JEDDAH // Every day for more than 1,400 years, the call to prayer has been heard in the town of Alees, almost 550 kilometres north-east of Jeddah. Now, however, the mosques are silent after the government moved more than 15,000 people from Alees and surrounding villages after a series of earthquakes last week.
Up to 30 tremors measuring between three and 5.4 on the Richter scale shook the region on May 19, the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) reported. Alees, on the fringe of Harrah Al Shaqah (also know as Harrat Lunayyir), has been suffering tremors since mid-April, but when they hit five for the first time the government began to move thousands of residents to the neighbouring cities of Yanbu and Medina, where they have been staying in furnished apartments paid for by the state.
Families are also receiving between 2,000 to 3,000 riyals (Dh1,960 to Dh2,950) in financial assistance. Zuhair Nawab, the chairman of the SGS, said the situation had improved over the past four days with fewer and less severe aftershocks. None of the more recent quakes registered higher than three on the Richter scale, he said. "If the quakes' magnitude remains at this level or below it for the remainder of this week, then the residents can return to Alees at the start of the following week," Mr Nawab said.
Ali al Amri, a Saudi journalist with the Alwatan daily who has been reporting from the quake-affected area, said some people had already returned. "Public servants have started to reopen government offices although no citizens have been allowed to enter. It is as if they are preparing the town for the anticipated arrival of its residents," he said. The warning to leave was issued following the discovery of dangerous radon gases and unusually hot air and water in wells, prompting fears of a volcanic eruption. All roads leading into Alees were blocked.
But Saad al Mohlafi, the deputy director of the National Observation Centre and the chairman of the national committee to prepare environmental disaster plans, said the levels of gases were not pointing to an eruption. "No gases indicating an imminent eruption of a volcano have been found in Alees," he told reporters. Radon is the result of the normal radioactive decay of uranium. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, radon is reportedly the second-most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking.
Harrah al Shaqah is a basaltic volcanic field in north-west Saudi Arabia, east of the Red Sea port of Umlaj. It contains about 50 volcanic cones. Controlling the situation in Alees has been the first test of the Saudi government's ability to manage a crisis in more than 20 years. The situation has catapulted the little-known town of Alees into the international spotlight as it is located 150km north-east of the industrial city of Yanbu, where major Saudi oil and petrochemical facilities are located.
Employees at Saudi Aramco's refinery in Yanbu said they were able to feel last week's quakes. However, the SGS said the petrochemical industry was not at risk from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Mr Nawab, the SGS chairman, said a lot of false information had been circulating in the media. One was that the level of magma had risen over the past few days to two kilometres below the surface from eight km. "The magma level is still at eight kilometres ... I don't know where the media got this worrying level from," he said.
Saudi media also reported that the temperature at night in Alees prior to the evacuation had reached 42 degrees but Mr Nawab said this too was incorrect. Residents in Yanbu said there were some injuries due to the quake, but this has been denied by officials. Some Saudis have attributed the seismic activities to God's anger. A "repentance campaign" has started and people are sending each other mobile phone text messages urging each other to pray to God.