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December 19, 2009


Letter to Makkah Governor
Khaled Almaeena

Editor's Note:

Frank talk. That's what today's item of interest from SUSRIS is about. Khaled Almaeena, Editor-in-Chief of Arab News and resident of Jeddah, has written an extraordinary letter to Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, Govenor of Makkah. In it he describes the anguish of the people of Jeddah in the aftermath of last month's catastrophic flood that claimed over 100 lives in the Red Sea port city. He echoes much of the criticisms that have poured out in the weeks since the flood including a call from King Abdullah that "we cannot overlook the fact that there are errors or omissions from certain quarters" that must be "disclosed and dealt with firmly." Almaeena, in his letter, cites the King's call for transparency and accountability in dealing with the "degree of corruption, greed, nepotism and apathy in certain offices and institutions" that is said to have contributed to the lack of infrastructure and preparedness to deal with the deluge. He asks the Governor to lead a task force; calls for good governance; and challenges media to serve as a watchdog for "transparency and accountability and serving as a bridge between the government and the people."

Letter to Makkah Governor
Khaled Almaeena

Your Royal Highness, this letter comes to you in a spirit of humility, deep regard and from a citizen’s sincere desire to help and assist his fellows. My wish is that you accept the letter and its contents in the same spirit in which it is written. We know that God has honored you by your appointment as governor of Makkah region. It is, as we know, the most sacred spot on the planet and one which was much beloved by your late father, King Faisal. In his life he accomplished much, which has lasted through the years. Among the accomplishments for which he is remembered and revered are the founding of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), which are still with us long after his martyrdom. Just as your father left his indelible stamp upon the region, so we hope for the same from you as the son of a great king.

The Makkah region strives to have modern, well-organized cities with a bureaucracy to serve the people and put the public good as its highest aim. At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain. For people to lose their loved ones in front of their eyes, to see them snatched by swirling waters and disappear caused misery and trauma. What explanation can we give for these losses? How can we explain to the orphans, the widows, the widowers and the families of the missing?

Rains are meant to be a blessing but in our case here in Jeddah, they were a bane, surely the worst and most destructive we have seen for decades. Some loss of life and destruction of property were to be expected — but not on the scale that expands and worsens with each passing day. For long, we in Jeddah blamed everything for our problems but ourselves. It was as if we were totally oblivious to what was going on — and to what should have been going on. We were proud to call our city “Bride of the Red Sea” but we did nothing to make the bride safe, healthy and worthy of our love and esteem. We became a society wanting to be seen here and there, wearing our “bishoots” and expensive clothes, alighting from luxurious cars and posing for newspaper photographs. Whenever a new senior official was appointed, we rushed to offer our congratulations and throw lavish parties. We were concerned with ourselves and our vanities, forgetting the dangers that were being planted in and around the city.

The rains came and the floods exposed us all. They also exposed and laid bare the degree of corruption, greed, nepotism and apathy in certain offices and institutions. And sadly, by and large we in the media had been quiet; we had failed to report what was really happening. In his first reaction to the tragedy, however, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah issued a wake-up call to the Kingdom. He also added two new words to our Saudi lexicon — transparency and accountability. In the light of this, there is only the truth to be told. South Africa had its Truth Commission, the United States its Warren Report and Britain its White Paper. What our investigative bodies find must be made known and publicized within the framework of our government and society. Just as King Abdullah’s words have been a balm to the people, this report and its findings should ease the minds of those who suffered and even those who were not directly affected by the tragedy. Those who are responsible in any way should be named and if they have a conscience, they will surely be deeply shamed. We cannot allow those who blatantly transgress rules and disregard morality for their own personal gains to be unpunished victors. Having said this, we must not rush madly into a witch-hunt or a blame game. Being able to fix blame is important — but does it necessarily solve a problem or ease the pain of those who lost family and friends? Far better to correct what was wrong so that it does not happen again. Jeddah at the moment is buzzing with rumors about who, what, why, how much and when. Transparency and accountability will go a long way toward dispelling the rumors and replacing them with facts and solutions.

Let us now look to the future. Let us admit that many of our local companies failed (for whatever reason) to provide the world-class projects that they were supposed to provide. In addition, many institutions and government departments did not rise to the occasion and perform as they should have done. I suggest that it may be time for us to ask and learn from others and take advantage of their experience and expertise. There is no shame in this; the shame would be in doing nothing. We can learn from others — for example from Singapore’s Disaster Management Center, its civil defense and city management. Their problems are similar to ours and they have dealt with them successfully. Let us follow their example.

A task force under your command — with powers transcending bureaucracy should be formed. The task force should be composed of concerned citizens and the youth. Yes, let us not forget the young men and women who went out and provided immediate relief to those in distress. They organized themselves, rolled up their sleeves and got down to the job of helping the distressed and homeless. They did not wait to be asked; they acted on their own initiative and showed us all they could do and what they were capable of. Many of them are also qualified to offer advice and expertise that will help in rebuilding the flood-damaged areas. These young people are an invaluable asset and they do not want to accept corruption as the normal way of life. What is needed is something similar to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the destruction of World War II.

But all this needs good governance. Efficient and trusted government mechanisms must do their part to provide not only an economic miracle but a social one as well. We need a partnership involving the bureaucracy, society at large, NGOs and the media. Such a partnership could provide solutions to the challenges we face — and there are many. To highlight those challenges, we need a strong, professional, responsible media that act as a watchdog. Of course, the media must be critical but simply being critical is not enough; it must also offer constructive criticism and new ideas. There is increasing recognition that healthy media are the key to maintaining transparency and accountability and serving as a bridge between the government and the public. It is of the greatest importance that the media uphold values and ethical standards. For it to do less is serious failure and amounts to abdication of its most important responsibility. Credibility is the media’s greatest asset and should not be lost or sacrificed.

Your Royal Highness, as I said earlier, many of our people are in pain. They are patient; they are loyal and they have waited. They now look to you to solve these problems, which have such a great impact upon their lives, their property and the future of their children. They see other societies traveling at full speed and they too want to be travelers on the highway of life and progress. They have been bystanders long enough. They have had enough. They look to you to inspire the changes that will produce a reformed society and lead us all into a new age.

Arab News

About Khalid Al-Maeena:

Khalid Al-Maeena is the Editor-in-Chief of Arab News, the largest English daily in the Middle East, for over fifteen years. He first joined the newspaper as Editor-in-Chief from June 1982 to February 1993 and rejoined as of March 1, 1998. He was an anchor on Saudi Television (STV) and hosted popular talk shows. He has also worked as a radio announcer and TV program director.

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