The bloom is off the Obama rose in the Arab world, writes Fouad Ajami on the pages of The Wall St. Journal. By not picking sides—other than to apologize for past American actions—Obama seems to have worn out his welcome by not delivering on promised ‘change’.

The Arabs Have Stopped Applauding Obama
Fouad Ajami

‘He talks too much,” a Saudi academic in Jeddah, who had once been smitten with Barack Obama, recently observed to me of America’s 44th president. He has wearied of Mr. Obama and now does not bother with the Obama oratory.

He is hardly alone, this academic. In the endless chatter of this region, and in the commentaries offered by the press, the theme is one of disappointment. In the Arab-Islamic world, Barack Obama has come down to earth.

He has not made the world anew, history did not bend to his will, the Indians and Pakistanis have been told that the matter of Kashmir is theirs to resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the same intractable clash of two irreconcilable nationalisms, and the theocrats in Iran have not “unclenched their fist,” nor have they abandoned their nuclear quest.

There is little Mr. Obama can do about this disenchantment. He can’t journey to Turkey to tell its Islamist leaders and political class that a decade of anti-American scapegoating is all forgiven and was the product of American policies—he has already done that. He can’t journey to Cairo to tell the fabled “Arab street” that the Iraq war was a wasted war of choice, and that America earned the malice that came its way from Arab lands—he has already done that as well. He can’t tell Muslims that America is not at war with Islam—he, like his predecessor, has said that time and again.

November:30:2009 - 08:44 | Comments & Trackbacks (37) | Permalink

‘Crime doesn’t pay,’ goes an old adage. For Somali pirates, though, it seems that crimes does pay. After collecting $3 million in ‘ransom’ for the return of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star earlier this year, it appears they’ve taken another one. This ship, seized northeast of the Seychelles, was clearly out of the patrol areas of the international anti-piracy fleets.

U.S.-bound oil tanker hijacked off Somalia

(CNN) — An oil tanker bound for the United States was hijacked off Somalia with a crew of 28 aboard, maritime authorities said.

The M/V Maran Centaurus was commandeered about 600 nautical miles northeast of the Seychelles, on its way to New Orleans, Louisiana, according to the Maritime Security Center.

The crew consists of 16 Filipinos, nine Greeks, two Ukrainians and a Romanian, said the security agency, which is run by the European naval force.

The 300,000-ton tanker, which started out from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was seized Sunday. It had changed course westward, toward Harardhere or Hobyo, along Somali’s central-western coast.

November:30:2009 - 08:35 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

More tough questioning of Jeddah city officials about the causes of the disastrous flooding. The Deputy Mayor, Ibrahim Kutubkhanah, says that officials were aware of the hazards in rogue developments in different parts of the city, primarily the east and south, and had been warning about them. They have also been doing assessments, drawing up plans, and requesting funds from the central government. He estimates that it will take SR 7 billion (US $ 1.87 billion) to complete drainage plans for the city.

Deputy Mayor blames flood disaster on lack of sufficient funds
Faleh Al-Dhubyani

JEDDAH – Residents are venting their anger at city officials as the death toll from last week’s flood rises to 107, with 1,400 people having to be rescued.
“They didn’t make the drainage work. They have told us for three years or more that it was completed,” said human rights lawyer Walid Abu Al-Kheir.

A city official has responded by saying that they are waiting for funds to complete the drainage network. Only 30 percent of the city is protected with proper drainage.
Eng. Ibrahim Kutubkhanah, deputy mayor of Jeddah, said that the network in the flood-damaged areas, east of the city, would need at least SR1.2 billion worth of projects to fix.

Following our grilling of the mayor yesterday, we now ask for further answers from Kutubkhanah, in this exclusive interview.

November:30:2009 - 05:29 | Comments & Trackbacks (18) | Permalink

The Washington Post runs an Associated Press story about how the Haj is providing science certain tools to monitor swine flu (A/H1N1). It is, in a way, an experiment that would never be approved by any medical ethics board, but one that was going to happen simply through the fact of having millions of people from around the world all in close contact. So far, only a few deaths of pilgrims have been diagnosed as having been caused by the flu. The concern now is that as pilgrims return home, they will be bringing a newer, modified form of the flu back with them. Again, this isn’t something that can be controlled, only monitored.

Stoning ritual of hajj poses H1N1 risk

MINA, SAUDI ARABIA — Millions of Muslim pilgrims, some wearing surgical masks, jostled one another Saturday to furiously cast pebbles at stone walls representing the devil — the hajj ritual of highest concern to world health authorities watching for an outbreak of swine flu.

The Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest annual gathering of people in the world and an ideal incubator for the H1N1 flu virus.

So far, about 60 flu cases have been uncovered, but health officials warn that the true impact will be known only after the faithful have returned to their home countries around the world.

Saudi officials, along with U.S. and international health experts, have geared up to try to limit any outbreak here. But they are also using the pilgrimage as a test case to build a database, watch for mutations and look for lessons on controlling the flu at other large gatherings, such as the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa.

November:29:2009 - 10:15 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Not surprisingly, there’s a quantum of anger at the Jeddah Municipality—rationalized in the person of the Mayor—over the flooding, deaths, and destruction of last week’s disaster. Saudi Gazette/Okaz offers a startlingly harsh (for Saudi media) interview with the Mayor, Adil Faqih. It doesn’t let him slip away by changing the subject, nor in laying blame at the feet of his predecessors in the position:

Mayor grilled over poor planning for floods
Abdulaziz Ghazzawi

JEDDAH – Angry residents are demanding to know why their city’s civil servants were not prepared for last week’s floods which caused massive damage and numerous deaths. We try to find some answers from Jeddah’s Mayor Adel Faqih.

As noted in comments to earlier posts on the subject, the search for bodies continues. Too, there are reports that some of the ‘unplanned’ neighborhoods of which the Mayor speaks have been totally destroyed. These, often of ramshackle construction, are very vulnerable to rain. Another issue, ‘Lake Misk,’ where sewage is dumped for much of the city, is high on the list of worries. I really don’t understand the thinking behind the ‘lake’, other than that something has to be done with sewage, so I also don’t understand the way the municipality is seeking to mitigate the problem. It does seem clear to me that rather than the SR 10 billion the municipality is seeking, it will take some hundreds of billions to ensure that the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’ is not washed away in either rain water or sewage.

The problems of Jeddah’s infrastructure cannot be fully or fairly blamed on the current mayor. The problems started decades ago, when the city was allowed to grow in an unregulated way. Nor do I think the problems are solely the result of corruption or venality. Inattention to potential consequences, I believe, is a serious Saudi failing and is visible here for the world to see once again.

Saudi Gazette also has an article on compensation being offered to those who suffered financial loss as a result of the flood. Car owners, it appears, are out of luck, all 4,000 of them. While the article doesn’t explain the thinking behind this, I’m assuming it’s because cars are legally required to be privately insured. Whether owners have enough insurance to cover their losses is another matter. I suspect that many owners—as the insurance companies—are going to be seeing considerable losses.

No compensation for damaged vehicles: Finance minister

November:29:2009 - 10:09 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

The death toll resulting from the floods that wracked Jeddah earlier this week continues to rise. Reuters runs this report, also noting that there are still missing persons and that dozens more are expected to be among the dead.

Saudi floods death toll rises to 98

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – The death toll from the heaviest rainfall to hit Saudi Arabia in years rose to 98 on Saturday as more bodies were recovered, with dozens more expected to be found, a rescue services spokesman said.

The victims were drowned or were killed by collapsing bridges and in car crashes when floodwaters caused by the torrential rainfall ripped through the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Wednesday.

No pilgrims attending the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage 80 km (50 miles) away in Mecca were among the dead, officials have said. Jeddah is the main entry point to the kingdom for pilgrims.

Hundreds had to be rescued after being stranded by the floods, with access to the city hampered after two bridges on the highway leading to Jeddah were destroyed.

Arab News is not just running stories of heroic rescues and rapid repairs. There are pieces in today’s edition noting not only the ‘knock-on’ economic damages of the floods, but raising questions about responsibility and demands for punishment for those who allowed this disaster to happen. The piece also points out that the pools of water left from the flood provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, the carriers of Dengue Fever, itself an issue for the Jeddah municipality.

Questions in the wake of rains in Jeddah
Tariq A. Al-Maeena |

Jeddah residents, accustomed to watching their roads and streets being dug up and destructed for over two decades, all with public sector officials promising a state-of-the art water and sewage drainage system have come in for a nasty shock.

Rains that could be aptly described as brief showers in most parts of the world have tragically claimed the lives of 77 people, according to latest reports. Many more have been injured or displaced in a place that not long ago was touted as “an important city on the economic map and playing a significant role in achieving sustained progress for the Kingdom.”

The mayor himself at the time stated: “The city plans to attract more people for education, tourism, work, residence and entertainment in an atmosphere of exuberance and security. It remains the focal point for pilgrims and visitors to Islam’s two most sacred mosques. Jeddah has a diversified economic base and deep-rooted trade traditions that will make it a unique international trade and tourist center. The city is determined to achieve and maintain its sustainable development.”

The paper also reports on public dissatisfaction as conveyed through the pages of Facebook. From the various quotes in the article, it seems that people are not going to be accepting the excuse of ‘Act of God’ for the disaster. The rain certainly was a natural event, outside the control of anyone. The steps taken—or, not taken—to mitigate the harm, however, lie in the realm of human culpability. UPDATE: Agence France Presse also reports on the Facebook phenomenon, stating that over 11,000 Saudis have signed on to complain.

Saudi Facebook group vents anger over flood
Hassna’a Mokhtar | Arab News

JEDDAH: Following Wednesday’s devastating floods in Jeddah, which left a trail of death and destruction, there is growing anger among residents at the state of the city’s infrastructure.

Some are even threatening to sue the municipality for damages, claiming the flash flooding was a direct result of municipal negligence. A group calling itself the “National Campaign to Save the City of Jeddah” has established an Arabic-language Facebook profile calling for action to ensure the city is never flooded again.

Thousands have rushed to join the group since it was set up on Thursday. By 5 p.m. on Friday, 6,191 Facebook users had joined the group. Thirty minutes later, 153 more people had joined.

“What we witnessed made it clear beyond any doubt that the city of Jeddah is in urgent need to be saved,” the group said on its page.

Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that the Governor of the region, Pr. Khaled Al-Faisal, has called for a top-to-bottom investigation of how this happened. Pr. Khaled is noted as a ‘do-er’ in Saudi Arabia, not one to just take a laissez faire attitude toward problems, so this might actually result in needed changes.

Investigation launched into Jeddah drainage network

Sadly, a Saudi Civil Defense official is quoted as saying that it was an Act of God and no one is responsible. He’s partially right: no one is responsible as many had to fail in their duties to end up with this tragedy.

UPDATE: Associated Press is reporting on the rising death count:

Death toll from floods in Saudi reaches 106

November:28:2009 - 08:48 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink

Witchcraft, magic, and sorcery have been concerns of mankind around the world and, apparently, for most of human history. In some cultures, ‘witches’ were honored, as shamans or folk medical practitioners of a sort. In others, they were feared and condemned. Over time, however, cultures affected by the Age of Reason realized that there was something wrong in criminalizing acts and beliefs that could not be clearly defined, could not even be clearly identified. And so, anti-sorcery laws fell by the wayside.

Not so in Saudi Arabia. Several recent cases of ‘sorcerers’ being identified, tried, and condemned to death have been making news, as this release from Human Rights Watch notes:

Saudi Arabia: Witchcraft and Sorcery Cases on the Rise

(Kuwait City) – The cassation court in Mecca should overturn the death sentence imposed on Ali Sabat by a lower court in Medina on November 9 for practicing witchcraft, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to cease its increasing use of charges of “witchcraft” which remains vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.

Ali Sibat’s death sentence apparently resulted from advice and predictions he gave on Lebanese television. According to Saudi media, in addition to Sibat, Saudi religious police have arrested at least two others for witchcraft in the past month alone.

“Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The crime of ‘witchcraft’ is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions.”

The release points out the problems here: there is no clear definition or description of what constitutes sorcery or black magic; that determination is left to judges who are free to use their own judgments—or imaginations—to decide. When the judges’ power includes that of condemning someone to death, that is discretion without limit.

I’m confident that many heads in Saudi Arabia would explode—or at least see it as proof that the US is Satan’s own—in realizing that American law protects self-described witches. Not always and not under all circumstances, but still…

University Settles With Woman Fired For Being A Witch

November:27:2009 - 10:34 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Three inches of rain fell on Jeddah and surrounding areas yesterday, resulting in the deaths of 77 people. There are still reports of people missing, so that number may rise. The area around King Abdulaziz University was particularly hard hit, with part of the supporting structure for the elevated Haramain Highway knocked down, forcing the closure of that route between Jeddah and Mecca. Southern Jeddah, where many buildings are substandard in their construction, also saw great damage.

How floods like this can happen in a modern metropolis of five million people is a good question. It needs not only answers, but answers that lead to direct action to ensure that similar deluges don’t happen again. The simple answer is that the city’s infrastructure was not able to handle the rain run-off. More important is why that is the case. On Wednesday, my part of west-central Florida received three-to-five inches of rain. No one died, even as the result of a traffic accident. Other than a few puddles an inch or two deep, the water was gone withing hours of the rain’s passing. My city has a population of about 52,000 people and nowhere near the financial assets of Jeddah. So what’s the difference?

Part of the difference is in geology: Florida is largely sand, with a limestone deep beneath the surface. Jeddah is also sandy, but the sand is mixed with clays, making them impermeable (that is, the water doesn’t ‘sink in’), and relatively shallow. That means that when water builds up, there’s no place for it to go other than to flow.

In comments to earlier posts on the flood, I argue that the principal problem is a deep shortage of competent city planning. City planning isn’t only about meeting immediate needs–though of course, those must be met. It is also about planning for the unusual, though not unexpected. It doesn’t rain much in the Kingdom, but when it rains, wadis flood. They’ve been doing that for millions of years. Even prehistoric Arabs of the Peninsula knew to avoid the wadis when it rained. That knowledge appears not to have been carried over to the modern cities, however.

Cities, no matter where they are, are strapped for funds. When they draw up their budgets, they allocate money toward things that need doing immediately. Things that happen rarely just don’t get funded. Hindsight shows how the funding decisions ended up being poor ones, but that tends to be the case everywhere, e.g. New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

Also in comments, is an argument that the principal problem is corruption, that those whose responsibility it is to provide for public safety have instead taken development money and put it to their own, personal benefit. I suspect that’s at least partially true.

What can be done about future floods, though?

I suspect that nothing short of digging up major parts of the city to install appropriate flood drainage systems will do. It will be harder to do now than if it had been done as the city was growing. It will be much more expensive. It will also annoy people as streets are closed and, perhaps, houses and offices are condemned to make way for the drainage. Looking at cities in the US similar in geology to Jeddah, you also find—as in Los Angeles—open drainage canals, tens of meters wide and ten meters deep. While these canals make for great action scenes in films and on TV, they also move massive amounts of water out of the city and directly to the sea.

The Saudi media is, of course, reporting on the disaster. Some of the reporting is the to-be-expected ‘gung ho’ reportage: ‘We are on top of the problem!’ ‘People are being rescued!’ Other reporting, though, is more critical, pointing out that the disaster has a more proximate cause…

‘What happened was a man-made problem’
Michel Cousins | Arab News

JEDDAH: The devastation caused by Wednesday’s flash floods in Jeddah could be seen across the city. One of the worst hit areas was Sulaimaniyah District, especially around the junction between Abdullah Sulaiman Street and the Harmain Expressway, near the city’s King Abdulaziz University. It was as if it had been hit by a tsunami. Hundreds of mangled cars littered the area. There were buses on their sides, cars thrown on top of other cars, others almost flattened beyond recognition. Reports that over 2,000 vehicles had been destroyed seemed no exaggeration.

Saudi Gazette reports that damages from the flood may exceed a billion Saudi riyals, US $270 million.

Thanks to Ahmed, at Saudi Jeans, here’s a YouTube video of the car-nage. It’s not clear to me whether this is where cars were swept by the floods or if the location might be where the vehicles were moved to clear the streets. I suspect the former.

UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous commenter, here’s a link to a Facebook photo album with 185 pictures of the flooding, from various sources.

November:26:2009 - 23:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink

Heavy rains—now apparently ended—have cause mayhem and deaths in Jedda and Mecca according to breaking news reports.

The fact is, because it rains so rarely in Saudi Arabia, Saudi cities lack infrastructure to deal with heavy rain. There simply are not many rain sewers and drainage canals to deal with a torrent. Roads and structures are not built to deal with the occasional floods, either. You can put this to bad city planning and civil engineering—as I do—or look for another cause, but the prospect of retrofitting cities with millions of residents spread over dozens of square miles is not a trivial issue.

So, while great precautions were being made to protect pilgrims from swine flu, not much was done to deal with the possibility of a natural disaster affecting both residents and pilgrims. Still, some sort of solution will need to be found. Floods in Saudi Arabia, as rare as they might be, are still disasters that can be mitigated.

Worst Flood In 27 Years Kill 77 In Saudi Arabia

(RTTNews) – The worst flood in 27 years in Saudi Arabia killed 77 people, reports quoting the Saudi government said Thursday.

Incessant rain until Thursday morning soaked the faithfuls and flooded the roads to the holy city of Mecca where millions are converging for the annual Haj pilgrimage.

The Red Sea port city of Jeddah received 2.76 inches of rain Wednesday, more than it gets in a year on average.

Seventy-three people were killed in Jeddah and four in Mecca. Saudi emergency workers rescued more than 900 people, the Civil Defense Authority said in a statement.

Wednesday’s downpour and thunderstorms paralyzed the entire city, flooding streets, destroying homes and sweeping away cars.

The Indonesian news service ANTARA also reported, but clearly from earlier in the day:

Heavy rains in Jeddah clam 24 lives

The Agence France Presse report notes that there are hundreds still missing:

Saudi floods kill 77, leave scores missing

November:26:2009 - 11:24 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

I’d like to wish my American readers—wherever they happen to find themselves—a Happy Thanksgiving.


And sadly, to show how hyper-sensitive some can be, here’s a link to a story about the unhappiness some feel when American businesses make note of Islamic holidays, to whit, Eid Al-Adha, which starts tonight…

Happy Eid al-Adha

November:26:2009 - 09:17 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Winter rains aren’t terribly strange in the northern hemisphere, but any substantial rain is strange enough in Saudi Arabia. This year, heavy rains are starting to create problems with the millions performing Haj in the city of Mecca, according to this report from the Associated Press. While it’s unlikely that the rain will be an issue at the Great Mosque, other rituals of the Haj take place in open fields and on hillsides, where it could present serious issues.

Islam’s hajj: rain and fears of swine flu

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Muslim pilgrims circled Islam’s holiest site Wednesday in their traditional white robes, with a few additions _ umbrellas and face masks _ as the opening of the annual hajj was complicated by torrential rains and fears of swine flu.

Saudi authorities have been planning ways for months to inhibit the spread of swine flu during the pilgrimage, which is seen as an incubator for the virus. The four-day event is one of the most crowded in the world, with more than 3 million people from every corner of the globe packed shoulder to shoulder in prayers and rites.

Now they are scrambling to deal with sudden, unexpected downpours that could worsen one of the gathering’s perennial dangers: deadly stampedes.

The excellent photographs at Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis show the terrains involved.

November:25:2009 - 19:40 | Comments & Trackbacks (19) | Permalink

It’s again a pretty slow news day in Saudi Arabia. Local media is focusing on the start of Haj and the variety of government services being supplied to support pilgrims. Now, Haj is clearly an important event and one to which the Saudi government and Saudi society pay much attention. As it happens every year, though, there are only so many things that can be said about it, beyond incremental improvements in services.

This year, the presence of swine flu added a new level of interest, but so far that’s not much of a story. Pilgrims diagnosed with swine flu have tallied about a dozen so far. They’ve been offered treatment in Saudi medical facilities.

I’ll keep looking for Saudi-related materials, though…

Posting was down over the past couple of days due to yet another in a series of technical issues. I’ve taken steps to avoid those in the future, but such is life. I did learn that it’s next to impossible to run this blog through a ‘smart phone’. Brief replies to comments is about as far as that permits.

November:25:2009 - 08:54 | Comments & Trackbacks (11) | Permalink
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