At a dinner party last Friday evening, a lady remarked, "Don't people here with money have anything better to do than build malls?"

I could not suppress a smile. Jeddah is really changing, I thought to myself. Not so long ago, I wrote how Jeddah had become a city of bumps. Speed bumps, that is.

It seemed at the time that everybody was building a speed bump in front of his or her house. And the bumps came in all shapes and sizes. The municipal authorities had evidently lost even a semblance of control and after all, what could they do? They certainly lacked personnel who could remove the speed bumps.

The truth was of course that very often the speed bumps served a very useful purpose. The bottom line, however, was then and still is today that we, the residents of Jeddah, simply have very little concept of civic responsibility or civic duty. What I believe is called one's duty to one's neighbours. Islam certainly mandates this duty but like so many things, it is not an aspect of our religion that receives much emphasis here.

It is not enough that we were throwing garbage everywhere except in the bins provided, we also set out to obstruct traffic and, judging from some of the speed bumps I've been over, we did a pretty good job of it.

But I've got off the subject of this article which is malls. In the Bride of the Red Sea, malls have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. They are everywhere on main roads, on side streets and in the middle of nowhere. I defy you to drive a distance of five kilometres in Jeddah without seeing at least two malls. The fact is that I rarely go out to shop, not because I don't like to, but for other reasons among them unruly youths with no regard for rules and regulations, traffic policemen who never see the youths but never miss expatriate taxi-drivers and, of course, the general pollution.

I do naturally go out at times and when I do, I cannot help but notice all the malls. They come in all shapes and sizes small, medium, large and enormous. Some look like the Taj Mahal while others resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa; I long for an Eiffel Tower or a Pyramid and no doubt, in time, these too will be added to our streets.

The malls overpower a number of residential neighbourhoods and make me wonder how the zoning laws were ignored. (I know many people will ask if such laws even exist here.) What "vitamin" was used to construct these monstrosities in areas which should have held only houses?

And, while any minor problem brings on the eager municipal workers who take the contractor's equipment and give him notice, where were these vigilant eyes when we needed them?

I can count up to eight new malls that are in the process of being built. And this at a time when people are shouting about Saudiisation, about not wanting tourists to come in and about wanting Umrah and Haj pilgrims to be driven from the airport to the holy sites and back allowed nowhere else.

Most of these malls have nothing new to offer. Many are vacant or only half-occupied and the mall management tries all the tricks in the book to entice merchants to rent shops. Now it looks as if we have moved from being a city of speed bumps to one of malls. Is that really progress?


The lady who made the original remark went on to observe that it was a shame that Jeddah had no aquarium. To which another lady added, "What about a zoo?" Our host then jumped in with "Don't forget a library." Things then got out of hand with too many suggestions which I will not bother to list.

A city without a proper zoo, a library and an aquarium is surely a dull place. Our children will grow up without access to God's gifts of knowledge and nature. They will be dull in their outlook, limited in their knowledge and will have very little to contribute years down the line to discussions such as ours at the dinner party.

Yes, I certainly believe in a free economy where people can do whatever they want with their capital. At the same time, there are also social responsibilities. Back to our duty to our neighbours. What if one of the mall builders gave us a small library or two? Or a small green park or two to relieve the drab concrete of Jeddah? Either would be welcome and both would be refreshing.

An American friend of mine is begging me to find sponsors to build for reasonable prices several basketball courts in various locations in Jeddah. He believes there is great potential for the game among Saudi youth who could easily achieve international standards.

I listen patiently to his plans and ideas. I pray he will succeed because sports also is business. And if the mall builders would spare some money, they could help in our young men's social development instead of condemning them to driving about the city, too often being a public nuisance and a traffic hazard.

We as a city could be recognised by others for fulfilling our civic responsibilities. One day we might have a Saudi Shaquille O'Neal or a Michael Jordan. We might even win a gold medal at the Olympics. There are many possibilities. But unfortunately our focus on malls keeps us from looking at the larger picture. We are focusing more on the drab concrete and the kind of equally drab culture that comes with it.

The mayor of Jeddah held a brainstorming session last Sunday dealing with Jeddah over the next 50 years. I don't know what came out of the meeting.

The usual words or genuine plans and ideas to be implemented? What did those who attended produce? Personally and sadly, I believe that if things are not checked, then Jeddah will become one big city containing hundreds of malls.

We will then enter the Guinness World Records. Some will be happy with that but I can assure you that neither my American friend nor the potential world-class basketball players will be among them. Should there be any basketball-court builders out there to say nothing of library or park builders as well please let me know. I would be delighted to assist someone in doing their duty to their neighbours.

Khaled Al Maeena is the Editor-in-Chief of the Jeddah-based Arab News