A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
30 October 2016
I have never been to Saudi Arabia… which makes this a first for Ex Utopia. Generally speaking, I have no interest in posting about places I haven’t visited for myself; or rather, I didn’t until just a few weeks ago when I received an email with the irresistible title, ‘Urban Exploration in Saudi Arabia.’
“I represent a collective of urban explorers in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” the email read. “Jeddah has a lot to offer in this department and we are good at it. Currently, we are the only self-proclaimed Urban Exploration group in Saudi Arabia and one of the handful in the Middle East.”
I was intrigued.
One of my favourite things about writing this site is how it brings me into contact with interesting, like-minded people from all around the world. Over the years I’ve got to meet a lot of them, too; hanging out with urban explorers in places like Russia, Hong Kong, Cuba and Serbia, for example. I would have done the same in this case… but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to get into. The country doesn’t issue tourist visas and so without either a pilgrimage visa for Mecca, or official invitation by a Saudi company, an interview seemed as close as I was going to get to this story.
So that’s what we did. I was fascinated to know what recreational trespass looked like in the Middle East, and over the course of an hour-long interview A2 and T would tell me all about their urban exploration in Saudi Arabia; the risks, the rewards, and how the practice was flavoured by the cultural and political landscape of the region.
First of all, could you tell me a little about what you do?
A2> We are a group of urban explorers in the city of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. We explore the abandoned and derelict buildings of the city.
And where does the name ‘WATA’ come from?
A2> Well, W. A. T. A. – or Wata – is a collection of our initials. But two of the founding members quit, early on, due to personal reasons. So right now it’s just me – A2, the second A – and T.
I honestly think we are the only self-proclaimed urban exploration group in Saudi Arabia. We might be one of the few in the entirety of the Middle East. I’m sure other people sometimes check out these sites on their own… just to have a look… but they wouldn’t call themselves ‘urban explorers.’
When did you start doing this? What inspired you?
A2> We started in the later months of 2015 – and our main inspiration actually came from the Youtubers called On the Roofs. Have you heard of them?
They did that incredible climb didn’t they, the Shanghai Tower – have you seen that one?
A2> I’ve seen all of their videos, we are big fans.
You mentioned ‘abandoned and derelict buildings’ just now, but On the Roofs seem to focus more on climbing infrastructure… cranes, bridges, things like that. Do you ever explore those kinds of places as well?
T> We do explore buildings under construction – mostly in the hope of being able to climb a crane – but usually these are locked.
A2> And building sites here have security. So sometimes we end up getting caught and we have to explain ourselves to the security guards… we call them ‘Haras,’ that’s the word in Arabic. We’ll explain our predicament to them and they usually allow us to take a few photographs… but they’d never allow us to climb a crane.
Does the concept of ‘urban exploration’ seem strange to these guards?
A2> Yes, they find it very strange. They don’t understand why someone would want to climb unfinished buildings just for the purpose of photography. Although, one time we actually showed the guard our pictures, and he was impressed.
I won’t pretend to know the laws where you are. What’s the situation there, regarding trespass? Would urban exploration be considered illegal?
A2> Yes, there is a law against trespass here – but it’s enforced at the property owner’s discretion. The most common assumption people have when they catch us is that we’re trying to find a hiding place to do drugs… which is a problem here, because drug trafficking has increased recently and if we came under suspicion then it would be bad for the both of us.
Once when we were exploring an abandoned printing press, we were caught by the security guard and his first question was to check if we had drugs. Both of us were extremely scared at that moment… but we showed our identification, explained who we were, that we were photographers. After realising that we were just teenagers taking photos, he instructed us to delete all the pictures we’d taken, in front of his eyes. Then he let us go. We were fortunate that he was so reasonable.
If you hadn’t been so fortunate, what would be the worst possible outcome?
A2> If we were unlucky, the worst possible outcome would be that we were sitting in jail. That is the fear in our heads every time we go exploring. We have to be extremely careful…
And what about other people? What is the attitude there, towards what you’re doing? Would witnesses call the police, if they saw you sneaking in somewhere?
A2> It depends on what they think. They might think we were doing drugs… but if they see the camera equipment, I hope they’d realise we were just trying to take some cool pictures. They would probably confront us directly rather than reporting it.
But despite the risks, you’re still doing it. So what are the best experiences you’ve had? What is it that keeps you exploring?
A2> The best experience we’ve ever had while urban exploring was at an abandoned apartment. It was barricaded, but you can climb in through a window. We’ve been there at least three to four times, maybe even five, because… it has a personal connection to us. We’ve passed it almost every other day, and finally when we explored it we saw so much… we saw someone’s entire life. It was like a snapshot of the 1990s – when it was abandoned – like time had stopped.
We found a lot of items there. We even found items from the 90s which we weren’t able to recognise… like a dot matrix printer, and a Sega Genesis. We found VHS tapes… we even found the person’s ID card. I remember the picture… he appeared to be someone who visited America frequently, because we found things like 1996 McDonalds cups celebrating the Atlanta Olympics.
I was honestly tempted to take one or two items… but that would be stealing, and I follow the rules of Leave only footprints and don’t take anything that isn’t yours. Although if the place does get demolished in future – which I think might happen – then I might take some of the stuff. There’s no use just letting things get turned into dust.
It sounds like the occupants left in a hurry. Do you have any idea why a place like that would have been abandoned?
A2> There is a system of belief here associated with haunted houses… once they are haunted with these spirits called Jinns, you cannot visit them again. What happens is usually they bring over a religious authority, sort of like a priest, to come and check the building. If he confirms that Yes, the building is haunted… well, ‘haunted’ isn’t exactly the correct term. ‘Occupied’ is better. So if the building is occupied by a Jinn, then the advice is to leave. To move out.
After that, usually it ends up being abandoned. People leave in a hurry, so they leave a lot of stuff behind. Many of their belongings, their furniture, things they can’t carry out quickly.
People reading this won’t necessarily know much about the Jinns. Would you be able to explain a little more about them?
A2> Well, Jinns are spirits. My knowledge of Jinns is limited, but… the broader meaning is ‘demon’, and it comes from Islamic mythology and theology. They’re like sapient creations of God. Like human beings, the Jinns can be benevolent or evil and they have free will. Like other demons they can possess you, they can mess around with you for their own personal enjoyment…
Clearly, the building’s former residents believed in Jinns…
A2> Most people do. It’s a part of the religion.
But it doesn’t seem to put you off. I’m guessing you’re not convinced?
A2> No. We’re not really convinced.
T> We are not very religious in that sense, so we don’t mind exploring a building that is said to be occupied by a Jinn.
Does it ever scare you, though? Exploring a place that most people around you believe to be occupied by potentially harmful spirits…
A2> Well… The first time we went, we actually left in terror.
We’ve explored the site three times at night, and once in the day. The first time we visited, at night, we reached the first floor and there was a white cat sitting there… it wasn’t reacting, it was just staring at us. I went closer to it, I stood right over it and it didn’t even move. The cat had probably lived there its entire life, and never seen a person in the apartment… but it’s a common belief in Islam that the Jinn can take the form of a cat, so that was quite alarming.
We were all really creeped out, and by the time we reached the second floor it was the middle of the night. Our flashlights weren’t really that bright and there was some grime that looked like blood… so we just fled the site.
We visited the second time with four people, and that was better. The whole WATA team.
Safety in numbers! So now that WATA is just the two of you, are you looking for more people to explore with?
A2> If it’s someone that we trust and someone that’s actually into it, then yes. We’ve had people asking if they can join us, but we have to vet them first – to see if they’re trustworthy, with no malicious intent. I guess maybe in the future there could be more of us…
Could you imagine meeting female urban explorers where you are?
A2> Actually, we were contacted by a woman who wanted to join us… but then I had to decline. Here, there is a law that prohibits gender mixing if you’re unrelated. So if a woman is seen going into dark and shady spots with men who aren’t her relatives, the police might get involved.
I guess the potential for misinterpreting that situation is worse…
A2> It’s much worse.
How about your friends – do you ever talk to them about what you’re doing?
A2> Well, I have mentioned who we are only to a few of our friends, a select few. A lot of them seem enthusiastic about the idea, claiming they want to join… but usually they’re fickle about it. After actually doing it once they don’t like the idea anymore. It’s incredibly frustrating.
What puts them off?
A2> The fear. The fear that at any moment the police could come looking, a security guard could come walking around… or potentially finding stuff like used needles. In fact, we were just making a recce at one spot last week and we did find a bunch of matchsticks, spoons, a musty bed… it looked like someone had been abusing heroin.
I guess you’re always going to find places like that in a big city. What’s the population of Jeddah, anyway… is it 3 million people? Just over?
A2> In Jeddah there is an official census… but the unofficial population will be much higher. Since Jeddah is one of the more developed cities here, and on the opposite coast there are countries like Sudan and Egypt, usually illegal immigrants come by boat… so you can never know the actual population of the city.
Does it change through the year as well? You’re very close to Mecca there…
A2> Yes, we are very close to Mecca, so it depends on the time of the year. During the Hajj season, which is the pilgrimage season, most of them stay in Mecca and Medina but some come to Jeddah for tourism… just to have a look at the city.
Would that put you off exploring at that time of year?
A2> Yes, there’d be much more security… so it’s not advisable to be exploring at that time of year.
Do you think there’s any chance you’d ever try urban exploring in Mecca itself?
A2> Uhhh… no way. I’ve actually been to that place and there’ll be at least one or two million people in the urban area, so every place is watched. There are people everywhere, it’s a very dense city, so it’s next to impossible. Sort of like asking if you can do urban exploration in the Vatican…
Fair enough. So we’ve already spoken about abandoned apartments and construction sites… but what about underground locations? Have you explored anything like that in Jeddah?
A2> No… and I don’t think you’d find anything underground to explore in the city. I have seen a few points where you can gain access to the sewers and to the underground canals, but usually those are very well protected. They have a fence, and the entrances are in very public locations. Maybe you could pull off the white shirt, black pants, hard hat and a clipboard thing… but it would be weird if you were seen jumping a fence while wearing that.
I’ve read some interesting things about the ancient history of Saudi Arabia. I understand that thousands of years ago, the Nabatean Kingdom was there building tunnels, aqueducts, cisterns…
A2> Yes, they were famous for urban planning.
Exactly. So I’m wondering – do you ever hear stories about ancient tunnels, or hidden underground spaces?
A2> Yes, these things exist… but not in Jeddah. You’d have to travel a bit further than that to see some of these Nabatean sites. I have been to most of the Nabatean sites in this country.
I also read that the Tomb of Eve – as in, Adam and Eve – is located in Jeddah.
A2> The Tomb of Eve… yes, it is here in Jeddah. The word ‘Jeddah’ literally means ‘Grandmother’ in Arabic, because the Tomb of Eve is here and according to the Abrahamic religions, she is our great grandmother.
Suffice to say, you’ve got some pretty impressive history there. So what’s the oldest building you’ve explored?
A2> Well, the oldest place where I’ve engaged in urban exploration was abandoned in the late 80s or maybe early 90s. That isn’t much, but that’s what you get here. Buildings from the early 20th century do exist, but they’re already well-established tourist attractions.
There is a place in Jeddah known as the Old District, where most of these buildings are… you can go for tours, but it doesn’t have a very urbex feel. It has a tourist feel. The area is very densely populated and since they’re tourist attractions, there is a lot of security.
Most of the buildings I’ve explored are in residential areas… which means that we usually have to take a recce one or two days ahead, to check when there’ll be people around… check the best times to get in, to get out.
I don’t know if this is different from places in Europe, but the best time to get in here is actually during the day. Right in the middle of the afternoon. Because we’re in the desert, no one is outside during the day… but everyone spends the entire night outside. So right in the middle of the afternoon is usually the best time. When people are hiding from the sun, just chilling at home, or at work.
And what sort of temperatures would you typically have in the middle of the day?
A2> Since we’re a coastal city, there isn’t much fluctuation when it comes to temperature. In the summer the average usually ranges just from 38 degrees celsius to 46… sometimes it touches 50.
A2> That’s hot, yeah… you can cook an egg on the street. Then in the winter the temperatures typically range from 26 degrees celsius to 18, or 17 degrees. During that time I wear a cardigan to explore.
Do you tend to encounter much wildlife while you’re exploring? Do you ever need to worry about snakes, spiders, anything like that?
A2> We would have to worry about that if we were in the middle of the desert, but we are exploring an urban centre – so the only wildlife we meet are insects. Maybe we’d find a snake on a rooftop, or on the stairs, which we have to watch out for… but that’s it.
Is there anything to explore out in the desert… abandoned buildings, ghost towns?
A2> Empty towns? No. And usually if a town is empty, it is empty for a good reason… so you wouldn’t exactly want to explore there. Constant sandstorms, unstable locations…
Do you ever see abandoned mosques, or find other religious sites to explore?
A2> To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen any abandoned mosques.
I explored one once in Turkey…
A2> Turkey is… well, I think it’s a very different culture.
T> I have seen abandoned mosques, but usually they’re barred and no one enters them.
A2> But it would be disrespectful to enter an abandoned mosque and… what would there be to explore there? I mean, we have calligraphy inside mosques, usually on the roofs, similar to the frescos churches have, but it would be sort of disrespectful to enter a mosque just for that.
T> And the abandoned mosques I’ve seen weren’t actually in urban centres… they’re normally out on highways, like at truck stops.
Closer to home then, in Jeddah, are there places you’ve set your sights on exploring next?
A2> Yes, a bunch of abandoned malls actually. I cannot name them, but if anyone from the city reads this then I’m pretty sure they’ll know where we’re talking about.
We hope that one day we can finally climb the Kingdom Tower. If the plan is completed, it will be the tallest building on earth. If I remember correctly, it will be a little short of one kilometre… it will be multi-purpose, including a hotel and office space.
Although… I’m sure On the Roofs will reach there before us.
They certainly seem to get around, though you never know – they might have difficulty getting a Saudi visa. What about you, though? Have you travelled much outside of the country?
A2> I have travelled to Western Europe before, and some parts of Asia.
Did you do any urban exploration while you were there?
A2> No, it’s an interest I have developed since then.
And is there anywhere high on your list for future trips?
A2> Eastern Asia. Countries like Japan, where most of the older sites are completely preserved, safe from vandals… like literal time capsules.
We have plans to explore places in Eastern Europe as well, because we are fascinated with Soviet history. We would like to explore… I do not remember exactly, but… it was a stadium in Eastern Europe. I believe it was in Bulgaria, and it was used for conferences…
Was it shaped like a flying saucer on top of a mountain?
A2> I believe so, yes.
That’ll be the Buzludzha Monument… definitely worth a visit, if you ever make it to Bulgaria! One last question: What would you say to readers in Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere in the Middle East, who are curious about trying urban exploration for themselves?
A2> For any budding urban explorers out there in the Middle East, do know that one thing never changes, wherever you are: the Spirit. The spirit of adventure and respect for buildings and places which are abandoned. It might be difficult to explore here, due to many factors, but if you are truly into it… it’s worth it.