I arrived in Jeddah by way of London shortly past 6 a.m. local time. It was dark outside. The air was lukewarm. The first thing I saw as I stepped out of the airport was people lying on the ground. Cars appeared to have been abandoned here and there along the roads on the way to my hotel. Trash was scattered by the roadside. The gap between rich and poor must be wide, I thought.

I’m in Saudi Arabia now. The catalyst for my trip to Saudi Arabia was a speech that Mr. Shimizu of the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry’s Industrial Finance Division delivered at a Japan Private Equity Association meeting held last year. I decided to take part when he deplored the conditions that existed in Japan and insisted, “We will inaugurate a government business mission aimed at attracting capital from overseas.” Basically, I’m the type of person who is driven by passion.

But I had never taken part in a group tour called a “mission” before. The reason is simple: I’m not good at working in groups. For that reason, I’m travelling to and from Saudi Arabia by myself for this mission, too. Moreover, I didn’t have high expectations for what this mission could achieve. I thought true investors would not come to meet with a mission like this in the first place. I also felt that luring investment from the Middle East would not be easy.

So why did I join? I took part in this trade mission because (1) I empathized with the mission organizer, as already mentioned, (2) I was very curious about Saudi Arabia, and (3) the mission was an easy side trip for me as it was scheduled immediately after the Davos Forum.

And seeing that I was travelling to Saudi Arabia, I decided to visit a friend in Jeddah. But my time was limited because my schedule immediately before and after the trip had been fixed. I was due to arrive in Jeddah at 6 a.m. on a night flight from London and to leave for Japan on a night flight the following day. I could stay in Jeddah and Riyadh for a combined total of a little over 40 hours.

After arriving in Jeddah, I did some light work, took a nap and headed to my friend’s office at 10 a.m. I arrived about 30 minutes late thanks to a very obscure cab driver. My friend is a high-profile figure who has served as International Chairman of a global organization of young presidents called the YPO. His office displayed several photos of him with global leaders. He appeared wearing a white thawb. We exchanged opinions on subjects, including the situation in Egypt and economic conditions in Saudi Arabia. I also asked him for some advice on places to visit in Jeddah.

Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, with a population of 3.6 million. Facing the Red Sea, the city is also a gateway to two of the three Moslim sanctuaries, Mecca and Medina. Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Pilgrims assemble at Kaaba. Medina is the place where Muhammad died. There is a mosque in the city that stands on his burial ground. Only Moslims can visit these two cities. I decided to spend time after the meeting on seeing sights in Jeddah.

First, I walked around the old part of Jeddah (called a souk). The sunlight was painfully strong. I felt like a world away from the snow-covered mountains of Davos, where it was 20 degrees below zero, to a desert city facing the Red Sea. In a t-shirt, I felt the hubbub of an Arabian city in my body as cars passed through the Jeddah streets.

Women with faces covered in black niqabs and wearing abayas walked past me on a street. In contrast, men covered their bodies with white thawb and wore guthras on their heads. I could hear the Koran being sung solo. The intense sun attacked me with no mercy. At that point, I suddenly realized that what Saudis wear is very functional.

A heavy rain that occurred a week earlier was said to have flooded many parts of the country and resulted in some fatalities. There were huge puddles in the streets and they prevented me from moving around. Climate change is having an effect on Jeddah, too. I saw abandoned cars throughout the city. I had planned to visit the house where Lawrence of Arabia had lived, but I could not get there because a flood blocked my way.

Football was a topic of conversation during my cab rides. Drivers told me things like, “The Japanese team played well in the final last night. Japan beat us 5-nil.” Feeling proud to be Japanese, but sensitive to the feelings of drivers, I responded, “Your team beat us 3-2 in the last Asian Cup.” We understood how each other felt through these exchanges.

After a light lunch, I headed to a private beach club that my friend had introduced to me. Changing into my swimsuit, I went for a swim in the Red Sea. Peering through my goggles, I could see tropical fish swimming in the highly lucid water. I made about 30 round trips in parallel with the seashore. Swimming with the colourful fish, I almost felt like a fish myself.

I saw young men and women in swimsuits chatting on the beach at the private club. Wondering if that was tolerated in outside Saudi society, I asked my guide to take me to a public beach. As I had expected, all the women there wore abayas, except for the young girls. I didn’t see any women in a swimsuit. The sight of women dressed in black hanging out along the seashore was an extraordinary experience. According to my guide, women “are not permitted to take off their abayas, even when they swim.”

There was a mosque near this public beach. My guide taught me the main points covered in the Koran, the teachings of Islam, and commandments observed by Muslims.

The taxi travelled along the coast. Returning to my hotel early, I took a rest and then headed to Jeddah airport. There was no way for me to know at that point that the following tweet I made from Jeddah airport would lead me to an unexpected new encounter in Riyadh:

“I’m at Jeddah airport now. I’m flying to Riyadh. I’ll join a government mission in Riyadh early tomorrow morning.”

February 6, 2011
Yoshito Hori
At my house in Sanbancho