university KAUST
And look, visiting Jeddah is not such a hard thing to happen. Especially if you are from the academic field! The city is very close to KAUST – King Abdullah University of Science and Technology . It’s the first international university in Saudi Arabia (70% of students are foreigners), a leading center that has already been voted one of the best universities in the world for innovation research.
The campus is amazing, looks like something from the future! Modern buildings, state-of-the-art labs and lots of technology on the shores of the Red Sea – can you imagine how beautiful it is? Also, one of the most beautiful mosques in Saudi Arabia is located there. A perfect example of how tradition can coexist with the globalization of an academic center. An example for the rest of the country, right?
I was also very impressed by the charming students’ residences, many of them overlooking the sea. KAUST offers housing, plane tickets and scholarship to attract brilliant minds from other countries and contribute to the development of research in Saudi Arabia. Having this support and the most advanced research technologies should be the dream of every academic! Not to mention that KAUST is practically a bubble: although it is inside Saudi Arabia, women do not have to wear the Abaya, they drive at will and they can even go to the beach. Pretty crazy, right?
Jeddah is a very interesting city and I would love to have the chance to get to know it better. I hope that in the coming years I will have the opportunity to go back and see the differences in the country with the opening to tourism and the expansion of women’s rights. I’m excited for the changes to come!
In the next post I will talk about important cultural tips for those who think about visiting Saudi. If you want to know more about the tourist attractions, check out the previous posts about Saudi Arabia .
* The photos are by the talented Paulo del Valle .