Rapper Ty Dolla $ign answered a few questions to his yelling Saudi fans on a stage inside Jeddah’s historical center, which serves as the major entrance for Muslim pilgrims traveling to Jeddah. The 41-year-old American, whose real name is Tyrone William Griffin Jr., screamed over the microphone during his performance at the Balad Beast music festival, “Where the hot girls at?” “How many of you are attempting to get high tonight after the show? How many of you are attempting to fade?
In conservative Saudi Arabia, which only permitted large-scale mixed-gender festivals approximately five years ago and has a stringent no-alcohol policy in place, the scene raised eyebrows. However, Ty Dolla $ign’s concert with Wu-Tang Clan and Major Lazer in Jeddah’s oldest district, Al-Balad, highlighted initiatives to revitalize the UNESCO World Heritage site and increase its appeal to younger Saudis and visitors.
In an effort to draw in millions more visitors, authorities in the world’s largest crude exporter, Saudi Arabia, are aiming to build 3,000 more hotel rooms in Al-Balad as part of Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious ambition to create a post-oil economy. The 2.5-square-kilometer (almost one square mile) neighborhood is undergoing transformation beyond festivals like Balad Beast thanks to an infusion of cafes, museums, performance venues, and workshops for artists and crafters.
Residents of Jeddah acknowledge feeling apprehensive about the changes in an area that is closely linked to the yearly hajj pilgrimage and customary Ramadan marketplaces. But it was difficult to tell from the throngs of ravers—some with glow sticks and glittering face paint—that crammed the four stages at Balad Beast. The majority of the women were bare-faced and had long hair. There was a moment when Ty Dolla $ign said, emphasizing with an expletive, “Every time I come to Saudi, it’s a vibe.”
A historic city with a contemporary feel
In the seventh century, al-Balad gained notoriety as a center for commerce and pilgrims. Following Jeddah’s conquest by King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s, the city’s walls enclosing Al-Balad, the center of the city, were demolished in 1947 due to the city’s rapid growth. But some of the gates and the characteristic coral-stone structures of Al-Balad—many of which have balconies constructed of latticed teak wood—remain intact.
Al-Balad was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2014, and in 2018 the ministry of culture started serious “revitalization” operations. Today, the ministry has built green barricades to safeguard restoration efforts being conducted on souks, or centuries-old marketplaces, mosques, and mansions.
According to Ali Assi Loush, a Lebanese DJ who has spent 20 years living in Jeddah, the neighborhood has become more vibrant due to the ever-growing calendar of festivals and art shows, drawing in visitors who might not have otherwise shown much interest in it. “No one from the younger age would visit Balad if it weren’t for Balad Beast or other current happenings. They would visit the beach,” he remarked. “Those outdated stores don’t pique their interest.”
He compared this cautiousness to that of a grandmother who won’t part with a cherished, albeit worn-out, chair and claimed that for some senior residents, however, the new additions can be startling. “Even if it is broken into bits, she would never allow you to remove it or discard it… It’s her chair, not mine. It’s the same thing, according to Loush. The majority of people, according to Saudi tour guide Abir Abusulayman, were optimistic about Al-Balad’s future, and those who weren’t might easily find a way to change their minds. She answered, “They can stay at home.” “Simple and easy.”
More significant developments in Jeddah, where a $20 billion reconstruction project is underway and might result in the displacement of half a million people, are contributing to the ongoing debate about what’s occurring in Al-Balad. The project’s proponents portray it as an improvement that will replace “slums” with features including an opera theater, an oceanarium, and a stadium. However, some impacted homeowners have expressed dissatisfaction at official depictions of their communities as drug and crime hotspots and have claimed that they are unsure of how to pursue compensation.
The tour guide, Abusulayman, stated she did not lament the destroyed communities because she believed better things would take their place, as the most of them were located distant from Al-Balad. “I’m relieved that they are no longer here. These were unplanned neighborhoods, she claimed, with no clinics, schools, or gardens, with some residents simply building homes without owning the property. Like those who danced late into the night during Balad Beast, she instead chose to concentrate on the novel aspects of life in Al-Balad.
Abdulrahman Alhabshi, 20, said, “I personally like to dress in a vintage style and this is the same thing, it’s the same vibe,” as pictures of the performers were projected onto adjacent walls. DJ AZM, Adnan Manjal, who was born in Jeddah, was also very enthusiastic about Al-Balad’s development. He declared, “It’s just amazing to see it turn into a dance floor as well as a UNESCO heritage site.” -AFP