On the first day of Hajj, rain blanketed Saudi Arabia’s vast western coast. As my wife assembled her radio gear in preparation for the next day’s news brief about the storm’s effect on the pilgrimage, I quickly scanned the news online: it was already the heaviest rain Jeddah had seen in a quarter-century, and the city of four million was flooding; four were already reported dead. By the time we woke up the next morning, the death toll had risen to 77.
Blame for Jeddah’s flood disaster can easily be traced. Nearly 30 years ago, the city was issued funds to build a new sewer and drainage system, but according to a story by Lawrence Wright published in The New Yorker, the government official in charge of the project diverted some of the money to personal projects, including a mansion in San Francisco and a palace in Jeddah equipped with a bowling alley. When the misspending was discovered, the Saudi government gave the official a jail sentence and a fine, but he ended up being pardoned — because, a local journalist told Wright, his brother was a private secretary to the king.
So often the news that makes it out of Saudi is ghastly. Earlier this year, a man was beheaded for murder, then had his head sewn back onto his corpse, and was then crucified and hung in public for several hours. These nightmarish headlines top news sites for an hour or two, after which the stories — and the country’s vexing, more fundamental problems — remain ignored or overlooked.
For people who actually live here, this sort of terror is a distant menace, but real enough — especially when combined with all the suffocating moral codes — to result in a grinding everyday unpleasantness. Because this is all set against the pacific lure of malls, good supermarkets and cheap flights to nearby capitals, life here is defined by a kind of uneasy complacency.
Earlier this year my wife and I had tea with a young man I’ll call Saleh. His uncle was sleeping peacefully in the next room, and his cousins and maids were busy with children, more tea, and various kitchen duties. Saleh, a bright but underemployed fan of the London Review of Books in his early twenties, complained to us about his lack of freedom, about the stifling unpleasantness of life here.
“Why don’t you do something about it?” I said.
“What could I do?” he asked.
“Go out in the street and protest,” I suggested, half in jest. “Get your friends together and march down Olaya Street carrying banners.” This would, of course, be illegal.
“They’re not worth my time,” he responded, referring generally to the unseen and untouchable people in power here. “Why should I suffer for them? They’re not good enough.” We sat down to a lunch of medium-rare steak.
Saleh’s was a familiar refrain: sure, freedoms are curtailed, but life is not that bad. At least we’re not Egypt! Why upset my life to go after those guys who steal money for sewers to build mansions? Things in Saudi are safe, we drive nice cars, petrol is cheap, we live comfortably, there are no big problems.
Except when there are.
By midday on November 25, just a few hours after the sky had first opened up, nearly four inches of rain had fallen — more than double the yearly total for the region — and floodwaters were rushing through the city. Initial news coverage, both local and international, focused on the disruption to hajj. But shaky, hand-held videos began appearing on YouTube: in one, a wall of water hurtles towards helpless cars, smashing them together as if they’d been made of balsa wood. In another, there’s spray on the lens as distraught people wade through whirling torrents. A woman weeps and a man holds his hands to his head in horror. “What happened in Jeddah … is murder,” someone wrote in the comment section.
Within a few days, the death toll passed 100. A Facebook group criticizing the city’s flood preparedness gained as many as 10,000 followers. The language was strong; outraged commenters boldly called for the sacking of officials. Tweets marked #Jeddah continued to share the latest news about the damage; as the hours and days ticked by, the tone on Twitter shifted from awe, to fear, to anger. Meanwhile, rumors spread that rain-damaged dormitories at the vaunted new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) had been evacuated. (One student asked, with a tone I took to be both incredulous and grave: “Do they have at least a disaster recovery plan for the Shaheen the supercomputer centre at KAUST?”)
It seemed Saudi citizens now had both the reason and the tools — the relatively anonymous venues of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — to be outraged with their leaders. “I hear the government was given 30 billion riyal but just put it in their pockets,” one Saudi wrote on YouTube. Another complained, bluntly: “Why not TV channels show the flood?”
A few days later, when the flood was still a hot web topic, we spent an evening with another Saudi friend, the kind of guy with an iPhone and 1,000 Twitter followers. “Everyone will make a lot of noise for a few weeks,” he said, scowling. “Then we’ll move on. We always do.”
But a day later, the king said government officials’ “errors and omissions” would be dealt with “firmly”. There’d be a real inquiry, with real consequences. In other words, metaphorical heads would roll — perhaps even princely heads.
That afternoon, my wife chatted online with our Twitter-happy friend, whose tune had changed. “Whoa,” he said. “People are pissed. Something’s actually going to happen.”
But would it? Last spring, Tehran saw a similar wave of individual citizens using the internet to act as reporters and critics. But as much as that outpouring of dissent was lauded in the West, few concrete victories were actually achieved. The net result for Iran may have in fact been a kind of backslide: After all the internet chatter, officials there are now reportedly hunting down and arresting traceable critics, and in some cases — when they live or work abroad — arresting the writers’ Iran-based families.
Over the last month, however, it has begun to seem — though time, of course, will be the real test — that Saudi Arabia, of all places, might be the true icon for whatever modest potential the internet offers critics of unelected governments. Tellingly, however, this has little to do with the internet and much to do with the country itself. The kingdom is tightly controlled enough that the web is the people’s only public forum, so that’s where they complain. And, for the time being, some of the country’s leaders seem open enough to institute an actual inquiry into widely-noticed government failures, rather than simply arrest its critics. The internet does something like what its boosters say it does — because the monarchy lets it.
In the first weeks after the flood, a commission — not necessarily rigorous, but at least public — was formed to study the flood, and helicopter tours of the damage were made. Teams drained all the low-lying areas, and trucks sprayed against dengue fever. Then, at the end of December, approximately 40 Jeddah officials and contractors were reportedly arrested; among them were eight of the city’s top officials, including senior assistants to the mayor, according to Saudi newspapers, which gave the story full coverage. (“Surely the fault-lines will travel further — much further,” one commenter wrote.) Speaking to a Kuwaiti newspaper, the Saudi king promised to “not show any leniency to any official who is found negligent in this case”.
Abeer Mishkhas, writing in a local newspaper, put the situation best. “Somehow, as you watch those tragic videos, you recognize that things will never be the same, and this is what is implied by the immediate government response to people’s worries,” she wrote. “Now it remains to be seen if the government’s promises are kept and long-overdue action is taken.” On January 12th, officials drained an area of stagnant water and found another corpse, raising the toll to 124.
(Originally published in The Review.)
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