When one thinks of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; some of the things that come to mind are ostentatious displays of wealth by its affluent young, 60 billion dollar arms deals with the United States, and new economic cities being built from scratch. Therefore, when the kingdom’s second city, Jeddah, was devastated by flash floods on the 26th of January following 112mm of rainfall, questions inevitably arose regarding the world’s most oil-rich country. For instance: how on earth did this catastrophe happen, and who is responsible?
According to official state rhetoric, the answer to the second question is corrupt contractors who pocketed the money earmarked for a drainage system for Jeddah, as well as inept municipal workers. However, as this is the second time rainfall in the Hejaz province, where Jeddah is situated, has caused serious damage and loss of life, not to mention a series of other instances in which rain resulted in minor damages and casualties, this argument is getting old.
In November 2009, substantial floods caused by a few hours of rainfall in Jeddah led to a death toll purportedly in the vicinity of 500 (official reports estimated just over 100), colossal damage to roads and properties, and countless cars being swept away by the tide. After a public witch-hunt that led to the prosecution of many businessmen and Jeddah Municipality officials, King Abdullah set up a committee intended to investigate the exact causes and possible solutions for the unnecessary destruction and casualties. Like many other controversial events in the kingdom, however, in a matter of months all was forgotten. A little over a year after the 2009 floods, the municipality of Jeddah and its neighbouring areas were still not ready for the rainfall last month, which amounted to roughly three inches.
The main problem lies in the fact that Jeddah, arguably the most significant city in the kingdom as it is the main gateway to the holy city of Makkah as well as a commercial hub due to its location on the Red Sea coast, essentially has no proper drainage system. For this reason, flash floods unavoidably occur as the water has nowhere to go (even though the rainfall received by Jeddah is minor in comparison to average annual standards of other cities). Moreover, there is no sewage system in place and the city relies on septic tanks. Jeddah has major infrastructure problems due to reckless construction, and the potency of the floods is consequently multiplied. One would think that facing a situation of this dire level, the government would take immediate action after the first disaster, certainly going a step further than a public show of scapegoating.
Justifications for the government’s inaction come in many forms. Some take the position that the infrequency of precipitation in the desert kingdom puts the importance of building a drainage system at a subsidiary level. In light of recent revelations, however, this line of reasoning appears as archaic as it does cold-blooded. No matter how irregular, the severity and scale of destruction caused by the rainfall mandates that immediate and concrete steps be made towards finding a solution. After all, it is not as if the kingdom is lacking in funds to carry this out.
Another argument goes that Jeddah is a very old city, and therefore it would be near impossible to install a comprehensive drainage system throughout the municipality at this point. Nonetheless, under scrutiny this counter-argument also falls short. Ahmed Al-Shugairi, the host of ‘Khawater’, a popular TV show in Saudi Arabia that pushes the envelope in its discussion of social taboos and controversial topics, travelled to Kuala Lumpur to illustrate this point. As he reported, the capital of Malaysia was also prone to destructive flash floods caused by rainfall ever since the 1960s and up until the early 1990s. They tackled the problem, however, by implementing a new and innovative system involving an underground tunnel which channels rainwater to the desired location. That being said, there is no reason why Saudi Arabia cannot undertake a similar endeavour, especially since it seems that heavy rainfall is a phenomenon which the kingdom will have to come to terms with.
Needless to say, what happened in Jeddah on the 26th of January was inexcusable and unfortunately preventable. Admittedly, it does take a substantial amount of time and money to implement the structural changes required. This is all the more reason for a start to at least be made. Prince Naif, the Second Deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior, announced this week that qualified international firms will be given contracts to implement rainwater drainage projects for Jeddah, to be based on the results of a specialised study that will be carried out by an international company intended to assess the most suitable system for the province. Furthermore, he vowed that strong action would be taken against negligent individuals and institutions responsible for the floods and its aftermath.
Some believe that fingers are pointing outwards when they should be pointing inwards. There are unprecedented high levels of discontent and animosity towards the Saudi government, especially among the youth, regarding the former’s downplaying of the incident, its slow response and its failure to take necessary steps following the previous disaster in 2009. This anger and disenchantment can be witnessed in abundance on various social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger.
A “mini” protest was even staged in Jeddah’s Tahlia street, with around 150 people reportedly showing up and calling for those responsible to be held to account. The demonstration was quickly dispersed by the police, however, leading to questions of where this speedy response was when it was most needed a few days earlier after the floods. Credit for most of the rescue operations, as well as aid for the victims of the flood, can be attributed to countless, mostly young, volunteers in Jeddah who offered their services, setting up make-shift help centres such as the one in Al-Harithy Exhibition Centre. There are some volunteers who have even travelled from Riyadh and other parts of the kingdom to offer their help and support; the people of Saudi Arabia have shown an admirable display of solidarity, stepping in where the government has been conspicuously absent.
It remains to be seen whether the plans set out by the government in the aftermath of the floods will lead to any real results. It seems likely that considerable effort will be made, however, due to the unprecedented level of devastation caused by the January floods and the government’s humiliation at its inability to properly equip the city in terms of infrastructure.
Moreover, although the minor protest that occurred can hardly be considered a threat to the regime, the royal family has undoubtedly been shaken by the degree of anger of a citizenry that has been more vocal in its assertiveness than ever before. One might even wonder whether the wave of demonstrations across the Arab world against authoritarian and corrupt leadership is a cause for concern for the (albeit extremely stable) Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, and whether this concern will be a factor in their response to the recent crisis. One fact remains certain: the government’s neglect of the infrastructure and maintenance of a principal city in the kingdom has arguably left the population of one of the world’s richest countries with a distinctive and resolute phobia of rain.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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