x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Dozens of Saudi officials held over corruption

Municipality staff are arrested over the registering of illegal properties destroyed by heavy floods in November, which left 122 dead.

JEDDAH // In the largest clampdown on corruption in the kingdom's history, police arrested dozens of current and former officials and contractors yesterday and Saturday in an investigation related to the floods in Jeddah.

At the end of November heavy rainfall caused major floods that wiped out thousands of homes in the city and killed at least 122 people who were living in illegally settled areas east of Saudi Arabia's second-largest city. In total, between 30 and 40 people were detained for questioning, including former Jeddah municipality and courts officials. Many of them were responsible for registering the properties that were inundated by the floods, according to local media reports.

The municipality previously attributed the causes of the disaster to rapid population growth in eastern parts of the city, where nearly one million people have illegally built homes on land without obtaining permits. 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. The arrests were made as a result of the work of an investigation committee, which was appointed by Saudi King Abdullah, and headed by the governor of Mecca province, Prince Khalid al Faisal, to present those responsible for the disaster before the king.

The detained have been linked to the misuse of public funds as they were responsible for the completion of drainage networks and for facilitating the sale of the land to the public. Activists in the city, however, say that the committee must do more than just announce the arrests of former officials. "The news on the arrests shows that there is an effort but doesn't show that we have reached a result on the investigation," said Walid Abu al Khair, a human rights activist.

"You don't need to arrest all those people to prove them guilty. From a legal point of view, you don't arrest people until you have a clear charge against them, but I don't think this is what happened with those people," the Jeddah-based lawyer said. Mr Abu al Khair is leading a group of 120 intellectuals who sent an open letter to the king asking him to grant them the right to know the results of the investigation.

He added that he and other lawyers have gathered a lot of information on the disaster and that they originally wanted to sue the responsible parties, but now that the king has appointed a committee, they were willing to put all the information at his disposal. The announcement of the arrests came one day after King Abdullah told Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah, in an interview published on Saturday, that he will show no leniency towards any official responsible for what happened in Jeddah.

"I wasn't comfortable with what happened in Jeddah, although the rainfall and floods happened by God's will, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be ready to confront it," the king said. The Saudi public has been voicing outrage for the past month over the situation. Citizens, intellectuals and newspaper columnists are demanding a public trial of the officials, but the committee announced early this month that it will present the findings to the king, and they would not be made public.

Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-at-large of al Watan daily, wrote in a column yesterday that he told Prince Khalid al Faisal last week that Saudi public opinion supports swift action and that people are asking that the names of the corrupt officials be announced. "No one is going to put pressure on me as I don't want to be unjust to any one [of the officials under questioning]," Prince Khalid told Khashoggi.

Khashoggi said the prince had started an investigation into corrupt municipality officials even before the floods. "What many did not know is that the governor had opened the files of some of them [those arrested] even before the Wednesday Floods. He was working silently and secretly as the situation [corruption] in Jeddah was known to everyone," Khashoggi wrote in his column. Jeddah, which saw rainfall of up to 76mm on the morning of Wednesday, November 23, lacked drainage systems with the capacity to handle the inundation, although the government says over the past five years it has allocated billions of riyals to developing such a system.

The Jeddah municipality said that it was only able to complete 30 per cent of the drainage system in the city due to the lack of adequate funds provided by the ministry of finance. The ministry said it allocated sufficient funds to do the job. wmahdi@thenational.ae