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FEATURE-Marginalised Saudi city looks to U.N. for help

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, May 28 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is hoping that the United Nations will step in to help save the historic old city of Jeddah, whose unique Red Sea architecture is in danger of disappearing.

The ancient city in Saudi Arabia is in line to be included this year on the U.N.'s World Heritage List, which so far includes 830 sites including eight in Yemen and Oman, says Sami Nawwar, who is leading the effort to preserve Jeddah's past.

Head of tourism and culture at Jeddah municipality, Nawwar hopes to succeed finally in internationalising a battle begun over 20 years ago to instil respect for history and culture in a rapidly modernising society with little interest in such things.

"I used only to get foreign tourists and bored housewives. Now Saudi families, schools and students come to study architecture and heritage. Everybody is starting to be proud of it," he said in an interview.

"Now we have made an agreement with the education department in Jeddah to lecture in schools on the cultural history of the city, to do tours and involve male and female students in cleaning old buildings, beaches and the corniche."

Most of Saudi Arabia has been rebuilt entirely on the back of sudden oil wealth that filled state coffers in the 1970s. In the face of that flood, ancient Arabian cities such as Jeddah, Mecca and Medina have lost much of their unique heritage.

In Jeddah's old city, buildings still lie in narrow alleys running north-south and east-west to utilise sea winds and designed to create shadows that lessen the effects of the intense summer heat and humidity.

They are constructed with coral-stone slabs and blue wooden lattice windows called roshan, which give a unique flavour to architecture in historical towns in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea littoral.

"It's unique architecture ... and it doesn't belong to Saudi Arabia only but the whole world," Nawwar said.

"See how mankind used available materials to build a habitat that gives a good atmosphere, natural air conditioning, and natural windows that match culture and religion. It was the best use of materials to fulfil human and cultural needs."


Part of the vast Riyadh-based Saudi state since the 1920s, Jeddah has long complained of marginalisation but is benefiting from a new push to promote the country as a global tourist destination, especially for Muslims.

King Abdullah, who came to the throne in 2005, has backed the Saudi campaign to have old Jeddah, as well as the old desert city of Riyadh, called Dir'iyya, listed as heritage sites.

The city could do with the attention, Nawwar says.

Jeddah's 2 million population regularly swells with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims heading to the nearby Islamic holy city of Mecca, and many of the poorer among them try to stay on in the kingdom hoping for a better life.

In the 1980s many residents of the old quarter moved out with their new money. In their place came overcrowding, poor foreign migrants, and haphazard sewage and wiring. Around 10 percent of 570 traditional buildings have been lost to fire.

Now many of the buildings are abandoned and in a state of disrepair. New regulations say they cannot be demolished, extra storeys cannot be added beyond the maximum six, and banks can offer owners loans to restore them.

The municipality last year unveiled plans to develop the commercial centre and high rises are going up along its corniche, suggesting Jeddah could one day resemble the arriviste Gulf coast cities on the other side of the Arabian peninsula.

"I think they will build a high-rise city like Dubai. In ten years time Jeddah will be a different city," Nawwar said. "It has all the elements to succeed and it has no fake elements, it's authentic."
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