Wow! This must have been my longest hiatus ever! In the past 4 months, I barely checked my blog, comments, and even my RSS feeds at Google Reader. I don’t know why writing in a blog seems unexciting anymore. Let’s make it clear: I’m too lazy. Too lazy to get my hand open the damn Notepad++ and start typing. Too lazy to get my brain working :P. Too lazy to construct and put together the words into a sentence. Every time I come home from work, I just want to do something a bit relaxing. Writing is definitely not a relaxing activity in my personal list lol. Sometimes there are always blogging ideas popping out of my head, but I just didn’t try to find a time to write them down. So I ended up forgetting the things I planned to write on my blog. Apologies for those who have left some comments but have not received any replies; I was too lazy to reply and yes I need a good and stable mood to do it hehe.
So where have I been? I am still here — in a desert land Saudi Arabia — apparently still waiting, waiting, and waiting when the hell women are allowed to drive here. I am currently busy working in an IT company — yes, alhamdulillah, finally I got an IT job; this time as a far-from-experienced-PHP-Programmer. I’ve got about less than a month to work and live in this country, as I’m off to another country to experience totally different things and to enjoy a life as a student once more time. Some of you might know where I am heading, but I won’t reveal this on my blog until it is confirmed that I can arrive in the destination country; i.e. until I get the visa stamped onto my passport :D.
So what’s new about Saudi Arabia?
The Development of Makkah Al Mukarramah
The SR. 50 billion projects ordered by King Abdullah to expand the capacity of Grand Mosque in Makkah by 35% has begun months ago. The projects will not only increase the prayer space in the Grand Mosque, but they will also include the construction of pedestrian tunnels, service stations, parking space, and new residential districts. These projects are expected to provide accommodation for an additional 500,000 pilgrims.
The city of Makkah is known to have a poor urban planning, especially near the Grand Mosque. Unlike Madinah, many houses and hotels in Makkah were built cramped to each other. The residential areas near the Mosque are too overcrowded, congested, unorganised. So these new projects help tackled those problems, by demolishing these residential areas and flattening Makkah’s hills/mountains; one of them is Jabal Omar. But unfortunately, the demolition of these areas mean that many historical sites and buildings will be removed too, including those that are allegedly the site of the Prophet Muhammad SAW’s birthplace and house, so that high-rise hotels and buildings can be built there :(. You know, I’m not at all surprised that these historical sites will be demolished. The government did crazy stuff like demolishing historical mosques in Madinah and hundreds of other buildings. They are just too paranoid that people will start worshipping “things” or stuff… it’s crazy. Another historical site that was recently bulldozed and levelled was the Ajyad Fortress — an Ottoman fort built in 1781 to protect Ka’bah from invaders. The fortress has now long gone and replaced by a new building complex called Abraj Al Bait Towers. The tallest tower (which will have a 40-meter clock, visible from 17 kilometres away) will be the tallest building in Saudi Arabia. Every time I go to Makkah, I can see the building from far away — it’s higher than the mountains surrounding the Haram Mosque and it’s even much higher than other buildings around it. Many people, including the Turkish governments, criticised this destruction, but… no one can ever stop the Saudi Royal Family from doing whatever they want… And what makes me want to laugh is that the already dead [omg I’m so cruel] King Fahd ordered the removal of the fortress and instructed to rebuild it in another area (????).
Anyway, back to the Makkah projects…
The Mosque expansion has affected the pilgrims, tourism industry, hotels, and houses near the Mosque. More than 1,000 properties have been demolished by the government; as a result, Makkah is currently facing a serious shortage of accommodation. The rates of hotels are currently unstable; being increased each week. When I asked my dad how much the governor of one Indonesian province in the island of Sumatra paid for his Haram-view accommodation at the Intercontinental Hotel, he said it’s about SR. 10,000 per night or about 23 million Rupiahs (!!!) [Sometimes I wonder how can a governor get that much money!]. And THAT rate was set for the month of March, which was the beginning of Umrah season here in Saudi Arabia. No one can imagine how many percents the accommodation rates will increase this coming Ramadhan. This year is the first time of my life I saw Indonesian pilgrims stayed near Misfalah, which is quite far for Indonesian standards (unlike Turkish and Egyptian, unfortunately, we are so spoiled). This is unusual because there are not that many pilgrims come here for Umrah (compared to Hajj and Ramadhan), so most pilgrims during this time used to stay within a walking distance to the Mosque.
And how about Hajj? Reportedly, the Indonesian governments have just found 40% of accommodation for this year’s Indonesian Hajj pilgrims. Usually, by this month they already completed searching for the houses. With their housing budget of SR. 2,000 per building, it is very hard to find one that is close to Haram Mosque. Don’t even talk about the accommodation near the Mosque! The rate of the accommodation that is located quite far from the Mosque is already SR. 3,000 or more (which is more than our budget). So… for Indonesian Hajj pilgrims, don’t expect to stay near the Mosque. Expect for the worst.
Jeddah Water Crisis
When most population in the world are complaining about the increasing price of petrol, residents in Jeddah are complaining about the ongoing water crisis. Indeed, the price of petrol in the biggest oil exporter in the world is much cheaper than the water itself. The water crisis has been a major problem in Jeddah (and in all other big cities in the Kingdom). The Water and Electricity Minister blamed the broken pipes for being the reason for water shortages, but I think it’s about time that this country needs to improve its desalination plants and water centres. The population of Jeddah keeps increasing; and had these plants been improved in the past few years, surely we would not have this kind of problem. It’s quite terrible, really… People in some dense areas near the city centre have to wait for one month or more for the water tanks to come (in the good old days, usually the water tank comes once a week or every two weeks). Residents may buy water if they want to, and that means they have to endure with the looooong queue at the Jeddah’s Water Centre in Tahlia. It was even reported that some people had to wait for 10 hours to get the water. What makes the situation worst is that: in this water centre, the Saudis are given the priority over the expatriates. So there are not many things we can do. But my family is actually very lucky. We have a number of Saudi neighbours in our residential area so they are the one who goes to the water centre hehehe. For other people who live in a building or complex with no Saudi residents in it, they have to wait for weeks for the water tank to come :(. In Saudi Arabia, water tanks come to each residential houses to fill in the wells, sometimes shared by more than 10 families in one single apartment building. In order to solve the ongoing water problem, the government has provided a temporary floating desalination plant and has started privatising its water sector to build a new desalination plant.
Saudi Arabia & Tourism
If I read Saudi newspapers nowadays, there are new projects and construction announced nearly every week. Be it the construction of a new economic city, a university, etc. It’s quite amazing to see these projects proceeding at almost the same time. And not to mention the number of constructions happening along the Jeddah’s roads (they are causing traffic jams everywhere). What could be the reason? Of course, the soaring price of oil has brought extra cash to the Saudis and the King is spending it for his country’s development. No doubt about that. This country has learnt from the neighbouring country of the United Arab Emirates to be less dependent on oil. And that means Saudi Arabia must look on other sectors to improve its economy.
One aspect that is worth mentioning is the establishment of a state-owned tourism body called Supreme Commission for Tourism (STC) in 2000. Isn’t it weird that the governments have just opened their eyes about the importance of tourism when actually millions and millions of pilgrims come to Saudi Arabia every year for Umrah and Hajj??? Hahaha… well… I guess, better too late than never :D. Anyway, STC does not only concentrate on religious tourism (Hajj & Umrah that is), but it will also play an important role in developing tourism attractions across the Kingdom. I think Saudi Arabia has a huge potential to attract many foreign tourists that would come here not only because of religious purposes. Already this country is famous for the beautiful Red Sea — one of the top ten diving destinations in the world. The fact that only a few people have been able to dive here means that many diving areas are untouched and are rarely explored. Madain Saleh, the Petra-version of Saudi Arabia which are the architectural remains of ancient Nabatean, has become an increasingly popular tourist site (I REALLY want to go here!!!). It was reported that more than 10,000 natural, historical, and cultural sites have [JUST] been identified and electronically documented in Saudi Arabia. I’m so eager to see those.
It is quite ashamed, really… in the period of 20 years living in this country, I never really get to explore other “unique” parts of Saudi Arabia. Apart from Madinah and Makkah, I have only been to Ta’if (which is a city about an hour drive from Makkah) and Abha (a popular tourist destination near Yemen). Lack of transports and travel restrictions are the reasons for this. Practically I cannot travel by my own or only with my friends; I have to travel with my “guardians” e.g. parents, but you know parents are always busy and have no time to do the travelling. And I guess this might be the reason why most Saudis would prefer travelling abroad than having a vacation in their own country.
For decades, there was no such term as “Tourist Visa” in Saudi Arabia. There are only “Umrah Visa” and “Hajj Visa” for Moslems who want to visit this country for religious purposes. So in an effort to improve tourism sector, STC began issuing tourist visas about a year ago. However, applying a visa to Saudi Arabia is still a bloody painful process for most foreigners. When I was coordinating an international forum in Jeddah, I had to get used to the complaints of my overseas clients. I was so frustrated that many of them got their visas rejected by the Saudi embassies abroad, even though the visa applications were handled entirely by the Jeddah Chambers of Commerce. The forum was organised by the government and unfortunately, they couldn’t even issue the damn visas. How stupid.
Public transports in Saudi Arabia are not as extensively available as in popular tourist destinations in other countries. Most buses only pass through popular places and sometimes segregation between male and female is enforced inside the bus (e.g. male passengers are on the front, while female passengers are on the back of the bus). During Hajj and Ramadhan, this segregation rule is ignored mainly because there are too many people to handle (except if Muttawa wants to get involved,… lol). In Jeddah, most buses are only for males (unfortunately!). Taxis are the only extensively available form of transport, but during hectic months they charge you at least 3 times than the normal price. Besides, taxis are not too safe for women (they must not travel alone), especially in Makkah. Trains do not exist in the western part of Saudi Arabia (Jeddah – Madinah – Makkah) and only a few of them exist in some parts of the country. There have been plans to improve the transportation system, like building a monorail between Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa but it won’t be available for the next 3 or 4 years (if the project funds are used wisely, i.e. not being corrupted). We have seen these kinds of delayed projects, like the expansion of Jeddah’s international airport. For years we have seen the plan of the new airport being shown everywhere inside the airport, but have these projects “really” begun? Well, not really. Yes, we saw a very little expansion in the airport but it’s definitely not like what’s described in the plan. Anyhow…, to conclude this… Saudi Arabia needs a good transport system inside its major cities! [Which one is easier, allowing women to drive or providing them with adequate transport systems?? 😀 ]
In terms of tourism, the Kingdom still has a loooong way to go. In my opinion, this country is not 100% ready to welcome foreign tourists, even though, yes… we’ve got so many Moslems coming here for Hajj or Umrah. In addition to the painful visa application process, the fact that women travellers cannot enter this country without a male guardian and cannot travel freely due to driving restrictions and lack of public transports, lack of public services, as well as other forms of restrictions could be the reasons why tourists would prefer travelling to other countries than to Saudi Arabia. Well, this is only the beginning and the fact that the governments are currently focusing on domestic tourism (encouraging Saudis to have a vacation in their own country rather than travelling abroad) is a great start. But in terms of international non-religious tourism, it will take years to function the way the governments want to be.
Alright, I think it’s time to wrap it up 🙂