Saudi Arabia promises its people, and the Muslims of the world, the best, and delivers the worst. Even King Abdullah’s impressive educational goals may not change this tragic reality.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the most powerful Muslim state in the world – daily produces new evidence of its deepening internal contradictions. Within its borders, extraordinary sophistication in technology and medicine, financed by energy wealth, are found alongside such retrograde practices as a ban on women driving. (That prohibition will, we are told, be lifted within the 15 square-mile precincts of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology [KAUST], the preeminent current reform project.) Forbidding women drivers, aside from its primitive nature, conflicts with realities on the ground: 80,000 Saudi women own motor vehicles but cannot operate them.
Two recent media interviews with mayors from the cities of Mecca and Jeddah emphasise how a corrupt and chaotic approach to supposed modernisation discredits the future benefits Saudi subjects trust King Abdullah to deliver for them.
First, the kingdom continues with an ambitious and confused campaign for the transformation of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, into a megalopolis. The stated object of this effort is to improve services for the annual hajj pilgrimage to the city – one of five duties incumbent on all Muslims if they possess the means and physical capacity to perform it. Hajj began November 25 with the participation of more than 1.5 million Saudi and foreign pilgrims, and continued for five days.
At the commencement of the hajj, the Al-Jazeera English service produced a cheerful feature in which Osama Al-Bar, the mayor of Mecca, anticipated spending $125 million over the next ten years on 40 urban improvement projects. These include expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca as well as new roads and “megaprojects” involving housing and other infrastructure.
Unfortunately, a grandiose “Manhattanisation of Mecca” would devastate the architectural heritage of the sacred city. Mayor Al-Bar was asked, “There’re some criticisms with all of this development that Mecca is losing some of its history, that maybe everything is becoming too modern. Do you think that criticism is fair?”
The mayor answered with unexpected candor. Yes, he admitted, the area of the Grand Mosque happens to occupy “the area of Mecca in older days – for centuries,” meaning, the part of the city that a municipal officer in any other country, presumably charged with preservation of cultural legacy, would first seek to protect. But in the outlook of Mecca’s mayor, a new system of transport for hajj pilgrims comes before the spiritual character of the city the hajjis have come to visit. Al-Bar declared baldly, “You have to balance how you can accommodate more people, more hajjis coming to Mecca to do the fifth pillar of Islam. With these very narrow roads and very historical areas, you cannot.”
Such is the cultural posture of Wahhabism, the official sect in Saudi Arabia: the cultural birthright of Islamic Arabia is secondary to accommodation of ever-expanding crowds. The hajj will take place in an environment from which its traditions will be absent.
But this year’s hajj also exposed the inconsistency between the Saudi obsession with extravagant expansion as proof of progress and the bad conditions suffered in their daily lives by Saudi subjects. The first day of the pilgrimage, exceptionally heavy rains fell on Jeddah, the city north of Mecca where most hajjis come from abroad by air. Thirteen people were drowned by floods in Jeddah, main roads were obstructed, and bridges collapsed. In Mecca itself, power failed in some districts.
Adel Faqih, the mayor of Jeddah, interviewed by the English-language daily Saudi Gazette on November 29, disclosed that his administration, serving the main gateway to the kingdom for business and other travelers as well as hajj pilgrims, was utterly unprepared for the natural disaster. Saudi Gazette reporter Abdulaziz Ghazzawi hammered the mayor of Jeddah, who blamed the deadly floods on the limited capacity of the drainage system. The questioning went like this:
Saudi Gazette reporter: “The situation is terrible in flood-hit districts, the Haramain Highway, and the road to Misk Lake where the sewage tankers dump their cargo. How are you going to deal with this?”
Mayor of Jeddah: “The Jeddah Mayoralty has completed an emergency plan with a package of temporary solutions…”
Saudi Gazette reporter: “Excuse me. Did you say temporary while the city is drowning?”
Jeddah mayor Faqih then sputtered through more excuses, declaring the situation was under examination, and that neighbourhoods where floodwater had not been pumped out “are unplanned and most of the buildings there violate basic construction engineering.” In plain words, the mayor blamed the failure of the city administration to anticipate disasters on residents living without proper regulation, when the anomalous situation of the people would better be laid at the door of corrupt municipal officials. Mayor Faqih had to contend with further, shocking facts from reporter Ghazzawi, who warned that the polluted Misk Lake was close to overflowing its sand barriers. The mayor replied blandly that such an outcome was impossible. But the reporter kept up a rapid fire of challenges, noting that a flooded highway underpass had apparently been erected without adequate provision for drainage, and that “The government has pumped billions of riyals into the infrastructure of this city, but it is still shaky. Where did the money go? Where are the projects?” the reporter insisted. Jeddah’s mayor was reduced to blaming his own administration’s failings, which resulted in loss of life as well as serious disruption of the city, on his predecessors.
These two interviews, appearing almost simultaneously, with two Saudi mayors, illuminate the crisis of the kingdom. The mayor of Mecca is prepared to devastate the historic quarters of the holy city in the name of improved transport; the mayor of Jeddah blames the devastation of his city by flood on uncontrolled, unrealized promises of development. Both offer the people of their country fantasies of rapid transformation that contain within them more problems and worse consequences. Until the people of the kingdom attain the full right to assess, approve, and disapprove policies governing development, spiritual values as well as human lives will be vulnerable to corruption and whim.