Activists in Jeddah called on Thursday for a protest against poor infrastructure after deadly floods swamped Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city, a rare expression of dissent in the absolute monarchy.
A mass message via BlackBerry Messenger on Thursday urged Jeddah residents to join a demonstration on Saturday in an unusual move in the Gulf Arab state, at a time of spreading anti-government unrest across the Arab world.
“On Saturday there will be a demonstration in front of the municipality for Jeddah … gather as many people as you can,” the message ran. “We need brave men and women. We don’t want any more lies … We have to do something.”
The call for action in the top oil exporter, where public protest is not tolerated, comes as open defiance of authoritarian rulers spreads, with protests in Egypt and Yemen inspired by unrest which toppled Tunisia’s president this month.
Streets in the port city, which lacks a functioning drainage system, remained partly submerged on Thursday, a day after the floods sent thousands fleeing to higher ground, with authorities rescuing stranded residents using helicopters and dinghies.
At least four people were killed in the deluge.
Another message also sent via Blackberry urged all government and private sector employees to hold a general strike next week in protest at the authorities’ neglect of the city’s infrastructure.
It was not known who sent the messages.
“No work for the full week until they find a solution to the roads of Jeddah,” the message said.
The government has said it will give all assistance to victims of floods. On Wednesday, King Abdullah, who is resting in Morocco after back operations in New York, ordered rescue operations to be stepped up, warning officials not to delay his orders, state media said.
The last time the port city was flooded, in 2009, 120 people were killed, triggering rare debate about management of public funds and infrastructure defects in one of the world’s richest countries and an investigation into the problems.
Jeddah residents said the floods were four metres deep in some places and cut off electricity in large swathes of Red Sea port of four million inhabitants.
“The number of cars that sank look like a tsunami hit the city,” said one resident, Adnan, who said he had been stuck in a building in old Jeddah for 14 hours.
“I never thought badly about my government until I saw yesterday. It is a big shame. I hope people in Egypt don’t stop protesting so that we can get motivated to do something. May Allah curse this government,” he said.
Some residents were reported to be still trapped in office buildings with no food, while jammed roads forced others to abandon their cars and walk back home through sewage water.
Residents have long complained of neglect in the Gulf Arab state which has more than $400 billion in foreign reserves thanks to years of high oil prices.
“Jeddah has gone from bad to worse, but it is not rocket science we are asking for. All we want is a drainage system,” said resident Mohamad Abdullah, whose house was flooded.
Petrol stations turned people away after they ran out of petrol and schools were cancelled for the rest of the week.
“Every hopeful and positive expectation I had for the government drowned with the city,” said Mariam Alawi, a resident who recently moved to Jeddah from abroad.
Saudi Arabia, which has invested in ambitious projects including launching the world’s biggest clock in Mecca, passed a record budget in December and is spending $400 billion in the five years to 2013 to upgrade its infrastructure.
There are also plans to build the tallest tower in the world in Jeddah but a lack of a functioning underground sewage system remains a glaring infrastructure problem.
“I think it is ridiculous that they are about to build a 50 billion riyal ($13.33 billion) ‘tallest tower in the world’ and we don’t even have a water sewage system. The Romans had a sewage system for God’s sake,” said one Jeddah resident who declined to be named.