Saudia's Boeing 707 circled over Jiddah, doing me a favor without knowing it. The crisp March morning was memorably beautiful. Intensely blue were the sky and the Red Sea—the whites and yellows of Jiddah's buildings reflecting darts of sharp light. During the four years since my last visit the skyline had changed almost beyond recognition.
Skyscrapers had transformed the character of the city even more than its horizontal expansion. Slender white minarets reminded me that this was Saudi Arabia, but I had to look hard to spot some of the lovely tall old Jiddah houses, with their wooden lattice balconies (Aramco World, September-October, 1971).
After landing, a walk downtown confirmed what I had seen from the air. Parts of the sprawling, colorful old suq were still there, but smack in the center of that busy market area an elegant 25-story apartment building, the Queen's Building, and an adjoining, equally elegant office building had just been completed.
A big commotion was going on in the Queen's Building later that evening. I was strolling in with the three-year old daughter of a friend who had just moved into one of the apartments when she shouted, "Look, Tor, look!" Possessing an innate nervousness about large, excited crowds, I held back on the fringes until I realized that the mood was good-natured, bordering on hilarious. It turned out that the new buildings' escalators had just been opened to traffic. They were the first in the country, I was told, and joined the street-level lobby with the mezzanine. With something of the excitement that villagers of several generations ago must have felt when they saw their first automobile, hundreds of people had come out to try them—young and old, men, and a few daring women. Some were nervous about stepping on or off and, of course, like their counterparts anywhere, there were a few boys trying to run up the down escalator. At the insistence of my three-year-old friend, a lady of strong character, we pushed our way into the enthusiastic melee to partake in the trial runs.
Later, as I moved about the city, re-familiarizing myself with old haunts, it seemed to me as though all Jiddah was caught up in the excitement of things happening and the modernization of the country. Being the port of entry for most pilgrims, whether arriving by ship or by air, as well as the diplomatic capital of the kingdom and its biggest trading center, Jiddah is a cosmopolitan, friendly and tolerant city.
To accommodate the ever-increasing flow of travelers, a contract has been awarded for the construction of an enormous new international airport with two terminals, one for regular passenger traffic and the other for the peak demands of the Pilgrimage, when more than a million people move in and out of nearby Mecca in the period of a few weeks, a great number of them through Jiddah's airport (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1974).
The seaport has not been neglected either. The new King Faisal Port was opened by His Majesty in early 1973. With Abdul 'Aziz Uwaydah, a knowledgeable young Saudi public relations man with a marvelous sense of humor, I went to visit it. Mr. Ali Malaika, director general of the port, was an impeccably robed man whose perfectly accented, softly spoken English did not hide the dynamism of his character. Said Mr. Malaika: "We now have eight berths and construction is underway for four more. Of course, we already have plans for further expansion, since trade is increasing so rapidly. For example, the import of motor vehicles through Jiddah last year increased by 165 percent. In the same year there was a 502-percent increase in cement imports. Both are good indicator of the rise in prosperity throughout the kingdom."
Mr. Malaika assigned 'Isam Attar, pipe-smoking engineer recently graduate from a university in the U.S., to take us o a tour of the port. The whole spacious area, neatly laid out with modern administration and storage buildings, a fine cafeteria ar a mosque, was immaculately clean. Except for the ships it looked more like a college campus than a port. I told Mr. Attar that I had seen many ports throughout the world in the course of my work but this was without a doubt the cleanest. He chuckled and said with justified pride, "You've just said the right thing! This is my responsibility. Every time a ship has finished loading or unloading a team moves in to clean up every bit of scrap." Other ports might well copy this admirable system.
It was evening rush hour when we left the port. The din of the traffic in Jiddah was every bit as loud as that of Riyadh. Abdul Aziz hit his horn with great frequency, a staccato "beep-beep." It reminded me of something. "Abdul Aziz, have you ever seen the Roadrunner cartoon?" I asked him. He spun around, laughing, nearly losing control of the car. "The Roadrunner? Of course I know him. We see him on television here all the time. He's the funniest thing that ever happened! That's why I beep my horn like that."
Abdul Aziz is a great roadrunner himself. One day we drove from Jiddah to Taif in the mountains west of the coastal plain about 90 miles from Jiddah. Taif lies at an altitude of 4,900 feet and the road up is a dizzying, spiraling climb. We took pictures of this cool, attractive resort town, went on an excursion with Abdul Aziz's brother, and descended to Jiddah—back in time for lunch.
Suddenly, about the middle of March, Jiddah turned hot and humid. Happily it didn't happen until the day before Abdul Aziz and I lifted off in a DC9, bound for Abha, the lofty capital of mountainous 'Asir Province in the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia.
Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian-born American citizen now based in Spain, has photographed and Written about countries from Australia to Mexico—the long way around—for such publications as National Geographic, Fortune, Time and Newsweek. He covered the Middle East from Beirut for five years and has been a frequent contributor to Aramco World. World.