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Saudi Girls May Not Have Died in Vain

By  Ambreen Syed

International affairs specialist


The Mecca school stampede that crushed to death 14 schoolgirls and injured 52 others has triggered an uproar in the country, with parents and the press blaming the Presidency of Girls' Education (PGE) for its incompetence in failing to deal with the issues of inadequate safety procedures and overcrowding.

There were also calls for the resignation of the PGE president and other top officials. Parents and intellectuals across the Kingdom have demanded that officials must take full responsibility for the catastrophe.

The appalling incident brought to the fore issues that have been simmering under the surface for some time. The minor issues are the appalling condition of government schools for girls and inadequate safety facilities. The real issue is that there has been a public outcry over the incident where Saudi newspapers are publishing critical reports, and parents, students, and educators are insisting that the authorities must address safety issue as a matter of priority.

Another important aspect is that the incident has prompted Saudi newspapers to question the conduct of government departments. Certainly, the taboo has been broken. Now, the question is…will the Saudi monarchy put the lid back on again or let such fresh winds flow?

The criticism of the conduct of the school gatekeeper, who locked the door and left his post, and of the squabbling between Civil Defense and the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice - who kept arguing outside over their respective jurisdiction - is indeed notable. Does it involve a weakening of the rulers' grip over the nation's affairs? Or is it a planned maneuver for letting off steam?

The criticism in newspapers points strongly toward the inefficiency, and especially lack of creativity on the part of the government. The intransigence of the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice agents over men putting out a fire in a women's school, especially when loss of life was imminent, clearly indicts the Saudi government for hiring ill-trained and ill-educated people.

The reporting of the mere fact that the school building lacked fire safety equipment also shatters the face painted by Saudi authorities through glossy brochures of select educational institutions.

Perhaps this is the first incidence where a senior Saudi official has been finger-pointed for highhandedness. Al-Nadwah, the only Saudi daily published in the holy city, criticized Director of Girls' Education in Mecca Abdul Aziz Al-Aqla, who said he smashed the camera of its photographer at the scene to prevent him from taking pictures, citing orders from "higher authorities". The paper also quoted women principals, giving their names, criticizing government officials for improper fire safety equipment in schools.

Such stark criticism has hardly been heard, even when bigger tragedies than the Makkah fire have occurred.

Perhaps the tragedy that took place in the intermediate school in Makkah's Hindawiya district may have destroyed the immunity that Saudi officials have enjoyed, and that from now on, the media will openly question their conduct.

It remains to be seen how the Saudi monarchy will react to the criticism from the Saudi newspapers. Years ago, a Pakistani newspaper published a news item about a girls' ballet school being patronized by a Saudi princess; weeks later its clipping made its way into the kingdom, and finally was reproduced by a newspaper there. The consequence was that the newspaper was shut down for a day for carrying the news item. Of course, there was never any mention as to what happened to the ballet school or its patron.

Considering the usual practice of sweeping everything under the rug, columnist Zuhair Al-Harithy, writing in Al-Eqtisadiah, has demanded, "Any investigation has to be followed by mass resignations involving all those connected with the incident. Even before that, there must be sackings and other forms of punishment."

"Who is to blame?" asked Al-Eqtisadiah. The Saudi monarchy does not need to look far. The tribal system of patronage used to run the government is not working. The question now becomes: did the 14 young ladies die in vain or not? The answer will come only when the Saudi monarchy reacts to the realities that led to the tragedy. 

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