The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is set for the Saudi Arabian GP
The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is set for the Saudi Arabian GP Image Credit: Supplied

Saudi Arabia is going big on tourism. Mega projects -- from the developments at Neom on the western coast to the entertainment projects in Riyadh and elsewhere, there is no dearth of venues for fun seekers to gather in and enjoy.

Jeddah is hosting the kingdom’s first Formula 1 racing event early December and there are great expectations for this event. Alongside the race, there have been a series of musical events slated for tourists and visitors. Yet such unique events are still in their infancy.

Jeddah is possibly well on its way to garner the dubious distinction of having the most shopping malls per inhabitants of any urban city in the world. With all the money being poured in to entertain, perhaps it would be wiser to build not just another mall but something with character and interest that would serve as a worthwhile draw.

Forget the fact that some of our roads are in such a pitiful state that would send most vehicles and their occupants weekly to workshops. Or the fact that we do not have piped-in water in many districts around the city. Or a noticeable lack of public libraries or cultural centers. Then there are the armies of sewage trucks plying their trade and draining the waste water from our homes and businesses.

The mall madness is obviously a boon for its patrons, as it affords them an evening out in a temperature-controlled environment. With beachfronts guarded by heavily fortified compound walls, residents have got into the habit of dropping in the malls which today have transformed themselves into an oasis for all.

Shops are of the same old tired chains from one shopping mall to the other, and judging from the lack of shopping bags being carried, it’s obvious that most mall patrons are in there not for purchasing but just for lack of something else to do.

A recent visit on a busy weekend night with my wife to an upscale mall in the city provided me with a glimpse into the social mores of our ever-changing society. Throngs of cars drove up to the mall entrance, unloading their occupants; while their drivers moved on to locate a parking spot.

Just a few feet from the entrance, hordes of drivers sauntered into their ethnic gatherings, trading news and gossip from back home. In an assembly worthy of a UN mini summit for Asia, and Africa, these representatives from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Egypt and the Sudan formed tight groups along national boundaries.

Inside the mall, the atmosphere on this busy Thursday evening bordered on the festive. There were the families in groups of six or more, kids and teenagers, and then there were those middle-aged men devoid of any family members and whose purpose to visit such establishments asides from sitting by the hours in coffee shops is on its own a study in social sciences.

They gulp down endless cups of Turkish coffee, and are busily engrossed with their three mobile phones spread on the table in front of them, undoubtedly in anticipation with their Bluetooth turned on. The threat of the Mishleh-clad Virtue Commission members followed by the obligatory policeman no longer exists. The religious police have quickly become a forgotten entity.

From our vantage point in such a coffee shop overlooking the mall center, my wife and I observed many young boys out to impress, either with their sizeable manes or their outlandish outfits. And the young girls matched them in dare, with some obviously just making their way to the mall from an appointment at the coiffure dazzling with their make-up and the jewellery, and their inventiveness with the Abaya.

Yes indeed, a place to be seen and admired. Shops loudly displayed their sale signs, some with up to 80% discounts, but there were few takers, as most of the throng just moved on, predictably looking but not plunking out the cash. The busiest places observed where customers were indeed parting with their riyals where the hypermarket and the food court. One can hold off Gucci shoes or Guess sportswear for now, but one has to eat.

In the food court, families grabbed available tables and seating, frequently more than they required, while others wandered around desperately searching for a table to seat their tray of food. Shades of territorial expansion with no thought for your fellow being. A multiplex movie theatre was around the corner to entice these crowds to spend their money besides food.

There has to be more imagination than just putting up shopping malls.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena