A Report from the first and only “Towards the First World” Exhibition
The exhibition ‘Towards the First World’ was inaugurated by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on October 11, 2008. The one of a kind event was organized not by a private entity, but by the Makkah Province Governorate and coincided with the establishment of the new Makkah Council.
Echoing Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal’s re-occurring statement — ‘.‘ — the exhibition’s name is inspired by the recently announced slogan for the Makkah Council. Housed under a temporary tent structure on Jeddah’s northern shore, the exhibition introduced residents and visitors to sixteen mega development projects that are scheduled for execution within the coming three years in the Makkah Province, which includes not only the city of Mecca but also Jeddah. The exhibition’s opening, timed almost simultaneously with the world’s acknowledgement of a global crisis, seemed unaware as the rest of the world braced for a halt to development.
A quick glance at the projects reveals the diverse nature of the event, from the absurdly extravagant; a one kilometer high skyscraper, to the undeniably essential; the expansion of Jeddah’s King AbdulAziz International airport.
Present at the inauguration was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal who introduced Kingdom Holding’s next Kingdom Tower, this time for Jeddah. The tower, and the new city surrounding it, took most of the international media attention that the event was able to garner. It also immediately affected real estate prices in and around the project’s planned area, even before the exhibition was over. The project is estimated to be a $27 billion investment to accommodate 80,000 people on 7.1 million square meters of land north of Jeddah.
Open for a full three months, not to mention the first three months of the world’s descent into economic fear, the event is incomparable to other real estate exhibitions in the region. In surprising contrast to most real estate exhibitions, this exhibition was sponsored by the national government and was aimed at a different audience: the general public. It is difficult to dismiss the notion that the exhibition was also targeting investors – perhaps giving assurance that King Abdullah Economic City wasn’t the only investment in the region. But, the public touch made for a markedly different experience.
Despite or perhaps as a result of the global crisis, the exhibition did not garner much international media attention. In contrast, local and national media coverage was extensive. The models attracted about 1,000 visitors a day and up to 5,000 female visitors on weekends. Visitors were invited to lectures, workshops, panel sessions and folkloric dance performances. Even school groups attended, with children participating in their own drawing competitions. Were these activities planned to boost attendance numbers or to incorporate development into daily life and family entertainment? It might be difficult to determine, but it was clear the exhibition was wrapped in national pride.
Whether it is a strategy to draw interest and investment or just to answer public curiosity, in the end, the event did achieve its progressive goal of informing the public about what is going on around them, a sort of let’s-feel-good-about-ourselves syringe. On the other hand, the regional authorities have now increased the that they must live up to, not in the least helped by the deteriorating infrastructure condition of its largest urban settlement, the so called “Bride of the Red Sea”; Jeddah, as almost a year later a quick rain revealed how unsure the region could be.
Jeddah, February 7, 2010