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Saudi Arabians use Facebook to vent fury over Jeddah flood deaths

After flooding in Jeddah killed more than 100 people, Saudi Arabians have flocked to Facebook to press the government for better drainage. A Katrina moment for Saudi leaders?

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / November 30, 2009

A man walks through a flooded street on November 25 after a storm produced heavy rain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Caren Firouz/REUTERS


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Last week's flooding that left more than 100 people dead in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, has sparked an unusual wave of citizen outrage on Facebook and in the state-run local press.

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The outburst of public fury includes calls for some royal princes and government officials to resign, calling to mind the widespread anger in the US over the Bush administration's ineffective response to hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"This anger has never happened before," says Waleed Abu Al Khair, a human rights lawyer in Jeddah and one of the creators of a Facebook page that has drawn more than 20,000 comments in four days.

The exasperation evident in the comments and in the columns of Saudi newspapers is propelled by widespread Saudi belief that mismanagement and corruption are to blame for Jeddah's lack of adequate storm drainage and sewage systems.

"Good job, mayor!" said a sarcastic comment on the Facebook page titled "Popular Campaign to Save the City of Jeddah." "All these billions, all these contracts.... You have betrayed our trust!"

Other angry citizens, many of them using their real names, posted links to old official announcements of multimillion-dollar spending plans to update Jeddah's infrastructure. Some demanded that officials be put on trial.

"People have been very vocal ... and unafraid because they've seen the worst. They have reached their breaking point," said Reem Asaad, a Jeddah lecturer on finance. "We're fed up living in a city like Jeddah ... where services and infrastructure are poor. We deserve much better."

The city's drainage system was overwhelmed this past Wednesday when a five-hour downpour dumped 3.7 inches of rain on the Red Sea port. Many people were drowned as their cars were swept away and Saudis have asked why police were not on the streets to warn drivers away from dangerously flooded areas.

In addition to the deaths, the floods displaced more than 1,200 families, destroyed an estimated 4,000 vehicles, and caused millions of dollars in property damage, according to local papers.

Surprised officials

The floods occurred on the first day of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that draws up to 2 million Muslims from around the world. The entire government, from King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on down, was preoccupied with making sure that the pilgrimage went off without a hitch. It did, and early concerns about security disruptions and swine flu outbreaks did not occur, largely because officials had put in months of preparation prior to the hajj.