Letters From Saudi Arabia: Jeddah to Lawrence’s Yanbu

This is the fifth part in a series about travels in Saudi Arabia, along the line of the Hejaz railway.


Pilgrims’ Way: the new high-speed rail station in the port city of Jeddah, on the Red Sea. The Chinese-built line connects Medina to Mecca, with a stop in Jeddah. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Uber took me to my Jeddah hotel, which I had booked for its proximity to the Corniche, a residential suburb with a promenade along the Red Sea. I thought I might be able to walk from my hotel to a beach, but the desk clerk explained that dangerous currents kept most visitors out of the Red Sea in that area. Instead I did what everyone else does, which is to walk by the water and eat picnics in the seaside parks.

When T. E. Lawrence first came to Jeddah in 1916, as part of a mission to explore an alliance with Arab tribes against the Turks, the city was little more than a small port miles down the coast. His campaign launched the reconfiguration of the Ottoman Empire, if not the modern Middle East and its political unhappiness.

Lawrence’s Jeddah: A Mirage

For me to get to Lawrence’s Jeddah, I had to ride in an Uber for more than twenty minutes, in the rush-hour traffic. In some ways, Jeddah differs little from American cities in southern California: it’s an agglomeration of interstates, traffic jams, and air conditioned malls.

Here’s how Korda describes Lawrence’s first glimpse of the port:

Lawrence may have been the only person in Cairo who would have thought of a journey to Jidda as a lark. A stifling, dusty rail journey from Cairo to Suez was followed by a sea journey of almost 650 miles on board a slow steamer taken over by the Royal Navy, the heat made bearable only by the breeze of the ship’s movement. “But when at last we anchored in the outer harbor,” Lawrence wrote of his first sight of Jidda, of the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage that swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and smote us speechless.”

My Uber dropped me near Al-Balad, a neighborhood of traditional Arabic houses now undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation, thanks to the Saudi government.

When it’s done, the historic quarter will have gift shops, restaurants, cafés, and hotels in historic buildings of stone with elaborate wooden shutters. Otherwise, about all there is to do in Jeddah is wander around the malls.

War’s End in Damascus

It was my good fortune to establish myself in an elegant outdoor café with plush seating, where I read Michael Korda’s Hero and fell into conversation with a local businessman and politician, who that afternoon drove me around the historic quarter in a golf cart so that I could see the house where Lawrence stayed in 1916. In turn, I showed them maps of Lawrence’s desert campaigns and the line of the Hejaz Railway.

Korda writes at length about Lawrence’s hope that he could get his irregular Arab forces into Damascus (the other end of the rail line) before the British army got there, as a way to forestall the Sykes-Picot agreement from devouring any Arab claims for independence. He writes:

Lawrence’s guilt at encouraging the Arabs to fight even though he knew they were not going to get what they wanted (and what they thought they had been promised) would become increasingly severe as the war went on and as his place in the Arab Revolt increased in importance. It was the reason why he would refuse to accept any of the honors and decorations he was awarded; it was at the root of his self-disgust and shame; it would eventually make him follow a strategy of his own, urging Feisal and the Arabs on in an effort to reach Damascus before the British or the French entered the city, and declare an independent Arab nation whose existence could not be denied at the peace conference—a grand, sublime gesture would, he hoped, render the Sykes-Picot agreement null and void in the eyes of the world.

In the end Lawrence’s men did get there slightly ahead of an Australian division under the ultimate command of General Allenby, but it did nothing to prevent either Britain or France from staking their colonial claims to the Middle East.

Red Sea Dreams

In planning my travels in Saudi Arabia, I hoped that to go from Jeddah to Cairo, my next stop, I might hitch a ride on a northbound cruise ship plying the waters of the Red Sea.

I had seen one such passage advertised on a discount cruise website that was offering three nights at sea (admittedly in a windowless cabin) for $211. In theory, the ship was to take me from Jeddah to Ain Sokhna in Egypt, and it included a stop in Yanbu, another coastal port that Lawrence went to in his campaigns that is otherwise difficult for land travelers to visit.

I signed up and paid for my discount Red Sea cruise, but spent the next month wondering if I had been scammed, as I never received anything that looked like a boarding pass or confirmation.

Finally, from my hotel room in Tabuk I called a help number on the website, read in my credit card and passport numbers, and found, to my relief, that I was free to board the ship in Jeddah anytime between 1 and 2 p.m. on the day of our sailing.

I might not be much of a cruise ship enthusiast (they strike me as floating Atlantic City hotels), but I asked myself how bad it could be to spend several days on the Red Sea in February, and to call in at Lawrence’s Yanbu, which otherwise I would never see.

Cruising the Red Sea

Even for $211, my cruise ship had every amenity: floor shows, restaurants, shops, swimming pools, aerobics classes, and jacuzzis. Feeding was non-stop, as were the briefing memos that were slid under my door during the day and night, alerting me to lifeboat drills, coastal explorations, movie times, dancing classes, and disembarkation procedures—all at exorbitant prices.

On arrival in Egypt, I had planned to hail a taxi by the docks and go to Suez, where I figured I could watch ships transit the canal for a while and catch Lawrence’s train to Cairo. But officialdom on the cruise ship nixed that casual, drive-by-day notion, and instead put me on an official bus to the Cairo airport (not that I wanted to go to the airport).

Mostly what I did on board the MSC Splendida was search around the many decks for a book-reading nook that had sunshine but was sheltered from the stiff, cold winds and still afforded me a view of the Red Sea.

Aligning all those stars wasn’t as easy as it should have been, but the ship was enormous and even on the third day I was discovering new decks and lounges where I could hide with my book, James Barr’s Lords of the Desert, which is a workmanlike history of British, French, and American imperialism in the Middle East.

The only thing I dreaded was dinner, as I was assigned to a table with only one other passenger, an American woman named Pam, who talked non-stop during each meal, which may explain why occasionally cruise ship passengers leap off their balconies.

In my case that was less of a risk, as my $211 bought a windowless stateroom lined with silk and mirrors that felt like Dracula’s coffin, assuming his had a minibar.

Reminders of the Police State

The port call in Yanbu was scheduled so that many passengers could board tour buses and ride several hours inland to Medina. As I was spared that pilgrimage, all I did was disembark with the first wave (still a convoluted process involving passports and luggage scanners) and walk to the old town opposite the docks.

There I took up a reading post in a local café that had sofas under broad awnings, which allowed me quiet time in the shade while I figured out how to find the Lawrence house museum.

While I was fussing with Google maps, a group of Arab men joined my shady corner, and after a while we fell into conversation. It turned out one of men was retired from the local police force, and he was taking his nephew and another friend out for coffee.

In joining me the retired cop (besides running a stakeout?) was hoping for a first-hand account of the cruise ship’s amenities, so I entertained the three men with stories about twenty-four hour buffets and piano bars that (in Saudi waters) only served lemonade and sparkling water. (Imagine tell Kojak about life on a cruise ship.)

Before leaving, my police friends told me where to find the Lawrence house, although when I showed up on its doorstep—a construction site—I learned that the “museum” is only a dream at this point.

There’s another house museum close by that is featured in various Lawrence articles on the internet (“Visit the Magical House of Lawrence of Arabia in Yanbu…”) but the kindly director there said that the claim was a hoax, although she allowed for the possibility that Lawrence might well have visited this particular traditional house on occasion.

Lawrence’s Yanbu

I cannot say I minded the deception, as I had Korda’s account of Lawrence’s visit in Yanbu (then spelled Yenbo), in which he writes: “Here Lawrence spent four days in the ‘picturesque, rambling house’ of Sheikh Abd el Kader el Abdo, Feisal’s ‘agent’ here—at this point Yenbo was by no means safe, since the local sharif and emir was known to be pro-Turk. While waiting for the Royal Navy to appear, Lawrence wrote down everything he had seen [on his visit to the interior of the Hejaz and his meeting with King Hussein’s son, Feisal].”

It was easy for me to imagine why Lawrence had liked the small port of Yanbu—fresh breezes and turquoise waters on the edge of the steaming desert—and how it allowed him time to think and reflect on a strategy that might drive the Ottoman Empire out of the Hejaz.

Lawrence might well be one of the godfathers of the modern Middle East (he had a hand in the creations of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq), but I think petrodollar nationalism would appall him.

Afternoon at the Oasis

Without having to linger over glass cabinets of Lawrence memorabilia, I decided to engage a local taxi driver to drive me to a nearby beach so that I could swim in the Red Sea. There are few good places for swimming near the port, so he drove about twenty-five minutes north of Yanbu to a public beach near some low-rise apartment buildings.

I changed in what felt like a Turkish prison but the swim was magical. The Red Sea was salty, buoyant, and refreshing. I understood why, on taking Aqaba, Lawrence rode his camel from the desert fighting directly into the sea.

Floating on my back in the azure waters, I could see desert and hills shimmering in the distant heat, allowing me to reflect that the Middle East is more tribal than national and that its borders no more reflect ethnic or political realities than those in Africa.

It reminded me of a frequently quoted remark that: “Iraq was created by Churchill [and, to be fair, Lawrence], who had the mad idea of joining two widely separated oil wells, Kirkuk and Mosul, by uniting three widely separated peoples, the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites.” How did that work out?

Earlier installments can be found here. Next: Cairo.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.