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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?

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The unelected Saudi government does sometimes respond to public opinion, especially if it involves basic services. How it will react to the public clamor to uproot official mismanagement and corruption is another matter. In the past, such complaints have not led to any type of public punishment or prosecution.

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King Abdullah has ordered monetary compensation and free medical care for displaced families, and the government will also compensate owners of damaged property. The National Guard has been ordered into some neighborhoods to maintain security and assist local civil defense authorities.

Provincial governor Prince Khalid bin Faisal has ordered "an immediate investigation into the drainage network" of Jeddah and a report on the municipality's plans for preventing future floods, the Saudi Gazette reported.

Rasha N. Heszi, spokeswoman for a civic society group called Mwatana, or Citizenship, says she believes the public outcry has "opened the eye of the government" to the fact that "people need to see quick wins" instead of being promised benefits in the long term.

Ms. Heszi's group has been organizing volunteers and distributing donated goods to people in areas hit by the floods. People in one neighborhood were upset, she says, because no relief or rescue officials had yet appeared, probably because most were still working on the pilgrimage.

Mr. Khair, the lawyer, says he intends to file a class action suit against Jeddah's municipality. He does not think any official will be forced to resign, he adds. "In Saudi Arabia, we didn't hear about someone leaving his office."

The attorney says that the Facebook page was a useful alternative because street protests are illegal in the kingdom. The Internet "is the only way. We don't have another way," he says.

The episode has demonstrated "how technology allows people to shout out loud. I have never seen this before in Saudi," says Asaad, the lecturer. Even if people commenting on Facebook "use pseudonyms, it's a start," she adds. "But nowadays, people are using their real names."

Anger has also surfaced in the print media, which has been given more latitude under King Abdullah but remains controlled by the state.

For example, the Saudi Gazette carried a hard-hitting interview with Jeddah's Mayor Adel Faqih that included an unusual display of sarcasm from journalist Abdulaziz Ghazzawi.

When Mr. Faqih was asked why a brand-new underpass at a crucial intersection had filled with water, he replied that the city was "surprised by the floods."

"Surprised?" replied Mr. Ghazzawi. "This is a new project that cost about [$80] million. What surprise are you talking about?"

At the end of the interview, Faqih acknowledged that "at least 70 percent of the city lacks a proper drainage system."