RIYADH // Signaling a new seriousness in tackling official corruption, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has issued orders to prosecute those allegedly responsible for conditions that left Saudi Arabia's second largest city unprepared for devastating floods late last year. The king's royal decree on Sunday, which also included other initiatives to toughen the government's handling of alleged malfeasance, is being hailed by some observers as an unprecedented and welcome step in what they say is a badly needed battle against corruption in the oil-rich kingdom.
"It's a turning point because now, as the king said, there is no one who cannot be questioned," said Dawood al Shirian, a Saudi Arabian journalist who is the host of Al Arabiya's Meet the Press. No longer, Mr al Shirian said, is corruption merely something that the media and people talk about. "Now, the government mentions it," he said. "This is very important." The king, who has long attempted to restrain corrupting practices that are taken as normal business ways here, is responding to public outrage over the floods in Jeddah on November 25 that killed at least 123 people and damaged more than 10,000 homes.
Much of the havoc, which followed torrential rains, arose from the city's lack of a proper drainage system, despite millions of Saudi riyals paid over many years to contractors to build one. Another reason was illegal construction of homes in flood plains, according to officials cited in media reports. King Abdullah appears intent on using the flood catastrophe as an object lesson in how things must change. His decree was issued against a backdrop of widespread public anger over corruption, as well as scepticism that the government is serious about fighting it.
According to a poll of 1,000 Saudis in November 2009 by Pechter Middle East Polls, a private US research organisation, almost two thirds said corruption was a serious issue in Saudi Arabia. When asked to name the kingdom's "most serious" problem, one fifth cited corruption, more than those who cited unemployment or inflation. The king's decree cited "the magnitude of this calamity and its tragic aftermath" and said that officials should "inflict the deterrent Islamic punishment on all those who are proven to be guilty or careless in this" matter, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
The wide-ranging royal directive also ordered that "crimes of financial and administrative corruption" be officially classified among crimes ineligible for royal pardons apparently an effort by the king to halt the long-time practice of giving influential officials and businessmen relief from official sanctions for alleged misconduct. Hussein Shobokshi, a businessman and columnist with the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al Awsat, called the king's decree "an important wake-up for the public and private sectors involved in [government] contracting," arguing that it sets "a new paradigm".
In the past, Mr Shobokshi said, existing anti-corruption laws were ignored and someone accused of wrongdoing was usually "fined, asked to resign and in a polite way made an outcast". Now, if the king's decree is followed, corruption cases are to be dealt with "in a legal and transparent manner", Mr Shobokshi said. "This is completely new territory." The floods in Jeddah sparked an unusual outburst of public anger on the internet and in Saudi newspapers, which were given relatively free rein to report on why the Red Sea port was hit so hard.
The king ordered Prince Khaled bin Faisal, the governor of Mecca province, to conduct an in-depth investigation of the calamity. His findings were presented to King Abdullah in early March. The press has reported that scores of past and current officials in Jeddah's municipality as well as contractors and businessmen were detained, apparently temporarily, while interrogated by Prince Khaled's investigators.
The number of people now potentially facing criminal or civil prosecution has not been disclosed. "We are determined to shoulder our responsibility before Allah Almighty and to straighten matters right for the nation, citizens and expatriates, and to alleviate the grief of the innocent victims ... as well as to deepen standards of justice and the right," the royal decree stated. It also ordered that new regulations be drawn up for notaries and others who authenticate documents such as deeds and that new rules be made for property grants to halt illegal land grabs. In addition, companies found derelict or negligent in fulfilling contracts are to be identified to government offices responsible for issuing contract tenders.
Despite the king's firm action, many Saudis remain sceptical that a new approach towards official accountability is emerging. For one, asked some Saudis, will princes be among those prosecuted if they are implicated in corruption? Waleed Abu Khair, a lawyer and civic activist in Jeddah, said: "All the people know that the corruption [in Jeddah] happened [with the co-operation of] some big people. But they don't talk about them. This is the problem."
Turki F al Rasheed, a Riyadh businessman, said that land illegally built on in Jeddah was a large area, adding: "It was not a small guy who took it." Much more needs to be done to successfully grapple with corruption, Mr al Rasheed said. "We have to be more transparent. We have to give the Saudi newspapers and media a role to talk about corruption, and give the majlis al shura the capabilities and authority to investigate" alleged wrongdoing, he said.