Jeddah shisha smokers forced out of the Saudi citys cafes

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Smokers of the hubble-bubble water pipe have until Saturday (October 13) to indulge their fondness for sweet flavored tobacco in Jeddah’s cafes as the Saudi city prepares to enforce a public ban on the habit.

A law against smoking the pipes, known in Arabic as shisha, in public places has been in place for years in some other Saudi cities, but it is only now being implemented in Jeddah, which is known as more socially liberal than the capital Riyadh.

“Young people will no longer come here. As you can see, the coffee shop is empty and has been for the past three days,” said Naief, the owner of “Cafe Harmony” in Jeddah.

“The ban is imposed on residential neighborhoods because they didn’t want it to affect the population in those areas, but now what? They created the ban but parents will go out and buy shisha, so the children will be affected by this, residential buildings will be overcome by the smell of smoke and tobacco. Also, as coffee shop owners we have been greatly impacted -- there is no mechanism to implementing this decision. They did not take into consideration that we have to pay rent, wages and have other financial obligations.”

Naief also said the government has failed start-up businesses who received their permits four months ago only to be handed down the shisha ban now.

English-language daily Saudi Gazette reported on Wednesday (October 10) more than 35 businessmen with investments in restaurants and cafes had complained to the city’s chamber of commerce about the ban, demanding it protect their interests.

The pipes have been banned on health grounds, with the Health Ministry campaigning for tougher measures against the habit for years.

Among those measures was a conference in Jeddah on Wednesday under the banner: “Addressing New Methods in Curing Problems Associated with Tobacco.”

The conference, organized by the Saudi Ministry of Health and al-Amal Hospital, concentrated on tobacco while tackling general issues related to smoking and youth consumption.

“I think any decision which makes it more difficult to access tobacco and shisha is by all means a positive one,” said Dr. Abdulhamid al-Habib, director general of social and mental services at the Saudi Ministry of Health.

“We must monitor its implementation and press with implementing it as well as observing its side effects, like it (tobacco) being leaked to young children and affecting patterns of behavior -- I think sometimes this can be more dangerous than the actual problem,” al-Habib added.

Shisha smoking is popular in Saudi Arabia, but it is frowned upon by clerics of the austere Wahhabi school of Islam that dominates the world’s top oil exporter.

In Nejd, the central part of Saudi Arabia where Riyadh is located and which is the heartland of Wahhabi belief, shisha smoking has long been banned in urban areas.

But the number of smokers in the Kingdom nonetheless remains high.

“There is no doubt that whomever is following the figures for consumption of tobacco and smoking in general in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Arab region will be shocked to find the figures have doubled. We saw figures in past lectures that show these numbers have doubled by nearly three or four times over the past three years and what is a greater cause for concern is the targeted consumer -- we are seeing a vast number of youths are taking up smoking,” said Dr. Sami Badawood, director of health affairs in Mecca area.

A grace period for cafes and restaurants that offer their customers shisha was announced in July by Interior Minister Prince Ahmed, but it ends on Saturday after which smokers will have to drive to the city limits to puff in public.

But not everyone will be able to indulge as women compose a fair share of smokers around the world.

The Jeddah ban would be felt hardest by female smokers, who would find it hard to frequent licensed shisha cafes outside the city limits in a country where only men are allowed to drive.

“The largest study found the number of smokers world-wide is approximately 1.25 billion, of which 250 million are women. So there’s nearly one billion male smokers and 250 million women smokers around the world. There are statistics in various countries, which obviously vary from one country to another,” said Dr. Khalid al-Ofi, medical director of al-Amal hospital in Jeddah.

There are no accurate statistics on the number of male and female smokers in Saudi Arabia.

Businesses that flout the ban face increasingly hefty fines and ultimately closure if they are caught offering the pipes to customers.