Jeddah has been a destination for business travelers for centuries. As the most important port on the Red Sea, the city is an international meeting place, a vital commercial center and the staging post for millions of pilgrims to nearby Mecca. Consequently, it is the most cosmopolitan (and friendly) city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country which, for even the most experienced global traveler, is like no other.
We are used to changing the time at the end of a flight, but in Saudi Arabia we must also change the year, for the kingdom operates on the Islamic calendar. On arrival, you move from the 21st century to the 15th, from 2004 to 1425. To compound the culture shock, the days of the week behave differently here. Sunday is a normal working day; weekends are on Thursdays and Fridays. During office hours, most businesses close down four times a day for prayer, each closure lasting up to half an hour. Foreign companies are expected to comply.
Newcomers need time to adjust, not just to the culture, but also to the climate. From March through November, the temperature in Jeddah regularly breaks 100 F with high humidity. Although most buildings are air-conditioned, traveling between them can be a sweltering ordeal.
On the face of it, Jeddah is a gleaming, ultramodern city. Glass-fronted high-rises line the wide, busy highways. Traffic circles (roundabouts) are decorated with amazing modern sculptures: for instance, a huge concrete cube with five real cars embedded into it. At intersections, billboards and huge television screens carry advertisements for popular local products, like the Casio electronic prayer compass-adding to the impression that you’re in another world. You’ll be in more familiar territory within the city’s plush malls, where many multinational retailers have outlets.
Saudi Arabia sits on a quarter of the world’s oil reserves and is currently the world’s third-largest producer, though the economy is no longer as strong as it once was. In the last 20 years, the per capita income has dropped from $28,000 to just $7,800. To reduce unemployment, the government has initiated a policy of “Saudisation,” recruiting locals to fill many of the positions that were previously held by foreign workers.
Foreign investment continues to be actively encouraged. The process recently has been streamlined with the establishment of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority. Prospective investors should contact SAGIA for information. Development continues at breakneck speed, with Jeddah leading the way (since 1947, the population has grown from 30,000 to 1.6 million). The city constantly pulses to the sound of new construction; giant cranes are permanent fixtures of the skyline. One of the latest projects, under way since December, is the Equestrian Club Complex on the Red Sea waterfront within the city’s prestigious Al Hamra district. Scheduled to open at the end of 2005, it will include the 142-room Park Hyatt Jeddah, a banquet and conference center, comprehensive sports facilities, a spa, an up-market shopping mall and a marina. The complex will be managed by Hyatt International.
In Jeddah, the modern world rubs shoulders with the ancient. You can get a sense of 2,500 years of history by exploring the district of Al Balad-Jeddah Old Town. Five-story houses tower over narrow alleyways; the height of the buildings provides maximum shade from the sun at ground level. Many of the houses are adorned with enclosed wooden balconies designed to capture the slightest sea breeze while concealing the inhabitants from prying eyes.
My favorite spot in Jeddah is the Corniche, a broad boulevard that sweeps the length of the curved waterfront. At dusk, it’s a wonderful place to walk. Above you, the sky morphs from orange, to violet, to deepening shades of blue. Out in the bay, the King Fahd Fountain-at 853 feet, it’s the world’s tallest-jets up into the evening air, shimmering by spotlight.
Nobody can claim that Saudi Arabia is an easy country to visit. For a foreigner, it takes awhile to get used to having all aspects of your daily life-right down to what you eat and drink-regulated by law. However, on the Corniche at sunset, as you mingle with ordinary Saudis, the stresses can be forgotten. Smile, and a dozen people are likely to smile back.
Many major international hotel chains have properties in Jeddah. The best hotels are clustered along the Corniche and within the fashionable Al Hamra district. Room rates are usually negotiable.
A five-star hotel voted the city’s best in a survey of business travelers. With 414 opulent rooms, the hotel overlooks the Red Sea-sunsets are superb. Unusual curved escalators are a feature of the main atrium. The top-floor Amwaj Restaurant, serving fusion cuisine, provides spectacular views of the city and coastline. There are onsite bowling alleys, swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), tennis and squash courts, and a fitness center. Comprehensive business facilities are available, including Internet access from every room.
Jeddah Hilton, P.O. Box 128428, North Corniche Road
Jeddah 21362, Saudi Arabia, tel 9662 6590000
fax 9662 6591111, www. jeddah.hilton.com
Mövenpick Resort Al Nawras Island
The perfect retreat from the noise and bustle of downtown Jeddah. Situated on a man-made peninsula adjacent to the Corniche, this Swissowned resort offers 93 secluded villas, each with its own swimming pool. The a la carte Al Wadaa Restaurant, overlooking the Red Sea, provides Mediterranean and Asian cuisine.
Mövenpick Resort Al Nawras Island
P.O. Box 14018, Jeddah 21424, Saudi Arabia
tel 966 2 6555550, fax 996 2 2322851
Sofitel Jeddah al Hamra
Located at the heart of Jeddah’s business, banking and diplomatic district, business facilities at Sofitel Jeddah al Hamra include computer rental and translation/translator services. Villa d’Aosta Restaurant serves Italian fare. The hotel has 255 standard rooms, 26 suites and 25 apartments. For unwinding after a long day of meetings, try the hotel’s Hamman (Turkish bath).
Sofitel Jeddah al Hamra, P.O. Box 7375, Palestine Street
Jeddah 21462, Saudi Arabia, tel 966 2 6602000
fax 966 2 6604145, www.accorhotels.com
Holiday Inn Jeddah Al Salam
Holiday Inn Jeddah Al Salam is located in downtown Jeddah, 22 miles from the International Airport (there is a complimentary shuttle bus service). There are 289 standard rooms (reputedly the biggest standard rooms in the city) and 19 suites; many of the rooms have city views. A fully equipped business center is available.
Holiday Inn Jeddah Al Salam, P.O. Box 6582
ld Makkah Road Kilo 2, Jeddah 21452, Saudi Arabia
tel 966 2 6314000, fax 966 2 6324194
Jeddah has a diverse range of restaurants: Arabic, French, Korean, Mexican, Indian…the list is endless. You won’t be able to savor a glass of wine with your meal because alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia (if you’re really desperate, alcohol-free beer is usually on offer). Saudi law also affects the menus-pork is banned. Segregation-men from women-is the norm in Saudi restaurants. Many restaurants have a “bachelor” area and a “family” area. Men and women who are not married or blood relatives should not sit at the same table. Some restaurants prohibit single men entirely; check the policy in advance.
At the budget end, Harry Ramsden’s (next to Corniche Plaza) is a branch of a popular British chain serving first-rate fish and chips for about $10 per person. American fast food chains are well represented, though you can also try the Saudi alternative to KFC, Al Baik, which claims to serve the best fried chicken in the world. Al Baik is a Saudi institution, extremely popular with local students, and has outlets throughout Jeddah.
The Leylaty Ballroom and Conference Center
This complex offers some of the best dining in Jeddah, though group bookings are preferred. Among the restaurants at Leylaty are: Al Multaqa Dining Room (sushi and sashimi); Toki Chinese Restaurant (contemporary Chinese food within a chic, minimalist setting); Seasons (pasta and other Italian specialties in a classical European setting, complete with Roman columns); and La Nuit d’Or (French cuisine; palatial European décor). Dinner costs about $30-$50 per person.
The Leylaty Ballroom and Conference Center
P.O. Box 85, Al Malek Road, Jeddah 21411, Saudi Arabia
tel 966 2 6066666, www.leylaty.com.sa
Al-Danah at Green Island
One of the city’s most popular eateries. Built on stilts above the water, the excellent ocean views tend to overshadow the food, which is decent but not spectacular. When the weather is not too oppressive, a table outside is a worthwhile option, though at the height of summer you’ll probably prefer to take advantage of the air conditioning inside. Seafood is the main specialty, with a wide range of freshly caught Red Sea fish. Dinner costs about $20-$30 per person.
Al-Danah at Green Island, Northern Corniche
opposite the Sheraton Hotel, tel 966 2 6990090
Jeddah has no nightlife in the American sense. Bars, nightclubs and theaters are all banned. The city’s first cinema recently opened at King Fahd Coastal City. Thanks to the world’s strictest board of censors, only the tamest movies will make it to the screen here. If you’re a fan of Disney animation, you’re in luck.
In the past, shoppers in Jeddah headed for the bustling narrow alleys of the various souqs-the old markets. These days, most locals frequent the indoor malls, the latest of which is La Promenade II on Prince Mohammed Bin Abdul Aziz Street. An even bigger shopping and entertainment center, the Serafi Mega Mall, is currently under construction: If you want to ice skate in Saudi Arabia, this will be the place to do it. For sheer size, the Janjoom Center on Palestine Street is Jeddah’s reigning champion; it’s one of the largest malls in the world, with a full range of international outlets, including, inevitably, Gap.
Most Saudi malls have an Islamic prayer hall. The food courts and entertainment areas are usually divided into “family” and “bachelor” sections.
Gold is a good value in Jeddah (try the Gold Souq), as are cameras and electrical items (Alawi Souq). Bab Makkah Souq is the place for silk and spices, the Afghan Souq sells carpets, rugs and other woven items, and the Old Airport Souq is a vast flea market where you can find just about anything.
Among the best souvenirs are Bedouin jewelry, ceremonial daggers and swords (though these should be shipped home rather than carried in your luggage), and Arabian chests. Haggling over prices is the norm, even within the modern malls.
Credit cards aren’t always accepted, so always carry sufficient cash-if you run short, there is sure to be an ATM nearby.
Doing Business in Saudi Arabia
Saudis prefer to deal with decision-makers directly; this is not a destination to which
subordinates should be sent.
Ensure that your business cards are printed in both English and Arabic.
Saudi businessmen wear a full-length white garment known as a thobe, and a checked headscarf. For western businessmen, suits are perfectly acceptable.Western women should wear an abayya in public-a loose, head-to-toe black dress.
All foreign businessmen must have a Saudi sponsor for their visa application. Businesswomen also need a letter of invitation from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For more information, contact the Visa Section of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
(601 New Hampshire Ave.,Washington, D.C. 20037; tel 202 944 3126; www.saudiembassy.net).
Exploring the Region
If you have half a day to spare, explore the narrow streets of Al Balad.With its historic
architecture, which is crumbling in places, the atmosphere here is completely different
from the modern downtown. Many of the city’s souqs are located within this district.
The Nassif House (Al Alawi, Al Balad District) is a wonderfully restored 120-year-old house, the ideal place to gain a glimpse of Jeddah’s long history. Open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free.
The Corniche is the main focal point of Jeddah life. Snorkeling over coral reefs is possible from the South Corniche. The North Corniche is the best place to watch the world go by.
The Abdul-Raouf Khalil Museum (Al Mathaf Street, Al Andalus District, tel 966 2 6658487) houses more than 10,000 artifacts relating to the history of Arabia. The layout is chaotic, but there are a few interesting exhibits. The museum is open daily, except Fridays, from 9 a.m. to
noon and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $5.
A two-hour drive inland from Jeddah, scaling the 5,000-foot Rift Valley escarpment, lies the
interesting city of Taif, Saudi Arabia’s former summer capital. The route takes you close to
Mecca, though only Muslims can visit Islam’s holiest city-everyone else must skirt around
it on the so-called “Christian Bypass.”
Want to Go?
Saudi Arabian Airlines (tel 800 472 8342, www.saudiairlines.com) offers direct service to
Jeddah from New York (JFK) and Washington, D.C. (Dulles). Flight time is just under 14 hours.
Other airlines connecting the United States to Jeddah via Europe and North Africa include Air
France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Egypt Air, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa, Northwest, Royal Jordanian and United Airlines.
Sources for additional information on traveling to or doing business in Jeddah include The
Saudi Information Resource (www.saudinf.com); The U.S.-Saudi Arabia Business Council
(tel 202 638 1212, www.us-saudi-business.org); and Saudi Arabian General Investment
Authority (tel 966 2 6631588, www.sagia.gov.sa).
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