Historic old Jeddah awaits life-saving restoration

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Jeddah’s humid climate rots the houses’ wood and erodes their walls, meaning they require constant maintenance. Local laws stipulate that this be done with mud and coral limestone drawn from the Red Sea, using costly traditional building techniques.

“The house will deteriorate if there is no one to take care of it. Like an old garment, if you don't patch it up it will disintegrate,” said Younis al-Jazar, among the few Saudi citizens who still live in the area, where he was born and raised.

Costs of restoration vary depending on the size and extent of damage to a house, but can range from 50,000 riyals ($13,000) to over 3 million. Jazar said regular maintenance on his family home costs at least 6,000 riyals a year.

The local property market further discourages restoration efforts: new buildings in the area can command rents of 50,000 riyals a year compared with 2,400 for old houses.

“They (owners) know they are sitting on a very valuable land in the city center. They want to get rid of the old houses to build new structures,” Amir said.

Of 600 old houses counted a decade ago only 450 remain.

Although the central government has instructed the city to spend $53 million to help restore the public parts of the district, the money must come from the city's own coffers, Amir said.

This is something that Jeddah, where creaking infrastructure contributed to deadly floods in 2010 and 2011, and which is completely overhauling its transport networks, cannot now afford.

“We can barely cover costs, so it’s like giving something but it is not real... But we will keep asking for it,” he said.
The government has bought and restored some properties in the area, including a 13th-century mosque and the house where Saudi founder Abdul Aziz al Saud lived when in Jeddah, but officials say it would be too expensive to purchase more buildings so they are now planning to provide state loans.

Adhering to an austere version of Sunni Islam which prohibits the veneration of objects, Saudi Arabia has until recently neglected and even destroyed many of its historic sites such as homes and tombs of iconic Islamic figures in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

It has now listed two sites, the Nabatean rock-dwellings of Madain Saleh and the ruling al-Saud family’s historical capital of Diriyah, with UNESCO and is working hard to protect its heritage there.

“Here in the kingdom there was a lack of awareness and appreciation for heritage and we have, in ignorance, destroyed many sites including Old Riyadh ... but thank goodness we have passed that stage,” said Ali al-Ghabban, the Vice-President of Antiquities and Museums at the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, a government department.

Some Jeddah citizens and other people from Hijaz, which includes Mecca, Medina and the old port town of Yanbu, accuse the government of playing regional favourites, stirring old resentments dating to the al-Saud’s conquest of Hijaz in 1923.

They point to the investment of at least $133 million in preserving Diriyah and compare it unfavorably with the continuing neglect of cultural sites in their cities.

Amir defended the central government's priorities, however.

“Anything historical that has to do with the government and its establishment is naturally important ... that does not mean that Jeddah is neglected. But it was just a lot easier to deal with Diriyah considering no one lives there, it is much smaller than Jeddah and the government owns the whole area,” he said.

As the authorities consider how to proceed with restoration of the historic district, Jeddah residents like AbuSulayman continue to lobby for swifter action and monitor the development in the area as best as they can.

“We don't have the power to make decisions but we are here,” she said. “We need help ... (and) we are willing to do more.”

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