Jeddah’s new airport and a slew of Saudi films
I had read all of the gushing articles by digital influencers who said that Saudi Arabia had changed and was now open to the world. But I had been away since 2019, so it was with some trepidation that I traveled back to Jeddah in November 2023.
Immediately when I landed at Jeddah’s ultra-modern airport I was impressed. (Although it had been inaugurated in 2019, air travel shut down during the pandemic.) Gone were the shabby North and South terminals of the old airport. One that an internet survey had once dubbed the worst airport in the world for passengers to sleep in while making long connections. There was even a little train that whisked passengers from their far gates to the main terminal.
Jeddah has always been the entry port for millions of Muslims coming to do Umrah or Haj in Makkah, a mere 100-kms away from Jeddah. So its airport has for decades been a hive of activity the whole year round.
My first encounter with women empowerment was at passport control where I faced several booths staffed by Saudi women wearing uniforms. As soon as I handed my passport to one of the women, she typed on her computer and asked me what had happened to my old Saudi passport. I explained that it had been stolen in Brazil during the pandemic, and the replacement document took nearly a year to be sent to the Saudi embassy in Brasilia from Riyadh. She very politely asked me to follow her to speak to one of her male colleagues. He asked me the same question and I explained what happened. He looked at my passport and checked my fingerprints and was soon assured that I wasn’t an imposter trying to enter the kingdom with someone else’s passport.
After retrieving my suitcase, I exited the baggage claim area and was faced with many Saudi men offering their taxi services. After getting some local currency out of an ATM, I chose a young fellow named Badr. He pushed my luggage cart to the lifts and we went down into the garage. There he loaded my luggage, and soon we were off down Madinah Road to my hotel. He told me that by day he worked in a fire extinguisher company and picked up passengers at the airport in the evenings to make some extra money.
The next day I went to the Red Sea Mall, an enormous shopping center not far from my hotel. There I saw many Saudi women walking around without any covering on their heads, one of the many social reforms carried out by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
And there were no signs of the once-dreaded religious police, who used to regularly patrol malls looking for women wearing too much makeup, showing too much hair or sitting with unrelated men in cafes and restaurants. They would at times shout at these women, and even occasionally hit them with a long rod. At their worse, they would arrest young men and women and take them back to their offices. They would then call the parents of these youngsters to inform them of their moral “mishaps” and asked them to come and get them. The youngsters would have to sign undertakings that they would never repeat the offenses.
In some cases of mutawa excesses, as the religious police are called in Arabic, was when they chased alleged moral infringers in their cars through the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh, causing terrible accidents in which some of the drivers were killed.
MBS, as the crown prince is referred to, has taken away most of the powers of the religious police, who remain in their offices without harassing the public as they once did.
Another reform that I was delighted to witness was that stores and restaurants no longer need to close for each prayer. In the past, any shopping trip in the evening would have to be meticulously planned around prayer times. If not, one ran the likely risk of being shut out of the stores during a prayer time and having to wait for them to reopen. That waiting period could range from 30 minutes to 45 minutes.
“I’m glad they did away with closing during prayer times,” one friend told me when I mentioned how nice it was now. “Most of the workers didn’t pray anyway, they just used the time to smoke and talk with co-workers,” he explained.
Cinemas are back
After an absence of 35 years, cinemas were allowed to operate in Saudi Arabia once again in 2018. Now Jeddah hosts the Red Sea Film Festival every year, inviting international movie stars and directors to participate, and the country is trying to attract Hollywood film makers to film in the country.
Already the 2023 Hollywood movie “Kandahar”, starring Gerard Butler, was filmed largely in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s deserts and mountains standing in for scenes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
My friend Faiza Ambah, who started out as a reporter at Arab News, and later worked for the Washington Post, has become a filmmaker. Luckily for me, two of her short films were being shown at the Hey Jameel Art Center in Jeddah.
“Noor Shams” is about a Saudi woman Uber driver in Jeddah, and her tumultuous relationship with her twentysomething son who works as a security guard, but who dreams of being a pop music star.
“My Vibe Jawwi” is a documentary about the youngsters who took part in filmmaking workshops given by groups of Saudi directors and producers in poorer neighborhoods of Jeddah.
I went one night with some friends and thoroughly enjoyed eating popcorn while watching my friend’s films. I had never been to the cinema in Saudi before this outing.
Saudi filmmakers, actors and producers are now making a slew of very good quality films and series that are being shown in local cinemas, and globally on Netflix. I recently watched “From the Ashes” on Netflix, a Saudi film about the infamous March 2002 fire at a girl’s school in Makkah, in which 15 girls died after the religious police did not allow the Civil Defense into the school compound, and stopped the girls from leaving the school as they were not wearing their head coverings.
The acting, directing and camera work were excellent, showing so much hidden talent that we didn’t realize we already had in Saudi Arabia.