The city of Jeddah is being increasingly viewed by its residents as the “Dubai of Saudi Arabia”. With its newly-built skyscrapers, glittering malls, savoury restaurants and a host of new family outings — including cinemas, that are soon to appear — Jeddah draws the Kingdom’s visitors to it like no other city in Saudi Arabia. But that’s where all the comparison to Dubai stops.
Dubai runs like an efficiently oiled machine. It is dynamic. Jeddah lumbers along in many aspects and for good reason. A spurt of rain that barely lasted over an hour recently once again exposed the depth of inefficiency and corruption that plague Saudi civil sectors. The lack of a proper drainage system had caused severe flooding in neighbourhoods and led to the reported death of three individuals. Now mind you, over the past three decades, the government had earmarked billions for the city’s major infrastructure projects — including construction of proper roads, drainage and sewage systems — but all those billions seem to have gone elsewhere.
Coupled with the ongoing high-profile investigation that has led to the arrest of several princes, leading businessmen and public servants, the public is demanding more action. It does not take much imagination to wonder where the billions of government-allocated funds have disappeared. Ten years ago, the Jeddah Municipality held a much-touted event unveiling the ‘Jeddah 1450’ plan. The vice-mayor for planning and urban development at the Jeddah Municipality at the time said: “This vision, which we call Jeddah 1450, is guided by certain principles. The city is facing challenges to preserve and enhance our advantages, which include rapid population growth, an increased environmental pressure and the onward plan to seek a lesser dependence on oil, all of which call for innovative ideas in terms of urban management and planning, and transport and financing. We are currently engaged in developing a vision for our city with a 20-year perspective. This vision is guided by certain principles that are based on culture, history and the environment.”
Preceding Vision 2020 and Vision 2030, Jeddah 1450 (2030, according to the Gregorian calendar) was yet another ambitious attempt by a bureaucracy that had failed to honour the public’s trust. By setting 2030 as their target, senior city officials ensured that they would have long retired with healthy bank balances and living it up somewhere in the south of France!
As a resident of Jeddah, the mess that has been created in the past few years through inefficient planning and corrupt bureaucratic practises cannot deceive me. A short drive through Jeddah will immediately bring to notice the following flaws:
Besides the fact that there is no proper rain water drainage system, the roads are despicable. The municipality has not done its job in enforcing laws against digging of roads, which are re-surfaced with substandard material once work is done. Hardly a neighbourhood exists in Jeddah that can boast of well-paved streets. It is indeed disgraceful.
Piling construction debris continue to be a menace, in spite of municipal claims to the contrary. There are supposed to be inspectors to monitor civic violations, but none can be seen anywhere.
Building permits are speedily handed out to those interested in setting up shopping centres at practically each intersection, but no thought goes into the negative impact such construction has on the neighbourhoods. Provisions for parking are laughable at most of these newly-planned facilities. And it is indeed unfortunate that we are yet to learn from our mistakes.
There is the nuisance of toxic and noxious load leaking on to the roads and pavements from septic tankers; or garish billboards on almost every lamppost; or the lack of parks in neighbourhoods. Does it really take a rocket scientist to figure out how to keep the Jeddah Corniche clean and free from pests?
While there are laws to ensure best practices, such regulations are being openly flouted, making one wonder if there is anybody at the municipality seeing or listening to what the people go through. The folly is in the enforcement of laws and execution of existing plans. And no 20-year plan is going to set things right if plans are jeopardised through mismanagement and corruption.
There is simply no need for a ‘Jeddah 1450’ for now. It’s simply a waste of time and resources. What the residents and visitors need instead is a fresh cadre of honest city planners to be sent to Dubai for intensive and exhaustive lessons on how to manage and run a city and how to do it within the budget assigned. Otherwise, let Saudis stop comparing their city to the UAE marvel.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.