I have always been fascinated by Jeddah - everything from its complex history and its commercial ingenuity to the fact that it is such a perfect example of a melting pot.
Jeddah's prominence is rooted in its proximity to Makkah - the third caliph, Othman Bin Affan, developed it into a port of call for pilgrims making the Haj to Makkah. Slowly, the trade that the Quraish tribe thrived upon in Makkah moved to Jeddah and a story of entrepreneurial prowess and demographic complexity began. Jeddah became the gateway to Makkah and Madinah. Over the years, a term was coined in Arabic to describe residents of Jeddah: Haj wa lam yaud (translated literally, "he who made the pilgrimage and never returned"). Younger people from the rest of the Gulf refer to residents of Jeddah as being leftover pilgrims - hardly a criticism!
Jeddah is not so much misunderstood as unappreciated. If it isn\\'t being patronised - as above - then it\\'s usually lumped together with Saudi Arabia as a whole and criticised for its lack of job opportunities or women\\'s rights, weak infrastructure and a bureaucratic legal system. To discount Jeddah that quickly is an act of gross misjudgment.
The prevalent view is that the Gulf needs to develop - not only economically, but rather holistically. The first thing that comes to mind is Dubai - the entrepreneurial city that was able to attract all things foreign: investment, people, praise and, most recently, criticism. The second thing that comes to mind is that Abu Dhabi and Doha\\'s much celebrated and welcome renaissance wouldn\\'t have existed had Dubai not taken the direction it did. Dubai is often cited as an innovator, but the truth is that Jeddah played that role first.
The people of Jeddah are from Syria, Makkah, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Turkey, Central Asia, Indonesia (Java), Malaysia, Morocco, Palestine, Egypt and Yemen, among other countries. To provide perspective, this city is more demographically diverse than most in the world - save perhaps for some in North America, France and Brazil. What is interesting, however, is the melting of many original identities into a cohesive Hejaz identity that all ethnicities belong to. Everyone from Jeddah has the same accent, participates in the same activities and, most importantly, they intermarry. This is not to say that there is no class system - some ethnicities still suffer some prejudice, albeit subtle. The point is that Jeddah has been able to take in masses of migrants and their cultures and establish an evolving identity that has been able to absorb these various cultures into one.
At a time when the Gulf states - individually rather than collectively, so far - seek to be recognised as major contributors to global development through initiatives in culture, sports, renewable energy and global investment, Jeddah stands as a curious organic social story that has stood the test of time. The rest of the Gulf has much to learn from this - geographically not very Gulf - city.
It is in fact quite fascinating that Jeddah is viewed as the most liberal city in Saudi Arabia - bearing in mind its proximity to Makkah. Perhaps it is this proximity that explains it - Islam after all preaches the abolishment of all class systems and the recognition of people as humans, rather than members of different races.
As is the case with Kuwait and Bahrain and the rest of Saudi Arabia, the challenges that face Jeddah today are very different from the challenges that face Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai - or the southern Gulf cities, as they are sometimes referred to. Jeddah has weak and old infrastructure, while these latter cities are racing against time to build state-of-the-art infrastructure. Jeddah still battles with women\\'s rights, while Doha and Dubai have given their women leading roles in government and society. The uproar that emerged after Lubna Al Olayan spoke without a head scarf at the Jeddah Economic Conference a few years ago made it clear that Jeddah is far from ready to tolerate such trespasses. Finally, a Saudi graduate\\\\'s prospects do not compare to those of a Qatari or an Emirati.
This leads to the conclusion of this piece: the Gulf States need each other more than they could possibly need anyone else right now - and more than they have needed each other ever before. While some factors that contributed to its success were circumstantial and others were specific to itself, Jeddah\\'s social experiment should be more than just food for thought for other Gulf cities that are experiencing more recent waves of migration. It was sustainable integration that made Jeddah so successful and almost singularly assured its continuous growth as a vibrant city. I would not like to imagine what Jeddah would be like if it operated under different rules.
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