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Art, beaches, culture: Jeddah commute makes sense to me

Riyadh may be where the action is but serenity is found in Saudi Arabia's port city

Jeddah has much to recommend it, from sea and sand to the Unesco World Heritage site Al Balad Flickr/amanderson2
Jeddah has much to recommend it, from sea and sand to the world heritage site Al Balad

With Riyadh, Neom and the Red Sea Resort taking centre stage, why on earth would anyone want to live in Jeddah? There’s not much going on there, you say? 

Well, apart, that is, from the golden beaches of Obhur, the Corniche, art galleries, foodie culture, Al Balad world heritage site, Formula One, the film festival, America’s Cup yacht racing, a world-class fish market, boating and general laid-back vibe.

These days, people from Riyadh tend to think you’re a bit strange wanting to live so far from the action. But commuting to Riyadh from Jeddah makes a lot of sense when you can avoid the hour-long traffic jams which bedevil life in the capital, and replace them with sea, sky and sand.

Up to 10,000 air passengers make the journey every day by air, flying to and from King Abdulaziz airport in Jeddah to King Khalid airport in Riyadh. Many are performing Umrah or Hajj, distinctive in their Ihram clothing of white towelling robes.

Many more are commuters, taking full advantage of the 50-plus daily flights, which depart every 20 minutes or so.  

King Abdulaziz airport is an architectural marvel, renovated and reopened in 2019. The Hajj terminal is the fourth-largest airport terminal in the world. It’s so big that even when thronged with pilgrims, the airport feels spacious and mercifully it’s a breeze to get through the e-gates and security check. 

The airport is run by the Irish, who have a strong reputation in aviation. The management company is DAA International, which also runs Cork, Dublin, and the airport serving Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project.

Londoners used to the hassle of Heathrow tend to speak fondly of how quickly you can move through London City airport. In Jeddah, it’s even easier: disembarking usually takes less than five minutes from walking off the aircraft to stepping into your car.

Your choice of airline reflects a distinct pecking order of comfort and service.  High-end passengers will opt for Saudia: excellent service, good gate locations, and nice new planes. Saudia’s cheaper cousin Flynas is the mid-tier option, with a decent enough service reflecting the lower fares. And then there is Flyadeal: launched in 2016, it is the low-cost option with no frills and a shuttle bus to the aircraft. 

Even when thronged with pilgrims, the airport feels spacious, and it’s a breeze to get through the e-gates

Jeddah’s airport has a spacious and centrally-located car park and is well served by taxis. Just beware, the GPS signal at the cab rank beneath the airport isn’t great, and Uber drivers sometimes go round and round in circles on the wrong level.  

If you are peckish, the usual array of airport food chains, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, will keep you going. But for a Jeddite the only real option is Al Baik. This is no ordinary fried chicken shop: it’s a national institution. The fried chicken burgers, served with or without spicy sauce, have been a staple of visitors to Mecca and Jeddah for years. They are delicious.

If you are heading out of Jeddah, the Haramain High Speed Railway will whizz you at 200mph to Medina in under two hours, stopping at King Abdullah Economic City on the way. Muslims can get to Mecca by train in less than an hour.

For most on the daily or weekly Jeddah commute, though, it’s but a short drive home from the airport. There is seldom too much traffic, and a feeling of serenity awaits after the bustle of the capital.

Justin Doherty is chairman of Hemington Consulting and has advised companies, governments and charities on influence campaigns and reputation risk management

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