By Asma Alsharif
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - In the heart of Saudi Arabia's sprawling Red Sea port city of Jeddah, centuries-old buildings tilt and buckle above the historic district's narrow alleys, withering away in the absence of decisive action to protect them.
The seventh-century historic district, with its mud and coral town houses adorned with ornate wooden balconies, holds the only remnants of the traditional architecture of the Hijaz, as the western Arabian Peninsula is known.
But while Jeddah is building the world's tallest tower as part of a modernization drive, efforts to preserve its oldest area are faltering.
"Every time I walk and see these houses it hurts," said Abir AbuSulayman, who lives in the modern part of Jeddah but lobbies for the restoration of the old city.
"I wasn't born here or ever lived in the area but I can feel how important it is and I feel proud that we have real history."
Restoration efforts have been left largely in private hands because Saudi authorities cannot by law intervene to renovate the privately owned homes in the district. Locals say the government has not shown enough interest in resolving the problem, or in breaking a logjam in financing the improvement of the area's public infrastructure.
As a result, a quarter of the houses in the district's square kilometer have collapsed, burnt down or been demolished in the past decade because home-owners cannot afford costly renovations and have little interest or incentive to do so.
Houses where the wealthiest Jeddah merchants once lived are now cheap dwellings for poor foreign laborers, beggars and illegal immigrants. Of the historic district's estimated 40,000 inhabitants, fewer than 5 percent are Saudis, the district's mayor Malak Baissa estimated.
Webs of intertwined cables cascade down the houses' dilapidated facades while satellite dishes hang from their cracked walls and rusty air conditioners protrude from their rotting wooden balconies.
A previous effort to list the historic area as a UNESCO world heritage site, which officials say would jumpstart restoration work, failed in part because there was no realistic master plan.
The government plans to resubmit its application to UNESCO this month, and this time has included proposals to encourage home-owners to restore their properties under expert guidance with loans and other financial incentives, as is the practice in some other countries with huge restoration projects.
"We are very optimistic that once it is registered everybody will come forward and be enthusiastic about (the restoration)," said Abdulgader Amir, the municipality's vice mayor for strategic planning.
Jeddah's humid climate rots the houses' wood and erodes their walls, meaning they require constant maintenance. Local laws stipulate that this be done with mud and coral limestone drawn from the Red Sea, using costly traditional building techniques.
"The house will deteriorate if there is no one to take care of it. Like an old garment, if you don't patch it up it will disintegrate," said Younis al-Jazar, among the few Saudi citizens who still live in the area, where he was born and raised.
Costs of restoration vary depending on the size and extent of damage to a house, but can range from 50,000 riyals ($13,000) to over 3 million. Jazar said regular maintenance on his family home costs at least 6,000 riyals a year.
The local property market further discourages restoration efforts: new buildings in the area can command rents of 50,000 riyals a year compared with 2,400 for old houses.
"They (owners) know they are sitting on a very valuable land in the city center. They want to get rid of the old houses to build new structures," Amir said.
Of 600 old houses counted a decade ago only 450 remain.
Although the central government has instructed the city to spend $53 million to help restore the public parts of the district, the money must come from the city's own coffers, Amir said.
This is something that Jeddah, where creaking infrastructure contributed to deadly floods in 2010 and 2011, and which is completely overhauling its transport networks, cannot now afford.
"We can barely cover costs, so it's like giving something but it is not real... But we will keep asking for it," he said.
The government has bought and restored some properties in the area, including a 13th-century mosque and the house where Saudi founder Abdul Aziz al Saud lived when in Jeddah, but officials say it would be too expensive to purchase more buildings so they are now planning to provide state loans.
Adhering to an austere version of Sunni Islam which prohibits the veneration of objects, Saudi Arabia has until recently neglected and even destroyed many of its historic sites such as homes and tombs of iconic Islamic figures in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
It has now listed two sites, the Nabatean rock-dwellings of Madain Saleh and the ruling al-Saud family's historical capital of Diriyah, with UNESCO and is working hard to protect its heritage there.
"Here in the kingdom there was a lack of awareness and appreciation for heritage and we have, in ignorance, destroyed many sites including Old Riyadh ... but thank goodness we have passed that stage," said Ali al-Ghabban, the Vice-President of Antiquities and Museums at the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, a government department.
Some Jeddah citizens and other people from Hijaz, which includes Mecca, Medina and the old port town of Yanbu, accuse the government of playing regional favorites, stirring old resentments dating to the al-Saud's conquest of Hijaz in 1923.
They point to the investment of at least $133 million in preserving Diriyah and compare it unfavorably with the continuing neglect of cultural sites in their cities.
Amir defended the central government's priorities, however.
"Anything historical that has to do with the government and its establishment is naturally important ... that does not mean that Jeddah is neglected. But it was just a lot easier to deal with Diriyah considering no one lives there, it is much smaller than Jeddah and the government owns the whole area," he said.
As the authorities consider how to proceed with restoration of the historic district, Jeddah residents like AbuSulayman continue to lobby for swifter action and monitor the development in the area as best as they can.
"We don't have the power to make decisions but we are here," she said. "We need help ... (and) we are willing to do more."
(Editing by Angus McDowall and Sonya Hepinstall)