When in 2005 it rained during Hajj, the annual Islamic ritual here, pilgrims rejoiced, seeing the cooling waters as a gift from god. This year, when the heavens opened, the rush of waters took on a far darker meaning.
Heavy rains that struck western Saudi Arabia last week killed as many as 106, mostly in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. Many of the dead drowned in cars as flooding swept across highways. Others were reportedly killed when bridges collapsed. See the below video for a sense of the destruction.
But what’s interesting is that, in a country where public protests are officially illegal, Saudis quickly began to gather and voice concern the only place they can: On the web.
Within hours of the flood, a Facebook group had been created criticizing municipal preparedness. Additionally, word was spread that a prominent human rights lawyer was mounting a lawsuit. By the next day, the Facebook group had 10,000 members.
Wednesday, it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had ordered an inquiry into the floods, and that each of the victims’ families would be paid the equivalent of more than $250,000 a piece. Some speculated that the King’s language — that “errors or omissions” would be dealt with “firmly” — meant that the prince leading the inquiry would have no choice but to make heads roll.
But would there truly be any repercussions for a notoriously insulated and impenetrable government body — even with this rare public acknowledgment from the King?
Officials, some of whom called this a “natural disaster,” really shouldn’t have been surprised. The world has known about Jeddah’s woeful water management system for years. (The New Yorker‘s Lawrence wrote a monster story about training journalists here in 2003; he urged his trainees to write an exposé on the city’s drainage problems.)
The real surprise has been the strength and extent of people’s anger and calls for action — at least for now.
We had a Saudi friend over for dinner. He carries an iPhone and maintains multiple Twitter accounts. But when we asked him about the flood, his mood soured and the tricks and promise of the internet ceased to sparkle.
“Everyone will make a lot of noise for a few weeks,” he said. “But then we’ll all move on. We always do.”
* Credit to the Christian Science Monitor for comparing the floods to the 2005 hurricane.