The operation was part of a $20 billion cleanup and construction project that will displace half a million people in Saudi Arabia’s second city — and has sparked rare displays of public anger in the kingdom.
Authorities are pitching the development as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s latest ambitious project, one that will replace “slums” with amenities such as a stadium, oceanarium and opera house.
But on the coast of Jeddah, where crushed concrete and twisted metal now surround the stricken streets, residents are concerned about official descriptions of their lost neighborhoods as unwanted hotbeds of drugs and crime.
Instead, they accuse the government of destroying vibrant, diverse working-class neighborhoods that once polished Jeddah’s reputation as the most open destination in the highly conservative country.
‘We have become strangers in our own city. We feel suffering and bitterness,” said the doctor, who now rents housing and still pays $400 a month for his personal loan, which is secured against the land on which the house is built.
The prospects of renegotiating the loan or claiming damages remain unclear, the doctor added, who declined to be identified — like the other residents in this story — for fear of retaliation from authorities.
Paused for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, demolition work is expected to ramp up again in May. Jeddah officials did not respond to AFP’s request for comment about the project.
Often referred to as the “Gateway to Mecca”, Islam’s holiest city, Jeddah is a lively tourist center with beachfront restaurants and galleries, which has hosted a major film festival and Formula 1 Grand Prix in recent months.
Long before Prince Mohammed embarked on a push for social liberalization to soften his country’s extremist image, the Red Sea coast city enjoyed a measure of freedom that spawned its motto, “Jeddah ghair,” or “Jeddah is different”.
But the demolition threatens to fuel anti-government sentiment in the more than 30 targeted neighborhoods, many of which housed a mix of Saudis and foreigners from other Arab countries and Asia.
Evicted residents had lived in the homes for up to 60 years, said ALQST for Human Rights, an NGO.
Some were evicted when their power and water were cut off, or were threatened with jail time for disobeying a deportation order, it added.
In the southern Galil neighborhood, which was first demolished last October, a resident calling his name Fahd said security forces had seized cell phones to prevent images from coming out.
“We were suddenly evicted from our homes overnight and without warning,” he told AFP.
Early this year, however, the news circulated widely, with the hashtag “#hadad_jeddah” or “Jeddah_demolition” in Arabic trending on Twitter.
Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi activist and scholar at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has made efforts online to publicize details of the demolition.
“It is unacceptable to demolish citizens’ homes without their consent, and before compensating them at an appropriate price sufficient to move them to a new place,” he said.
During a recent visit to a neighborhood rocked by demolition work, an AFP journalist spotted several blocks where most of the buildings had been leveled.
On some of those still standing, authorities had written a single word in red: “Evacuate”.
A sign told residents to leave with their belongings and advised them to upload documents to a government website to request compensation.
The Saudi government has promised to reimburse families and announced in February that it would have completed 5,000 replacement homes by the end of the year.
But residents interviewed by AFP, including those who were evicted early, said they had received nothing so far and there was no clear way to assess the value of their destroyed homes.
“Months have passed and I have not received compensation for my house. I have gone from homeowner to a tenant struggling to pay his rent,” Fahd said.
The ALQST survey also found that some residents had not been given clear information about claiming compensation, or had even been told it was available.
Officials defend the project, saying it will modernize the city with 17,000 new housing units, while retaining its character.
And they continue to denigrate the affected areas, with the mayor of Jeddah saying in a televised interview that vandalism was taking place in places that were “a den of crime”.
Such descriptions disturbed men like Turki, a Saudi Jeddah resident who had lived in the house his grandfather built, where he grew up and where, before the bulldozers and wrecking balls came, he intended to raise his children.
Turki went back to see what had become of the property, and the scene brought him to tears.
“The sound of demolition was everywhere,” he said. “With rubble everywhere, it felt like doomsday.”