Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Map picture

And don’t let the door hit you on the way out;

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

It is a sad commentary on a country when what is most significant for comment is the process of gaining entry and departing, rather than what there was to see; but alas that is the case when it comes to our visit to Saudi Arabia.

The general practice for passengers on a ship receiving clearance into a country is for the immigration officials to meet with the ship’s personnel and to review our records, so that when it is time for us to depart that country, all of the paperwork has been handled without our involvement. In some countries, this involves nothing more than a team of local officials boarding the ship immediately upon our arrival, having them look over the paperwork, and then head straightaway for the breakfast buffet. Sometimes they actually eat and then return to stamp passports, and on a few occasions, the officials board the ship at the previous port and spend a night or two, assuring that when we arrive, we are not inconvenienced by any immigration process. I do recall that India was an exception, in that officials not only boarded at an earlier port and enjoyed several days of complimentary travel, but they also required that every passenger appear before an official to have their passport stamped at four in the morning. No matter the process, it has always been completed prior to the time we are scheduled to depart the ship. This was not the case in Saudi Arabia.

People who were going ashore gathered as is the custom in one of the lounges to await our tours. It was a subdued group, and in my mind, you could sense the tension and unease. Women, of course, were dressed in their abbayas, and most were having some trouble with getting their head covering just right. I will share one story which I think sums up the mood.

An older and very distinguished looking gentleman approached the area where Lisa and I were seated and he spoke in a loud voice to the lady seated next to us. He asked her what had been her answer on the immigration form to the question about her religion. She looked away sheepishly and mumbled that she had left it blank. The gentleman quickly looked around the group making eye contact with several other people nearby, and asking each of them if they too had left that answer blank, and each answered “yes.” He stood to his full height and in a commanding voice told them that this was unacceptable. They were Jews, and they should be proud of that fact. He admonished the group not to let the Saudi’s cower them, but to stand proudly for who there were. He then pulled out a pen and went around making sure everyone completed this entry on their forms. This is a small story, but also very telling of the atmosphere yesterday morning.

The time came to depart the ship and to board our buses. However, we did not head out for a day of adventure, but were instead taken to an arrival terminal where like cattle we were all herded into long lines. Our passports were carefully checked, our pictures taken and our packages x-rayed. We learned later that while we were out on tour that teams of officials had boarded the ship and carefully searched the vessel from top to bottom looking for any alcohol that had not been locked up for inspection.

The process of clearing immigration took over an hour, but finally we were off to explore the city of Jeddah. We learned that as recently as 1947, the city was only 1km square and home to 4,000 people. Today the city stretches over 90km along the Red Sea and is home to over 4.5 million people. From that perspective, it pretty much looked just like any very large city. It had freeways, some towering buildings and a skyline that was hazy from smog. Jeddah is the gateway to the highly important and religious city of Mecca and as such it receives over 72 million visitors a year, most of whom are on pilgrimage to Mecca. There are a few impressions I had which are perhaps worth sharing.

For one thing, it was strange not to see any woman driving. Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, and in fact, I saw very few women during our visit. Even at that they were completely covered in their black abbayas and head scarves. The other thing that caught my attention was the wide open spaces between buildings. We drove along the coast on the road referred to as the “Corniche.” On one side was the Red Sea and on the other were buildings: stores in one block, apartments in another, offices – in other words pretty much what you would expect to see – with one exception. The construction was not continuous. There were long stretches of vacant lots. Most had piles of rock and dirt which had been dumped on them, along with the obligatory trash accumulation that you would gather in any large city. I did not quite understand why there was so much open space in a city that was teeming with people.

Anyway, our first stop was to see what is referred to as “the old city.” Here were located buildings that dated back almost 200 years. They had some interesting wooden balconies, but for the most part the entire area was largely deserted and very run down. We were taken to one of the old homes which had been restored and turned into a kind of museum on the first floor, and then we walked in a circle around a large block. Not much to see really, and the few merchants who were there did not have much to offer. Sadly we had been told that we would not be able to purchase souvenirs unless we had Saudi cash and credit cards would not be accepted. Because of this most of us did not take any money. The information from the ship was not correct, so even if we had wanted to we still could not have purchased anything. I did notice that there was a very visible police presence around us. I never felt they were there to intimate us, but rather they were there for our protection, which brings up an interesting point. Most places we travel, the local people are openly friendly and curious. Many on our ship had just travelled to Iran, where they told us the people could not have been more warm and welcoming. They had a great time. However in Saudi Arabia I felt none of that warmth. I did not feel hostility, either; just distance. Perhaps it is because the Saudi’s are so private and reserved. But perhaps it is because our presence was being tolerated and not welcomed – I could not tell.

Our next stop was the fish market, and what an interesting experience that turned out to be. It was the cleanest fish market I had visited and the variety and abundance of sea food was amazing. I saw so many different types of fish that I had never seen before that even for me, who does not like seafood, it was a very interesting experience. From the market, we drove, and we drove – and, yes we drove some more along the coastal highway, finally stopping for lunch. Surprisingly it was a wonderful buffet. From there, we travelled to a museum where we spent the remainder of our time.

Finally, our long 9 hour day came to a close, but not before we all had to exit our busses once again and go through the immigration hall. More long lines, and this time, we were searched, our packages x-rayed, the bus was searched, and in an almost unbelievable show of offence, each of us was presented with a sealed envelope, which contained printed material about Islam, and a DVD on how we could become good Muslims! As I said, “and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

Today we are cruising north in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia is on our right side and Egypt is on our left. We are headed for the Gulf of Aqaba and the port of Aqaba in Jordan. Tomorrow promises to be a highlight of our trip since we will leave the ship and travel north to visit the ancient city of Petra – but that is a story yet to tell.


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