Saudi Corruption & The Jeddah Disasters

Nov 21, 2017

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For decades, Saudi corruption has had deep roots in Saudi Arabia. The public has been cheated-off of its rights to a safe and healthy living environment. Every major scandal has a top-rated official attached to it, an untouchable.

I started working as a journalist with Arab News in the early 1990s. That’s when a friend alerted me about a lot of raw sewage being dumped in the desert round Jeddah. Sensing a good story, I approached an editor for the green light for the story. I was told that this was too hot a topic to touch. Apparently, the people responsible for the mess were too important to be criticized in public.

When greater Jeddah was developed from the 1970s onwards, it was not considered necessary to set up a sewage network, because sewage just drained into the ground and discharged into the sea, or even trucked to the desert and dumped in the open. This has worked for a short while initially, but by the 1980s the city produced more than 500,000 cubic meters of sewage a day.

Around 1995, the situation was improved a little, when trucks dumped the sewage at a designated area. By-and-by, this grew into a huge lake of about 2×2 kilometres, which the locals nicknamed Musk Lake. However, the quantities discharged into Musk Lake were only about 50,000 cubic meters per day. Less than 10% of the total sewage produced by the city.

Meanwhile, funds had been allocated for a network of pipes to drain rain water, but the money was simply stolen with few pipes being laid. This was obvious to everyone when it rained, and Jeddah’s streets turned to rivers. Some of the people responsible for the mess were caught eventually. However, received little more than a slap on the wrist. Of course, this was frustrating to the people of Jeddah. In front of whom, this all played out in plain sight. They could only watch as Jeddah’s sewerage problem grew worse. With the rain issues, and sewage being dumped near the city, people feared that Musk Lake would flood into the city causing a serious environmental and health situation.

By the early 2000s, the press had become more assertive in reporting Saudi corruption. Numerous articles about Jeddah’s environmental problems appeared both in local and international newspapers. For example, in April 2001, Abdul Wahhab Bashir wrote in Arab News:

“Researchers and municipal officials have warned of a large-scale environmental disaster looming over Jeddah. They said the city was sitting atop a lake with 80 million cubic meters of contaminated sewage water. Every day 700,000 cubic meters of sewage is discharged into the city’s underground storage tanks locally known as “bayarat”. Of this, only 50,000 cubic meters is pumped out and carried away by trucks to the main dumpsite outside Jeddah. Where a huge lake has already formed and begun overflowing. The rest seeps into the soil further raising the water table.”

It went on-and-on. For years journalists reported on the problems, of which the Musk lake was just one.

In October 2004, Arab News reported: “The Hindawiya neighborhood south of Jeddah is inundated with sewage. Threatening the lives and health of residents in the district”. Al-Madinah newspaper reported yesterday: “Residents of the neighborhood have complained frequently to the municipality about the situation but to no avail. Sewage water, which flooded the street, has risen to the level where it enters some homes. Threatening residents’ health if the situation is allowed to continue.” The steps that were taken were like giving aspirin to someone with cancer, superficial treatment, without a real cure. Amazingly, the environmental authority initially called the Meteorological and Environmental Protection Agency, later the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment or PME, did little to nothing. Despite being given wide-ranging powers under an environmental regulation enacted in 2003.

What happens when you make a thief in charge of security?

It did not help that the head of the PME was Prince Turki Bin Nasser Bin Abdulaziz. Who was at the center of a British corruption scandal. In an article that appeared in May 2004, The Guarding had referred to him as “the man with everything”. And: “The man who allegedly received most from BAE’s £60m slush fund, Turki bin Nasser, is a rich man. He has nearly 200 classic cars, a £20m private Boeing business jet, a large yacht called the Sarah, a sumptuous mansion in Beverly Hills and houses in Barcelona, Riyadh, Dharan, and London. His London home is in Sussex Square, near Hyde Park.” On 3rd November 2017, Prince Turki was among the first guests at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh.

As late as April 2008, Roger Harrison warned in Arab News:

“Jeddah can expect an ecological disaster this year. Far from taking care of the environment, the city is systematically destroying itself. By failing to take seriously the need to install an efficient and modern sewage processing plant to process its waste. There is, not far from downtown Jeddah and just south of the King Faisal Naval Base, a two-meter diameter pipe at a depth of 50 meters below the surface of the Red Sea. Buried in the coral foreshore about 25 meters below the surface. The pipe angles down to the full 50-meter depth where several vents – some five meters apart or so along the 50-meter seabed section – spew filth. More effluent disgorges from the open end of the pipe. It pumps out, our informant estimates, about 600,000 cubic meters of raw sewage a day. The outfall is jet black; it comes out under tremendous pressure powered by a powerful pumping station – the Qurma pumping station – in south Jeddah.”

The inevitable tragedies strike as Saudi corruption continued

Disaster struck twice, in November 2009 and January 2011, when torrential rains and flash floods turned many of Jeddah’s streets into fast running rivers. The exact number of people who drowned has not been established. However, it certainly exceeded 100 with much more reported missing. This led to some prosecutions of officials who were accused of having misused funds intended for projects to avoid such catastrophes. As usual, it ended with some wrists being slapped. Saudi corruption was a tough nut to crack.

Following these catastrophes in Saudi corruption, steps were eventually taken to address the problem. The musk lake was emptied by 2011. A sewage treatment plant was built at the site. Defences to avoid large-scale flooding were constructed.

Now, on 5th November 2017, Saudi Gazette has reported on Saudi corruption: “As many as 320 defendants, consisting of senior government officials and businessmen accused of violations that caused the Jeddah rain and flood crisis of November 2009, will stand a new trial. The 320 defendants include 54 who were already acquitted by the court, according to judicial sources. The sources said the defendants would be tried before the courts of appeal and the High Court for responsibility in escalating the flood crisis, which killed a number of people and destroyed huge amounts of property, including houses and cars. Former officials from a number of government departments including the Jeddah Municipality, notary public, the ministries of water and justice and ranking businessmen constituted the bulk of the defendants. The accused in Saudi Corruption will face charges of accepting or giving bribes, forgery, and misuse of power to make personal gains.”

It seems that what goes around must come around – eventually.

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