JEDDAH // In his article The Kingdom of Silence, which was published in 2004, the US journalist Lawrence Wright asked Hussein Shobokshi, a wealthy Saudi media figure: "If you were trying to point young reporters to one story that could shake the country, what would it be?" "Sewage," he replied. Mr Shobokshi told Wright that in the 1980s, Jeddah had been provided with the money to build a modern sewage system but the government official in charge of the project took the money and built himself a mansion in San Francisco and a palace in Jeddah.
The abuse of public money that was allotted to solving the sewage and flood water problems in Jeddah is going on since the 1980s. The kingdom's top anti-corruption agency, the General Auditing Bureau, issued a report on the violations in an ongoing project to develop the sewage system in Jeddah at a cost of nearly one billion Saudi riyals (Dh981m). The bureau said in its report, which was published in the Okaz newspaper on Saturday, that the government is losing hundreds of millions of riyals because of the delay in the project that was scheduled to finish in 2008.
The bureau rejected all the justifications presented by the contractor, which was not identified in the report, and all the related government agencies for the delay in the installation of the sewage system in Jeddah. The report showed that the contractor was obliged to complete the entire project in 36 months; however, it was not able to complete more than 2.1 per cent of it in the first 10 months, which made it obvious that the firm was not capable of delivering on the expected deadline.
The report showed that regardless of the delay and the violations of the contract, the penalties for the delay were waived by the municipality and the water ministry and was granted a 13-month extension. The bureau insisted in its recommendations in the report that the fines be reimposed on the contractor for the delay. Also, it asked for the appointment of a committee to question all the officials who allowed for the extension of the project and waived the penalties.
The bureau explained that an extension would only be permissible if the government amended the terms of the contract, but this was not the case with the sewage project in Jeddah. In November last year, heavy rainfall caused major floods that wiped out thousands of homes in Jeddah and killed at least 123 people who were living in illegally settled areas east of the city. The municipality previously attributed the causes of the disaster to rapid population growth in eastern parts of Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, where nearly one million people have illegally built homes.
The municipality said most of the houses destroyed by the floods were built in low-lying areas and in valleys through which water had flowed. But observers and critics said that the incomplete flood water drainage and sewage system was a major cause for the disaster. The Jeddah municipality said that it was only able to complete 30 per cent of the drainage system in the city due to a lack of adequate funds provided by the ministry of finance. The ministry said that it allocated sufficient funds to do the job.
Following the crisis, the Saudi King Abdullah appointed an investigation committee headed by the governor of Mecca province, Prince Khalid al Faisal, to present those responsible for the disaster before the king. In what was viewed as the largest clampdown on corruption in the kingdom's history, the committee ordered the arrest of more than 40 municipality officials and contractors last month in an investigation related to the floods.
According to internal sources in the municipality and the governorate of Mecca, which includes Jeddah, Fahad al Suliman, the former government official who was responsible for the development of the sewage system in Jeddah in the 1980s, is among the officials who were detained for questioning. Mr al Suliman was the only official convicted in a Saudi court for abusing public funds allocated to the project. He then got a pardon due to his blood relations to senior members of the Saudi government serving under the former King Fahad.
Mr Shobokshi explained in Wright's 2004 article that instead of building the sewage network, Mr al Suliman took the money and built himself homes in San Francisco and Jeddah equipped with a discothèque and a bowling alley. As a result, Mr Shobokshi said, the streets in Jeddah were constantly filled with tanker lorries to drain the city's sewage cesspools and that some wastewater had seeped into Jeddah's groundwater.
Abuse of public funds, which became widespread in Saudi Arabia after the first oil boom in the 1970s, has become a major concern for King Abdullah, who is waging a war on corruption as part of his reform agenda. "It seems that the government is calming the public by diverting the attention to municipality figures and contractors as they are people at the end of the corruption scale to avoid exposing people at the top to the public," said Waleed Abu al Khair, a Jeddah-based lawyer and activist. "If government anti-corruption agencies were doing their job properly in the past years, then we wouldn't have ended up with this mess in our infrastructure."
Saudi Arabia announced last December an annual budget of 540bn riyals for 2010 - 14 per cent more than its 2009 budget and the largest in the kingdom's history. A total of 260bn riyals has been allocated to new welfare and infrastructure projects, and 137bn riyals for education. After the announcement of the kingdom's budget, King Abdullah addressed the cabinet and said, "The most important thing is that you carry out the projects in the budget sincerely. You should seek to overcome any hindrances, for I have heard a lot from people and I have felt it myself.
"Some projects have gone unfinished or have been lost," King Abdullah said, in reference to funded projects for which work never began. "I hope that you inform me of any failings on anyone's part, including the minister of finance," the king said. "If there is a failure, it is the minister alone who will shoulder the blame. The general auditing bureau sought the king's intervention in April last year in recovering public funds from other state agencies.
The head of the anti-corruption agency, Osama Faqeeh, told King Abdullah during a meeting on April 19 that the expansion in government expenditures on development projects and large-scale investment programmes across the country would require more co-operation among government agencies. Mr Faqeeh sought King Abdullah's help after the Shoura Council - the Saudi parliament - questioned him in March over 109bn riyals that was spent by the government without proper justifications and has never been recovered.