Out of the Camp Ch. 23 – Jeddah
Next morning at 9am sharp a black stretch limo was sitting outside the hotel waiting for me. As I walked over to the car, the driver, Wali, got out introduced himself and welcomed me to Jedda. He explained that we would be out for most of the day viewing the Sheik’s properties starting with two coastal vacation villages a few miles north of Jeddah. We drove along the beautiful Corniche coastal road on the banks of the Red Sea, and on the way encountered several whimsical artworks mostly mounted in the central area of roundabouts (rotaries or traffic circles). I took pictures of one or two and the theme was evidently transport, with entire cars apparently in some, half immersed in giant blocks of concrete or sandstone, and another roadside piece depicting a giant bicycle. I asked Wali if he knew anything about them or the artist or artists who created them, but he just laughed and gave me an old-fashioned look which I think might translate thus, “you’re kidding, right?”
We arrived at the first vacation village after about 30 minutes and as we drove into the complex, we passed through the security gate towards the reception area, and I was introduced to the manager and a couple of assistants one of whom was to be our tour guide. As Wali seemed to be telling the others who I was and despite not being able to understand what they were saying, it was pretty clear that they all knew each other well. As we were about to walk around the complex, the guide asked me to wait as he wanted to pick something up from the office. When he came back, he was carrying a red shemagh, the red headdress typically worn by men in some Middle Eastern countries. He handed it to me and said that I’d better wear it, or I’ll get burned. I thanked him and unraveled it not knowing quite what to do with it. They had a good laugh at this and then Wali took it from me, folded it in a certain way and placed it on my head. He then showed me how to tuck in the sides to stop it blowing around in the wind. At this, he stepped back and almost in unison they both exclaimed, “Jordanian!” Again, they were laughing but I should mention it was all good-hearted fun and I didn’t mind. I just asked what they meant and they both seemed to agree that I looked like a Jordanian. Since childhood I had always caught the sun very quickly, so I guess that was part of it, but I couldn’t really understand what they were getting at.
The village was beautiful with all the amenities you’d expect, several restaurants, mostly outdoor, no bars of course, a gym, health spa with swimming pool and several hot tubs. There was a dance hall, again outdoors with what looked like a bar, but was stocked with a huge variety of cold drinks and bottled water. There was a mini golf course and on a concrete patio nearby, a giant-sized draught board with wooden pieces. The children’s play area had a selection of rides and a small animal zoo. The guide explained that this village catered mainly to families in contrast to the one we’d be visiting next. We strolled around the grounds for around 30 minutes or so and then took off for the next stop on the tour.
The second resort was very upscale as evidenced by the marble pillars at the entrance and the thick sparkling-patterned cement tiles. There were very fancy, beautifully upholstered golf carts coasting around the place and we set off in one of these on a tour of the 5-star campus, this time accompanied by an assistant manager of the village. He sounded for all the world like a travelogue voiceover for Lux Magazine’s ‘Most Luxurious Hotels in the World’, talking about “the extensive amenities”, “impeccable standards of service”, “highly personalized experience”, etc. all in toffy-nosed tones more associated with a 1930s P.G. Wodehouse yarn than an 80s hostelry in a Middle Eastern dessert. Very strange! But it was beautiful if somewhat gaudy and hysterically over the top with an abundance of chandeliers that would rival Buck. House. There were beautifully landscaped parklands with people riding horses which was a little surreal in this part of the world. Mostly the amenities replicated the other complex but with emphasis on class and supreme luxury and many more staff on hand to meet residents’ every whim.
As we headed on back to Jeddah along the Corniche, I couldn’t help noticing cars parked by the ocean with trunks (boots) open and people sitting on carpets on the beach, and yet others with carpets hanging out of the open trunk. In all my travels this had to represent the highest level of picnic preparedness I’d ever come across anywhere and was a far cry from the typically British seaside outing where everyone seemed to end up eating sandy sandwiches! If everyone in the UK kept a carpet in their boot, I think the appeal of picnics would be significantly elevated.
We stopped for lunch at another of the Sheik’s facilities, an open-air coffee shop which effectively was a series of mini esplanades set at several differing levels on a gently rising incline with a table on each. The actual food service chalet was at the pinnacle of this construction. The view from the tables variously took in the Red Sea and the city of Jeddah. I remember enjoying the food but couldn’t tell you what we ate after all this time other than to say most everything I ate while in Jeddah was Lebanese and I love Lebanese food. As we entered the outskirts of the city Wali stopped by a large construction site and he told me that this was going to be a Sheraton and was being built in partnership with the Sheik’s company. There wasn’t much to see at this stage other than a huge hole that was the beginnings of an underground parking lot and a great deal of other indeterminate, preparatory construction activities. Close by, Wali pointed to an amusement park which was where Dima’s Wall of Death was set up and where we’d be seeing him in action that night.
The last stop of our tour was at a city shopping arcade on the Corniche overlooking the Bay. As we pulled up you couldn’t help but be impressed with the gleaming white marble covering the entire structure. We headed up the few shining steps to what appeared to be the lower floor of a two-storey building, walked on into the mall towards the manager’s office and noticed some steps going down into what appeared to be a lower level below ground. The manager came out as we arrived at his office. He was clearly expecting us and launched into the story of the shopping centre. He confirmed that yes, it had only two stories above ground but there were two more floors below. It seems that the building, which was a partnership comprising the Sheik’s company and a European conglomerate had originally been designed as an eight-floor complex including retail outlets with both office and residential apartments on the upper floors, also that excavations had been completed to accommodate a subterranean parking lot in addition to foundations having been completed that were deep into the earth to support up to ten floors.
However, in the early days of construction, a delegation of the King’s Royal Guard had shown up and started asking questions about the building, who the owners were, demanding to see all permits, documentation and drawings relating to the development and ordered all work to stop immediately until further notice. They then departed taking all the materials with them together with contact information for all company principals and banks involved in the project. Nothing was heard for several weeks after that until notification finally came that if the intention was that the building should have eight floors, occupants on the higher levels would have a clear line of site into the grounds of the King’s Palace across the bay and this, of course, couldn’t be tolerated.
In conclusion, permission was granted for completion of the two existing floors only, and amended plans were to be submitted to Jeddah City planning authorities for final review. Following receipt of amended plans incorporating required amendments, formal authorization to resume construction together with necessary permits would be issued. This eventually took place, and the project was ultimately completed sans six floors. Later that evening I went to the Wall to watch Dima in action and was shocked to see the lines of people who had come to watch him perform. I guess the most remarkable thing about the crowds was the absence of women. There were a lot of young children there including girls but none above I’d guess around ten. It’s difficult to describe the Wall of Death in action because words really don’t do it justice; you just have to be there to fully experience the excitement and witness the level of skills required to execute many of the dangerous maneuvers. But it was a remarkable evening, indeed the entire day was one I still haven’t forgotten almost 40 years later.
As I waited for the taxi to take me back to the hotel I looked out towards the bay and at the many food trucks lined along the water’s edge, all bearing fluorescent green strip lighting along their roofs, but in particular I marveled at King Fahad’s Fountain, the tallest in the world, sending plumes of water shooting skyward to 1024 feet (260 mtrs), and illuminated against the night sky by 500 multi-colored spotlights. Absolutely spectacular! The following day nothing was planned so Dima took me for a drive around Jeddah. To be honest I don’t really remember very much detail about that day apart from the overwhelming sense of sand. It wasn’t so much that there was sand everywhere in the city, rather that everything seemed to be overwhelmingly of a sandy color. One incident that for some reason got stuck in my memory after all these years was when we were walking along the beach eating a sandwich of some kind and a westerner was strolling towards us. As he came near, he said that if we wanted to retain our freedom, we’d better get rid of the sandwiches fast as the Religious Police were following along behind him and if they see us eating, we’d be for the high jump. Apparently, they’d been arresting someone earlier when this guy had walked by them. We’d completely forgotten that it was Ramadan and eating during the day is a no-no! Sure enough, five minutes later they came walking by looking about them as they went.
That evening we had been invited to the Sheik’s home and were sitting outside the hotel entrance later when Wali showed up. It was only a ten-minute drive to the compound where the Sheik lived, and we were dropped off there at the entrance and greeted at the door by a member of his staff. He showed us in and had us follow him through a series of passages. As we walked, I became aware of what felt like a faint buzzing noise which grew progressively louder as we advanced. Suddenly a pair of double doors were opened by two staff members, and we were shown into what looked like the kind of beautiful lounge bar you’d find in a 5-star, 5-diamond international hotel. The “buzzing” noise I had heard was in fact the sound of many conversations which were in progress in the bar. There must have been probably 35-40 people in there drinking. I suppose I must have been really naïve, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were several beer-taps on the bar with well-known brand insignias attached to the handles, and on the wall behind the barman was a huge row of optics bearing logos of the finest single malt whiskies and a whole range of other spirits, and this bar, in a ‘dry’ country in the middle of Ramadan, was full of men in traditional Saudi dress enjoying the ‘hospitality’, because there weren’t any cash registers in sight and nothing so vulgar as money changing hands.
I was still trying to absorb all of this as Wali led us across to a group of men at the far end of the room. As we approached, several of them moved away leaving three remaining, one of whom had turned to us and was positively beaming. I assumed this to be the Sheik. He spread his arms, “Welcome, Roger. Welcome to Jeddah!” How are you enjoying your visit?” He addressed Dima before I had time to respond. “Dima, I hope you’re looking after our very important visitor.” To say this took me by surprise wouldn’t be inaccurate. It also reminded me of the ludicrous build up Dima had given me over the last several weeks and I was uneasy, wondering just what the Sheik might be expecting. We chatted amiably for a few minutes, then Wali came over and started talking to Dima. The Sheik introduced me to the other two men remaining from the group and they, in turn, introduced us to two uniformed Caledonian Air hostesses who were with them. Looking at them it was clear that they were seriously out of their depth and probably regretting having accepted the invitation they’d received to come and meet the Sheik. They were the only females in the bar and, as far as I could tell, the only Europeans besides myself and Dima. The Sheik turned back to us and started asking me about my business and at a certain point in the conversation, he asked me what my net worth was. In western culture, so far as I have experienced, this level of bluntness is considered bad form, not to say, downright rude. I was stumped for a couple of seconds and then realized that humor was the way to get out of this and so I responded, “No idea!”.
(1) Dima on The Wall in Jeddah. (2) After the show. (3) One of our partners and his son. (4) Sitting in the Russian Wall of Death ticket office in Saudi Arabia. (I wonder how many folk can say they’ve done that!) (5) Catching the show. (6) King Fahd’s Red Sea Fountain located at the mouth of the Bay of Jeddah. (7) A few miles outside Jeddah on the road to Mecca, despite my Visa only being valid in the city of Jeddah. Dima said, “Don’t worry Roger, you won’t be arrested while you’re with me!” Did I mention that he’s completely nuts? (8) One of the many ‘exhibits’ on roundabouts along the Corniche by The Red Sea.