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. Read the rest of this entry »