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Saudi Arabia’s Famous “Souks” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Saudi Arabia’s Famous “Souks”

Saudi Arabia’s Famous "Souks"

Saudi Arabia’s Famous “Souks”

Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- The past will always live on. It manifests itself, however, in ever-changing ways. Despite Saudi Arabia’s rapid pace of globalization, as especially exemplified by the modern marble and glass malls scattered throughout the Kingdom’s main cities, the country’s souks [old markets] bravely stand tall, and remain a focal point of contemporary life in Saudi Arabia.

Down along the narrow alleys of these souks, shoppers have been known to find unique treasures against a rich backdrop of many generations.

The souks of Saudi Arabia are a lingering reflection of social norms gone. Tolerance, simplicity, and kindness is brought back to life in these souks, wherein shopkeepers are more humane and care not about material gain. Some shopkeepers, for example, wouldn’t mind material loss as long as a new customer is gained in the process, or a regular pleased.

As part of its effort to boost tourism, the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), in cooperation with the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, has put its finishing touches on the first stage of a development and rehabilitation program for these souks. Such souks include ‘al Khoba’ in Jizan, ‘al Thulatha’ (Tuesday market) in al Makhwa, ‘Mehayil’ in Asir and ‘al Khamis’ (Thursday market) in Qatif.

Dr. Ali al Ghabban, the advisor to the secretary-general of the Culture and Heritage Department in the SCT said that such souks are rare in the world of trade and as such give Saudi Arabia tremendous tourism potential. According to figures of a survey the SCT ran, says Al-Ghabban, most of these souks end up fighting daily battles in order to preserve their traditional nature.

The ambiance of these souks must also be maintained, and perhaps improved, along with already existing problems in need to be tackled. For example, a development plan should be put forth, and investments should be encouraged, both of which represent key objectives set by the project’s developers.

Among the main obstacles these souks face is that other, more modern constructions were built within them, and so new buildings overlap earlier ones. Thus, each building’s activities interrupt the others. Also, these souks’ hours were never officially set. People come and go as they please. Although these appear to be but minor obstacles, in some cases, they have led the souk’s unique architecture to fade.

According to al Ghabban, four souks have been selected for the second stage of the SCT’s program, ‘Zahran al Janub’ souk in Asir, ‘al Naeyria’ souk in the eastern province, ‘Ha’el a Shaabi’ souk in Ha’el, and Mecca’s ‘al Quz’ souk. The Commission delegated the job of planning and designing to a consultancy office, who, in turn, will report to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs for final implementation of the project.

The city of Riyadh is a city well known for its souks, which are marked by the cheap goods of excellent quality that are usually on display.

Following is a list of the most popular souks in the bustling city:

Al Bat-haa Souk: Located in central Riyadh, this souk boasts various shopping malls and complexes. This souk is particularly busy on Fridays and is famous for its electronic goods and watches. The goods on sale are reasonably priced, but there is a plethora of Asian knockoffs, if you are looking for something cheaper.

Al Deira Souk: This souk is best known for its traditional goods, such as men’s traditional dress, garments and accessories from time long past. It also offers a range of silverware, antiques, old silver jewelry, in addition to Arab spices and traditional clothes.

Al Zel Souk: This souk is famous for its traditional Arabic rugs, antiques and ancient swords. Shopping at this market is almost like sightseeing, as tourists from all over the world flock to this market in search of goods.

But, Jeddah too, has its share of famed souks located along its popular streets. The most significant and ancient souks in Jeddah are: King Abdulaziz St., Qabel St., al Khasekia, al Nada and al Ashraf. These souks constitute Jeddah’s activity hub, while also being a source of trade and a gauge for economic activity, even though there is a multitude of modern markets throughout Jeddah.

King Abdulaziz St.: Until very recently, this street was believed to be popular only among the affluent of Jeddah. It is chiefly famous for its impressive shop windows in which expensive watches, perfume, jewelry, accessories and high-end fashion are displayed. Merchants have recently confirmed, however, that the majority of shoppers are comprised of people visiting Jeddah, as opposed to residents who mostly go shopping during Ramadan when trade reaches its peak.

King Abdulaziz St boasts such big names as: The al Malika Building, al Mahmal, Baqshan, al Ghazali and al Gazzaz centers. These names represent the best and most prominent commercial landmarks of Jeddah. Constructed in 1960, the Malika building was Jeddah’s first skyscraper; it towers over the city at 35 floors high. Since then, the street has been known for its tall buildings and huge centers, which gives the commercial heart of Jeddah a bit of a cultural feel.

Qabel St.: Known to be one of Jeddah’s most ancient souks, upon entering Qabel street, you cannot help but notice the shop windows and the breathtaking jewelry. Just a few steps away lay currency exchange shops that have been there for many years and stand defiant today against the glitzy shops that have spread around it.

Historically, Mecca has occupied a strategic commercial location and was a central route for ancient caravans, also acting as a main destination for merchants worldwide. Surrounded by mountains, this city has always been a primary meeting point for merchants from all around the Arab Peninsula and neighboring Asian and African countries.

Some of Mecca’s most popular souks are: ‘al Judria’, ‘al Mudai’, ‘al Maala’, al Sagheir (small) market, ‘Halat Jerul’, ‘Gaza’ and ‘al Badw’. Mecca is considered to be the ideal location for shoppers, offering a range of goods and catering to every taste. It is common knowledge that the hawkers in Meccan markets are a force to be reckoned with. They stand by the old shops that sell prayer mats, traditional clothes, toys, accessories, souvenirs, spices, and a vast array of cosmetics.

In the tourist city of Abha, the capital of Asir province, the traditional Tuesday market provides a meeting place where merchants, consumers and intellectuals can gather to chat and exchange goods. Also increasingly popular in Asir is ‘Ibn Madhan’ market which is one of the oldest markets in the area. However, due to urban expansion and the need to meet living requirements, the Governor of Asir, HRH Prince Khalid al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, has issued a decree to revitalize the role of traditional markets over an area that is approximately 14,953 square meters. The area is oval shaped and is divided into pedestrian paths, an open court and 100 shops. The aforementioned market is marked by a dynamic economic activity. Goods sold on a daily basis include clothing, coffee, spices and other such necessities, while weekly activity includes the sale of livestock, handicrafts, farming tools and leather and wood wares.

The Jizan province markets are distinguished by their simplicity and are a social, economic and familial meeting place on weekdays. Previously, these markets were a place for reconciliation among disputing tribes in addition to being the location where commercial agreements were finalized. These markets also served as place of gathering for the poets from that age who would read their poems and exchange views in symposiums over their literary achievements.

Owing to its unique location, the Thursday market in al Hars, which lies in close proximity to the Saudi-Yemeni border, is replete with Yemeni goods and commodities. Among the most popular products are the famous Yemeni coffee, rare mountain fruits, honey and butter. The Thursday market is also known for selling wild and tame predatory animals.