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Wed 6 Dec 2017 08:24 AM

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Jeddah's fatal flood underlines city's ongoing infrastructure issues

Despite billions of riyals being spent following floods in 2009 and 2011, shoddy infrastructure remains in Saudi's second biggest city

Jeddah's fatal flood underlines city's ongoing infrastructure issues
Saudi women and children stand in a flooded street in Jeddah on November 21, 2017. Flash floods triggered by heavy rains swept through Jeddah, leaving motorists stranded and forcing authorities to shut schools and universities in Saudi Arabia's second biggest city.

When the rain came at dawn, Aamir Farouk was prepared for the worst. He set off in his red jeep to join a volunteer rescue effort, knowing that Jeddah could soon be underwater. He was right: 15 minutes from home, he found about a dozen cars already stranded by the rising flood.

Saudi Arabia may be under new management, but the scene in its second-biggest city was a familiar one. Jeddah was battered by floods in 2009 and 2011, killing more than 100 people. Saudis blamed corruption and shoddy infrastructure: Billions of riyals were spent; somehow it failed to buy a decent drainage system.

The November 21 repeat left them wondering how much has changed now that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is in charge. There were at least three deaths. Farouk, 28, said he spent all day towing people to safety. As the storm passed, and frustrated residents waded or canoed through the streets, many were asking the same question - and arriving at the same answer.

“It’s been almost ten years since the last flood,” said Abdulrahman Ashgan, a 31-year-old cafe owner, whose ceiling sprang a leak even though there are seven floors above it. “After that there were investigations and blah blah blah. What happened? Nothing.”

Officials and businessmen were jailed during an inquiry into the earlier Jeddah floods. Prince Mohammed has re-opened the probe, part of what’s presented as a wider drive to stamp out corruption, which has seen dozens of royals and business leaders arrested.

Saudi drivers take a flooded street in Jeddah on November 21, 2017. Flash floods triggered by heavy rains swept through Jeddah, leaving motorists stranded and forcing authorities to shut schools and universities in Saudi Arabia's second biggest city. (Photo: AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The prince also says he’ll end Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, loosen up its austere social codes, and eradicate Islamic extremism. It’s an ambitious agenda, viewed sceptically outside the kingdom, where the crackdown on graft is often seen as cover for a power-grab or a shakedown.

At home, many Saudis are optimistic about their new leader. To retain that goodwill, he’ll have to deliver concrete improvements on a local scale - like streets that don’t flood when it rains.

“He has promised, and now he has to deliver,” said Gregory Gause, a Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University. “He’s clearly exciting an amount of populist anger at those who have benefited from the system,” Gause said. “But he is now the system, and it might not be possible to turn off that populist anger like a water faucet.”

As Jeddawis repaired their leaky properties, and tried to get broken-down cars to work again, some said they don’t really care who gets arrested or how much money was stolen. They want to see results.

“Get your act together!” said Abdulaziz Almaghraby, a 22-year-old student, addressing Saudi authorities. “It rained for a few hours,” he said, manoeuvring his car around stagnant pools that blocked the road more than a day later. “And look.”

It’s been almost three years since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne and started transferring the levers of power, one by one, into his son and heir’s hands. Prince Mohammed’s potential rivals have been sidelined. One result is that there’s no one left to stymie the prince’s plans; another is that, as expectations soar, there’s no one else to blame if they aren’t met.

There’s a “lot of weight on the Saudi crown prince’s shoulders,” said Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi researcher at the University of Exeter in the U.K. “People are expecting that this time the crisis will be dealt with differently.”

As if to prove the point, on the day of the flood Saudi poet Mofareh al-Shaqiqi posted a picture of Prince Mohammed on Twitter, accompanied by a plea. “From 2009 until today, the people are drowning,” he wrote. “The solutions didn’t work, the promises were a mirage and the streets are a scandal. In short, all we have is you: master of justice.”

Vehicles are piled up following heavy rains and floods in the city of Jeddah on January 27, 2011. (Photo: AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Turki Al Rasheed, a prominent Saudi businessman, said it’s inherently risky when expectations rise faster than the government’s capacity to deliver. That’s why it makes sense to share responsibilities among multiple stakeholders, he said. “If it’s only a single person, then expectations go sky-high.”

Others say that the low standard of services set by past Saudi governments will play in Prince Mohammed’s favour. The “sheer amount of room for improvement” should enable the government to exceed citizens’ expectations, said Mohammed Alyahya, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

There’s a harsh economic reality lying behind the government’s efforts to reclaim money from wealthy Saudis it says are corrupt. Oil prices are about half their 2014 peak, putting pressure on public finances. That means a change in how cities are run is inevitable, Alyahya said. Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed is casting out the old guard and promoting a new generation of officials.

“The incentives are aligned in such a way that there is reward for somebody to take control of Jeddah municipality and deliver results,” Alyahya said. “It’s no longer an option to keep a low profile and siphon as much cash as you can.”

The city’s government said it deployed more than 4,500 workers to pump the streets clear of water, and succeeded in rapidly restoring “normal life.” The municipality didn’t answer questions about whether corruption had played a role in the flooding, or what would be done to prevent it in the future.

Asghan was pondering exactly that question as he leaned on the wooden bar of his café, with Billie Holiday crooning in the background.

“It’s not reasonable that we spend billions and billions on infrastructure projects, and stuff like that, and you don’t see results,” he said. “So really, what is the problem? Where is the problem? Who is to blame?”