Emergency Management in Saudi Arabia:
Past, Present and Future
Yassar A. Alamri
“He who is secure in his house, healthy in his body and has his
food for the day, has owned the world” - Prophet Mohammed
The management of potentially hazardous situations such as religious mass
gatherings has been the duty of the people of Makkah (now part of Saudi Arabia) for
many centuries. Inhabitants of Makkah used to evacuate their houses to accommodate the
incoming pilgrims, and servants of the Holy Mosque used to distribute cold water to
quench pilgrims’ thirst. This concept of serving mass gatherings formed the nucleus of
the first emergency management plans in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Today, Saudi
Arabia covers most of the Arabian Peninsula and has faced many other risks in addition
to those arising from religious mass gatherings.
In order to improve on the existing emergency management policies and plans, it
is of crucial importance to examine the current emergency management system. It is also
pivotal to reflect back on previous disasters and learn lessons from them to avoid
committing the same mistakes again. It is saddening to discover that most emergency
policies implemented are either out-of-date, not fully documented or not easily
This chapter will look at current hazards and vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia. It
will also provide a list of major disasters in Saudi history, and describe the current
emergency management policies in the country. Finally, lessons learned from these
disasters and areas of improvement will be critically discussed.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is located in western Asia. It takes up most of the
Arabian Peninsula, with a surface area of 2,149,690 km2 and a population of 27.137
million (Central Department of Statistics and Information, 2010, United Nations:
Statistics Division, 2008). Of this population, 30% are 14 years or younger and only
4.75% are 60 years or older. International migrant stock, such as guest workers, represent
27.8% of the total population (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2010-2014). Saudi
Arabia’s population living in rural areas makes up 18.6% of the total population. The
geography is varied, from coastal regions in the eastern and western parts, to
mountainous regions in the south-west, and finally to the Rub’ al Khali desert running
along the country’s southern boarders where almost no life exists. The country is divided
into 13 provinces which are further divided into governorates; each of these has a capital
that is headed by a governor. Figure 1 shows a simplified map of Saudi Arabia and its
Medical student and PhD candidate (MBChB/PhD) at Christchurch School of Medicine, University of
Otago and Van der Veer Research Institute, P.O. Box 4345, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand. E-mail:
Figure 1. Map of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
(source: United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Hazards in Saudi Arabia
A hazard can be thought of as a potential risk endangering human life or health,
property or the environment. However, if this risk does lead to an incident, it is referred
to as an emergency situation or, if the damage is overwhelming, a disaster. Such events
are often the result of human factors, environmental hazards or natural causes. Although
considerable overlap occurs between these factors, there is usually one factor that
contributes significantly more than the others. This section will review hazards in Saudi
Arabia classified according to the main contributory factor.
1. Human-related risks:
• Terrorist attacks: Up until recent years, terrorist attacks have very rarely, if at all, been
heard of in Saudi Arabia. Citizens and foreigners have co-habitated for decades, even
before the foundation of the current Saudi Arabia. This was especially the case in areas
known for trade, such as Jiddah on the Red Sea, where merchants from Syria, Lebanon,
Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, and India regularly mingled and traded with local
With the rapid modernization that occurred to the country, more and more citizen-
foreigner interactions were formed. This increased presence and power of foreigners in
the Kingdom is viewed by some extremists as posing a “threat.” Lacking adequate
knowledge of Islamic laws, they took out-of-context quotes from Holy Scriptures to
justify taking their souls, along with many others’ of their fellow citizens and foreigners.
This has resulted in the unfortunate occurrence of several terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia
in the past few years (discussed later on in the chapter). Added to the human and
structural losses, these bombings resulted in transient internal instability in the country,
albeit brief, as well as interrupting public and international relations leading to an
unprecedented shift in regional and international political dynamics.
• Motor Vehicle Crashes (MVCs): MVCs are the leading cause of mortality and
morbidity in Saudi Arabia. There have been almost 500,000 MVCs in 2008 alone,
resulting in over 6,000 deaths (Ministry of Interior, 2008). This means that there are
1,350 MVCs, 101 people injured and 18 people killed everyday! This, in part, has been
attributed to the social and economic development in the country, leading to a
considerable increase in the numbers of drivers and vehicles. In turn, this has
overwhelmed traffic services in urban and rural areas. Supporting this theory is the
notable increase in MVCs and deaths seen during the special seasons on the Islamic
calendar (discussed next). For example, the province of Makkah has witnessed more
MVC-related deaths (26.02%) in 2008 than the rest of the 13 provinces of Saudi Arabia.
The vast majority of MVCs result from driver-related offences, as opposed to road- or
vehicle-related causes (Ministry of Interior, 2008). Driver-related offences can be divided
into the following categories: road-code offences, vehicle misuse, driving misjudgments
and other offences. Of these categories, road-code offences have been the most common,
with overspeeding and running red lights having accounted for more than 50% of all
MVAs in 2008. Of note, more than one-third of all MVA-related deaths are seen in the
18-29 years age group (which is most expected to undertake such driving stunts).
Targeting such risk factors, therefore, has the potential of dramatically improving
morbidity and mortality resulting from MVCs in Saudi Arabia.
MVCs are on the rise internationally, but they are particularly problematic in Saudi
Arabia. In a review of MVCs from all Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia had the highest
incidence of accidents including pedestrians (Al-Tukhi, 1990). Not only has this been
claiming the lives of many people in Saudi Arabia, but it has also been exhausting
national resources that could be better utilized.
• Ramadan and Hajj seasons: Ramadan and Hajj are two special seasons on the Islamic
calendar, for which a massive influx of people from all over the world come to Saudi
Arabia. Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, while Hajj occurs on the
12th month. Given that the Islamic calendar employs a lunar cycle, these events do not
equate to a particular time on the Gregorian solar calendar (which is usually 11-12 days
longer). This also means that these events cycle between seasons (i.e. summer, fall,
winter and spring) every few years.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, it is an Islamic belief that good deeds are
exponentially greater. As a result, many Muslims from around the world make an effort
to visit the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medina to perform prayers and other rituals.
This leads to a cumulative number of visitors of about 2 million people over a period of
only 30 days. With this number of visitors, simple practicalities, such as when to perform
physical prayers, can result in profound adverse effects that can exhaust available
resources. For example, an observational study from Al-Noor Specialist Hospital in
Makkah has shown that most emergency department admissions were during the evening
shift (4pm-12am). This was attributed to the fact that most patients were fasting and had
been exposed to the high temperatures of summer while performing prayers during the
day (Dhaffar et al., 2005).
Hajj refers to the major pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah, carried out over 5
days on the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. It is obligatory for each adult Muslim,
physically and financially capable, to perform Hajj at least once in their lifetime. During
Hajj season, there is an almost sudden increase in Makkah’s population from 200,000
permanent inhabitants to well over 3 million people. This increase puts major stress on
Makkah’s modest supplies of food and water as well as its health services. In addition,
the limited space in Makkah has raised concerns about pilgrim overcrowding and
trampling, increased MVCs, spread of infectious diseases and other public health
2. Technological hazards: Technological hazards refer to the partial malfunction or total
breakdown of equipment leading to the early cessation of an operation short of its
intended goal. Technological hazard is increasingly becoming a recognized separate
category of hazards. Depending upon the type of operation ceased, technological hazards
can result in power outages, environmental damage or health risks for the human
workforce. Since Saudi Arabia is one of the leading oil-producing countries, this
paragraph will focus on the risks posed by technological hazards in the oil industry.
Technological hazards in the oil industry can occur at any stage of oil processing:
from extraction to refinement to exportation. Some of the incidents that can occur include
damage to oil wells, leaking pipelines, accidental ballast water discharge from loading
terminals and accidental oil spillages.
All Saudi factories involved in oil-related operations are very active in the
protection and maintenance of the equipment in accordance with SASO (Saudi Standards,
Metrology and Quality Organization) standards. Unfortunately, however, incidents still
occur in spite of all precautionary measures, and there have been about 36 recorded oil
spills in the Arabian Gulf alone as of 2005 (Al-Suwian, 2001). Several field studies from
King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals have not shown any significant
pollution of the Arabian Gulf by heavy metals or hydrocarbons (Al-Suwian, 2001).
However, the Arabian Gulf is especially likely to become more polluted since it is
enclosed and receives only a slow rate of water exchange with the open sea. It also has a
high salinity and a rapid rate of water evaporation leading to an even higher salinity. All
of this poses a great threat to living marine species, the ecological structure of the Gulf,
as well as people working in the area.
3. Natural disasters: Saudi Arabia has recently become known for media-attracting
incidents such as terrorist attacks and major MVCs. However, less attention has been
given to natural disasters, even though their incidence has been on the rise. Floods are the
most frequently encountered natural disaster in Saudi Arabia. They have been the cause
of 7 of the 10 most damaging natural disasters in the history of the country between 1900
and 2010 (refer to Table 1).
The reason behind floods being a major threat in Saudi Arabia is multi-faceted.
Rains have been relatively scarce in the area, and this has lead to the under-development
of a proper drainage system in the country. Compounding this problem is the geography
of some of the most populated cities in Saudi Arabia. Cities, such as Jiddah and Makkah,
are on low ground and are surrounded by mountains. When rains fall on these mountains,
water runs in valleys towards these cities. With poor drainage systems, this continuous
flow of water could easily lead to a flash flood.
Table 1. Top 10 natural disasters in
Saudi Arabia for the period 1964 to
2010, sorted by the number of people
killed (source: International Disaster
Vulnerability in Saudi Arabia
Vulnerability in any country can be gauged by how it prepares for and reacts to
emergency situations and hazards. This section will examine vulnerabilities in Saudi
Arabia in terms of emergency preparedness and reaction to emergencies once they occur.
Emergency preparedness vulnerabilities
Saudi Arabia has certain vulnerabilities that can hinder the country’s ability to be
better prepared for hazards discussed previously. One of these is the short time available
to prepare for high risk seasons, namely, Hajj and Ramadan season. This line-up of mass
gathering seasons leaves no time for proper emergency preparedness projects. Usually,
preparations of these seasons start at least a month before Ramadan. As people start to
leave after the Ramadan season, more and more people arrive in Makkah in preparation
for Hajj. This takes up the period leading to the actual Hajj season. After Hajj, at least
two to four weeks are spent on cleaning the Holy Mosque and fixing any damage caused
by the season itself rather than initiating new emergency preparedness projects.
The scale and timing of these mass gathering seasons leave no choice for
emergency planners but to operate on full capacity, and surge capacity of human and
physical resources is almost null. Any extra resources are only used for increasing the
operating capacity to handle more visitors rather than to increase the surge capacity.
Furthermore, with all the crowding during these mass gathering seasons, emergency
preparedness activities take longer to establish and are more expensive to run because of
the logistics and practicalities of establishing a preparedness program in a very crowded
city (i.e. Makkah). Basically, the nature and timing of high risk seasons in Makkah make
the population of Makkah and its visitors more vulnerable to disasters and its impact.
Another, although less significant, factor to exacerbate the vulnerability of Saudi
Arabia to the impact of potential disasters is the recent trend of reluctance from
international experts, including emergency planners, to work in the country especially
after the recent terrorist attacks (Maben et al., 2010). This has affected the progress of a
wide range of collaborative developmental projects including emergency preparedness
projects, for which more expertise and skill than available in the country is required.
Emergency preparedness is based on experience-sharing, and international expertise is
central to any readiness activities and without such expertise the vulnerability to the
effect of disasters is multiplied.
Vulnerabilities in reaction to emergencies
A country’s reaction to emergencies once they strike determines the extent of the
damage. Multiple factors could improve or hinder the reaction to emergencies. Saudi
Arabic has several factors that could hinder recovery efforts and increase the
vulnerability to disasters impact. These are usually social and demographic factors, such
as the high rate of illiteracy and language barriers among vulnerable populations.
Illiteracy and lack of proper education can negatively affect people’s attitudes
towards emergency preparedness. In 2007, illiteracy rates were 23.6% in females and
8.6% of males over 15 years (Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2010-2014). Not being
able to read safety brochures or use the internet and other media resources for public
announcements can have adverse consequences and place the population on higher risk of
being a victim of disasters. For example, during the rainfall that resulted in the flood in
Jiddah in 2009 (discussed in the next section), many people ignored warnings about using
motor vehicles for unnecessary trips simply because illiteracy means less attention to
such messages. Some people under-estimated the risk and decided to take a trip in their
cars to “enjoy” the rain, and these were the cars that were swept away by the flood and
clogged main streets. Moreover, some people have the attitude that “what God wills to
happen, will happen”; however, this contradicts Islamic beliefs. Islamic teachings state
that every person has to do their best in taking precautions, as well as believing in God
and relying on Him. In short, lower education level and illiteracy leads to less effective
risk-communication and under-appreciation of the power of disasters. Many communities
in Saudi Arabia have a higher vulnerability to the impact of disaster because people do
not appreciate risks and ignore official messages.
Another problem is the language barrier among immigrant workers in Saudi
Arabia. Immigrant workers made up 53.1% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia in 2008
(Ministry of Economy and Planning, 2010-2014). In spite of this large number, most
precautionary warnings issued by officials during disasters are still publicized in Arabic!
There has been a call for occupational emergency personnel who can speak languages
most commonly used by foreign workers (e.g. Urdu and Filipino); attempts to date have
been unsuccessful. The media is still largely in Arabic and less of other languages. This
miscommunication leads to increased vulnerability of minority groups in Saudi Arabia
who are labor workers living in high risk areas.
In summary, the vulnerability to disasters and their impact is compounded in
Saudi Arabia by multiple factors, such as the nature of the mass gatherings, the high
illiteracy rate and miscommunication of risk to minority groups. These factors all tend to
slow down preparedness activities and make recovery after disasters even slower.
History of disasters in Saudi Arabia
Almost all major disasters in Saudi Arabia can be attributed to one or more of the
hazards and vulnerabilities mentioned in the previous sections. Unfortunately, there is no
official publicly-available database that keeps a record of disasters in the country. Most
official information available comes from newspapers local to the region where the
disaster occurred. The International Disaster Database (IDD) of the WHO provides the
best record of disasters in Saudi Arabia (International Disaster Database, 2010). For this
section, data recorded in the IDD have been compared to information published in the
relevant medical literature as well as in local newspapers around the time of any given
disaster to check for accuracy (2000, Aguilera et al., 2002, Almulla, 2008, Lerner et al.,
2007, Thompson et al., 2004). Table 2 shows a chronological list of major disasters in the
past 50 years in Saudi Arabia. The following is a description of the most significant
disasters in the history of Saudi Arabia:
1964 rains: this is the earliest recorded account of a natural disaster in Saudi Arabia.
Heavy rains poured continuously on parts of the country leading to a flood that killed 20
people and left about 1,000 people either injured or homeless. No further details are
Fire incident in Hajj season 1975: during Hajj season in 1975, a fire broke out in one of
the pilgrim’s tents near Makkah and quickly spread to other tents. The fire was caused by
an explosion of a gas cylinder, and led to the death of 200 pilgrims.
Seizure of the Holy Mosque in Makkah: on 20 November 1979 the Holy Mosque in
Makkah was occupied by a group of armed Muslim extremists. The attackers had planned
to seize the Mosque by filling coffins with weapons and smuggled them into the Mosque.
On the morning of the day of seizure, they chained the gates of the Mosque, killed the
two guards on-duty at the time, and held present worshippers hostages. They called on
the people to revoke the current Saudi Monarchy and obey their leader, Abdullah Hamid
Al-Qahtani. After more than two weeks of cross-fire with the Saudi Army, and with the
help of Pakistani and French forces, the siege of the Mosque was ended. At least 250
people were killed and 600 injured, including worshippers, troops and insurgents. The
surviving insurgents were captured by Saudi authorities and later executed.
Ras al-Khafji thunderstorm: in October 1982, a severe thunderstorm hit Ras al-Khafji
city on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. Hail stones were reported to be as big as tennis
balls. This was followed by four hours of heavy rains. The net damage included 11
Type of disaster
Fire during Hajj
Militant occupation of
Holy Mosque in Makkah
Help from Pakistani
and French forces
Floods in north-western
At least 32
Iranian riots during Hajj
pedestrian tunnel during
failure of ventilation
system inside the
Fire during Hajj
Rift Valley Fever
km2 of hoses, lands
Table 2. Top 10 disasters causing major damages in Saudi Arabia between 1960 and
2010 (NDA = No Data Available)
1985 flood: on 24 December 1985, heavy rains poured on north-western regions of Saudi
Arabia, leading to what has been described as the worst flood in the area in 50 years.
Estimates of damage were not recorded, except that there were at least 32 people killed
from the flood.
Iranian riots in Hajj 1987: in July 1987, the Civil Defense forces and Saudi Police had
to open fire against Iranian demonstrators after arguments escalated to fights between the
two parties. This incident claimed the lives of 402 people, and wounded 649. This led to
political tension between the two countries, and Iranian pilgrims were held from entering
Saudi Arabia for Hajj seasons 1988 and 1989.
Stampede in Hajj season 1990: as pilgrims were moving between the sacred sites on the
second day of Hajj season in 1990, a massive stampede occurred in a tunnel south of
Makkah. The stampede occurred after what is thought to be a failure in the ventilation
system inside the tunnel. This led to the suffocation and death of 1,426 pilgrims, most of
whom were from south-east Asia.
Stampede in Hajj season 1994: During one of the rituals of Hajj, a stampede occurred
as pilgrims leaving the site crossed roads with those coming in. This led to a massive
disorder culminating in the death of 270 pilgrims, most of whom were trampled.
Khobar tower attack: on 25 June 1996, a terrorist truck bomb (estimated to carry
20,000 pounds of TNT equivalents) exploded in Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia. The
attack was aimed against troops of US Air Forces, US Army and coalition forces who
billeted in Khobar towers military compounds. The attack resulted in the death of 19
people and the injury of 555 people.
1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision: even though this tragic event occurred outside
the country, it deserves to be mentioned since it is considered the deadliest mid-air
collision in history. On 12 November 1996, Saudi flight 763 was en route to Saudi Arabia
from India when it collided with Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907. All 349 people on-
board both flights were killed.
Yanbu flood: heavy rains poured on western Saudi Arabia in January 1997, mainly
affecting Yanbu and peripheries of Jiddah. The rain lasted for 24 hours, killing 10 people
and causing damage to an area of over 130,000 km2 of land.
Asir flood: Asir is a province in the Southwest of Saudi Arabia. On Monday 25 March
1997, heavy rains poured on the region, leading to floods that resulted in 16 fatalities and
damaged an area of just below 100,000 km2 of land.
Fire incident in Hajj season 1997: in April 1997, a gas stove exploded in one of the
pilgrim’s tents, leading to a massive fire that quickly spread to other nearby tents. It
claimed the lives of 343 pilgrims, and more than 1,500 were wounded. This stimulated
authorities to design the currently used fire-proof tents, as well as banning gas-operated
Meningitis outbreaks in Hajj and Ramadan: outbreaks of N. meningitides serogroup
W135 have been reported from as early as 1987. In the Ramadan of 1992, an epidemic
occurred, but all cases have been confined to residents of Saudi Arabia. However, in Hajj
season 2000, another outbreak of the same infection occurred, only to include pilgrims
from various countries this time. This had led to the spread of the infection to countries
from which those infected pilgrims came. The reported cumulative number of deaths is
57, but is likely to be considerably higher.
The 2000 Rift Valley Fever outbreak: beginning in early September 2000, it had been
noticed that goats and sheep were being found dead in some areas of the far south of
Saudi Arabia. Soon after, reports of hemorrhagic fevers from the same region started to
increase, which had subsequently been identified as Rift Valley Fever. The Saudi
Ministry of Health declared an epidemic (i.e. the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia), and
advised citizens to wear mosquito repellants. Areas where dead animals were found were
quarantined; live stock in endemic areas were checked and exterminated if found ill. At
least 87 people died and more than 500 people were afflicted by this infection.
Makkah 2002 flood: heavy rains started falling on Makkah area on 8 April 2002 and
lasted for a whole week. This led to flooding of water in some areas, claiming the lives of
19 people; hundreds of Makkah residents were rescued by the GDCD that week.
Makkah 2003 flood: not quite recovered from previous year’s rain, Makkah experienced
yet another heavy shower described as the worst rains in Makkah in 25 years. Water
levels were reported to have reached 6 meters. Twelve people were killed; however,
estimates of physical damage are not available.
Riyadh 2003 bombings: on 12 May 2003, attacks on three different housing compounds
were conducted by a group of nine radical terrorists. These sites are thought to have been
chosen because they contained a large number of Westerners and non-Muslims. Seven
vehicles, packed with explosives, gained entry into the compounds after attackers killed
the guards. The attackers then detonated their bombs and the vehicles, resulting in a
significant damage to buildings and vehicles and leaving large craters. Thirty-four people
were killed and 194 were injured.
Jizan 2004 floods: less than four months apart, two floods hit the Jizan region, leading to
what has been described as Jizan’s worst floods in 45 years. The floods left over 400
people homeless, killed 13 people and devastated many roads and farms.
Medina 2005 flood: very heavy showers fell on Medina region in January 2005. This
resulted in a flood that caused the Yatamah dam to fail, killing 29 people. Seventeen
people were injured, 50 were left homeless and 43 had to be evacuated.
Riyadh 2005 flood: heavy rains poured on the Riyadh region of Saudi Arabia, as well as
on other areas in neighboring countries (i.e. Oman and the United Arab Emirates). The
resultant flood claimed the lives of seven people; 700 people had to be evacuated via
GDCD helicopters and another 700 were left homeless.
Hostel collapse in Makkah: in Hajj season 2006, a hostel near the Holy Mosque
collapsed after a fire had spread in lower floors of the building. Most pilgrims were out in
the Mosque as it was time for the noon prayer. The collapse killed 76 people, most of
whom were people passing by the building, and another 64 were injured.
Jiddah 2009 flood: at around 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday 25 November 2009, rain started
falling heavily in Jiddah, and continued for around 12 hours. The amount of water in this
relatively brief downpour (around 90 mm3) doubled the average annual rainfall in Jiddah.
With a sound infrastructure and a proper drainage system lacking, this rain turned into the
worst disaster that Jiddah has experienced in 27 years or so. The downpour resulted in the
formation of water tides coming from the hills on the east of the city, heading west
towards the Red Sea and cutting their way through the city.
Several residential houses collapsed, forcing many inhabitants to upper floors and
roofs. Labs and databases at King Abdulaziz University and King Abdulaziz Hospital
were destroyed, wasting valuable resources, specimens and medical records.
Major roads of the city were blocked by meters-high of water waves or by cars
that have been washed out. As a result, thousands of pilgrims had to wait in buses for
hours before getting to Makkah for the first day of Hajj. Furthermore, King Abdullah
Bridge on the South of Jiddah had partially collapsed, adding to the chaos and fright to
Power and telecommunication services were not spared either. As early as 11
a.m., floods had already resulted in a temporary power outage on the whole western
region of Saudi Arabia (i.e. Makkah, Medina and Jiddah). Many people were not even
able to call for help as communication with emergency services (e.g. civil defense forces,
police or emergency medical services) failed due to the overwhelmed network and power
outage. Overall, 161 people lost their lives as a result of the floods, either drowning or
from car crashes. This disaster had an estimated cost of around US$900 million to
reconstruct Jiddah and help its victims.
Photos of Jiddah 2009 flood (source: personal communication)
Riyadh 2010 flood: on 3 May 2010, Riyadh city experienced a brief 45-minute water
shower, accompanied by light hail and winds gusting up to 24 km/hour. As brief as the
downpour was, however, it resulted in floods and car crashes across the city.
Local newspapers reported that at least two people were killed, and that the floods
caused around 275 car crashes. Even though King Khalid International Airport was not
affected, many people missed their scheduled flights due to poor road conditions. A
survey committee, appointed by the Governor of Riyadh, has started assessing the extent
of and the reasons behind the damage that resulted from the rain.
Development of emergency management plans in Saudi Arabia
The development of emergency management plans in Saudi Arabia started more
than 80 years ago, and has been progressing slowly since then. The first nucleus of an
emergency management body was a fire brigade that was formed in Makkah in 1927
(Ministry of Interior, 2001). Its purpose was to serve pilgrims that came to Makkah every
year. It was the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, and it was managed by the Makkah
Provincial Council. In 1948, the Makkah Fire Brigade joined the later-established Center
of General Security to form the General Security and Fire Services. Over the following
32 years, the General Security and Fire Services grew to include 5 fire brigades in
Makkah alone. Meanwhile, fire brigades formed in a number of other cities including:
Medina, Jiddah, Riyadh, Qasim, and Dammam.
In 1965, a Royal Decree by King Faisal dissolved the General Security and Fire
Services, and instead formed the current General Directorate of Civil Defense (GDCD).
This was following recommendations by the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The scope of the GDCD was wider than previous emergency management bodies because
it was made the official body of civilian defense during peace and in times of instability.
During this time, the GDCD received generous funds to expand its human and material
resources. In addition, the GDCG centers started operating in more and more urban and
rural areas in the Kingdom with the help of the evolving telecommunication networks.
Later on, in 1987, King Fahad ordered a reform of the GDCD’s structure, goals
and responsibilities. As a result, staff from the GDCD administration paid several visits
to neighboring and other friend countries to investigate civil defense advancements and
useful experiences in these countries. After extensive meetings, the current Civil Defense
Law was decreed, which included 36 sections. The following is a translation of two
sections relevant to emergency management:
Section one defines “civil defense” as protocols and operations required to protect
civilians as well as public and private properties from the dangers of fires, natural
disasters, wars and other accidents. It also encompasses rescuing those afflicted by such
catastrophes, ensuring transportation safety, and protecting national resources in times of
peace and emergency.
Article four of section two defines the role of the GDCD in emergencies and wars
1. Organizing and operating the national alarm system in cases of
emergencies or attacks by a foreign army.
2. Managing electrical power, and organizing evacuation and shelter plans.
3. Extinguishing fires and rescuing civilians and providing basic
life-support measures in damaged areas.
4. Marking areas afflicted by nuclear damage, and directing civilians
away from them.
5. Corresponding with other governmental bodies (e.g. Ministry of
Transportation) to ensure safe transportation of civilians.
6. Removing debris from damaged areas, and rehabilitating them for safe
use as soon as possible.
Current structure of the General Directorate of Civil Defense
The current structure of the GDCD is divided into three levels: Board of GDCD,
Executive Committee, and volunteers (Ministry of Interior, 2001). The following is a
description of the members of each level, and the most important roles for which each
level is responsible. Figure 2 shows a schema of the current structure of the GDCD.
1. Board of GDCD:
This is made up of the Minister of Interior as Chairman, Assistant Minister of
Interior as Deputy-Chairman and a number of members who represent divisions of the
GDCD or sectors that work closely with the GDCD, such as fire services, police and
emergency medical services. Those members are appointed by a Royal Decree often after
the recommendation of the Chairman or his deputy.
The Board of GDCD is responsible for:
1. Establishing general GDCD policies and planning future projects.
2. Establishing safety and fitness standards that must be met in all
projects to ensure civilian safety and protect public and private
3. Establishing guidelines for training programs for GDCD personnel.
4. Establishing policies for the recruitment of GDCD volunteers and
defining their roles and rights.
5. Forming divisions of the GDCD, defining their responsibilities
and appointing a manager to each division.
6. Reviewing the suggested budget annually before seeking approval
from the Ministry of Finance.
2. Executive Committee:
This committee consists of members appointed by the Board according to GDCD
policies. A president of the committee ensures that projects are executed in a timely and
efficient manner, and that the workload is divided equally between all members.
The Executive Committee is responsible for:
1. Enacting policies established by the GDCD Board, following up
on current projects.
2. Suggesting new or alternative projects and liaising with Ministries
and other governmental bodies for cooperation.
3. Enacting safety measures in response to emergencies (once
declared by the Board).
4. Providing food, clothes, shelter and first aid for those in need
in times of emergencies.
5. Representing Saudi Arabia in national and international
conferences and courses.
6. Providing the Board with a suggested budget on an annual basis.
3. GDCD volunteers:
These are citizens and residents who are willing to help with the GDCD tasks
during times of increased demand, such as natural disasters. They can apply online
through the GDCD’s website, and receive some training upon acceptance.
Figure 2. Schema of current GDCD
(source: adapted from GDCG website)
Lessons learned and policies implemented
Saudi Arabia’s history is rich in emergencies and disasters that took their toll on
the people and the country’s resources. Saudi Arabia’s extended geography, being the
destination of two important religious mass gatherings, and the unfortunate occurrence of
recent terrorist attacks, have all posed significant challenges to the country’s relatively
new emergency management plans. As different disasters struck, lessons have been
slowly learned and emergency policies implemented. Below is a list of the most
significant and recent lessons. It is critical to note that official policies are not easily
accessible to the public or researchers as it is considered a national security issue.
1. After the recent increase in insurgency attacks in the country,
authorities have become more vigilant in trying to detect any suspected
activities and arresting offenders before tragedies occur. A list of
suspects, which contains background information and/or suspects’
photos, is now published regularly in all major newspapers, as well as
being televised on national TV. A designated emergency hotline, fax
number and email are now available to the public if any person has
information about those suspects, or anything that might threaten
national security. A monetary award is given to individuals who help or
supply information about such offenders.
2. A new comprehensive digital traffic control system has just been
introduced to try to limit the high number of MVCs and the subsequent
damage. It is now available in eight major cities around the county. The
system has been named Saher, which translates to “watchful and
napless” to imply its coverage of all roads within a city, 24 hours a day.
The new system employs digital camera networks that connect to the
local command and control center in each city. Information is then sent
to the National Information Center of the Ministry of Interior for
statistical purposes, and to issue traffic violation tickets and identify
wanted or stolen vehicles (Saher, 2010).
3. Over the years, projects and developments to make the Hajj process
easier have been slowly implemented, and some have now been
completed. Most tunnels and sacred sites where stampedes happened
now operate on a one-way system. Also, some of the sacred sites have
been re-organized into floors to maximize space efficiency and
facilitate one-way travel. Moreover, fire-proof tents have been built,
and all gas-operated tools have been banned to minimize the chance of
fires. Expansions to the Holy Mosque and nearby sacred sites are still
underway, all in an effort to avoid previous disasters.
4. One of the current developmental projects in Makkah that deserves
special attention is Makkah Metro (Adasah and Hamed, 2010). The
metro is intended to connect the Holy Mosque and other sacred places
which pilgrims have to visit during their Hajj journey. Costing more
than US $1.5 billion, the metro will work on full capacity during Hajj
season 2011. It is projected to decrease the traffic jams that occur every
year when pilgrims move between sacred site on cars and buses. It will
also reinforce the one-way system already in use for pedestrians.
Although the project started in February 2009, it will only operate on
35% capacity for Hajj season 2010. Constraints in time between Hajj
seasons have hindered its timely completion, even though the 5,000
workers are said to have taken shifts to work 24 hours a day, seven days
a week. Once fully operational, the metro is expected to transport
72,000 pilgrims per hour (Adasah and Hamed, 2010).
5. As a result of previous infectious outbreaks, the Saudi Ministry of
Health has understandably been vigilant about health measures and
safety before, during and after Ramadan and Hajj seasons. It has issued
preventative measures and recommendations for mass gathering-
associated health risks. General measures before the mass gathering
include routine physical examinations, and advice to the worshippers
to carry a thermometer, a 3-day course of ciprofloxacin, and
loperamide, as well as getting tested for tuberculosis. Furthermore,
specific health measures (i.e. screening and vaccination) for yellow
fever, meningitis W135 and poliomyelitis also apply for people coming
from areas of higher risk. During mass gatherings, worshippers are
advised to continue using their usual medications, maintain hand
hygiene, increase dietary salt intake, perform rituals at night if possible,
seek shade, apply sunscreen, maintain adequate hydration, use
facemasks and initiate self-treatment if needed. After the mass
gathering is over, health measures should include medical follow-up,
seeking early medical help if ill, as well as testing for tuberculosis for
6. With the increasing numbers of worshippers coming to perform Hajj
every year, there has been an anticipated increase in difficulty in case a
medical evacuation is needed. This led to the recent introduction of a
new system of aero-medical helicopters. The Saudi Red Crescent
Society has just implemented this program, and currently possesses
four helicopters. The goal is to reach a total of 25 helicopters to cover
the whole of the country, and to facilitate better and faster acute care
during busier periods, such as Hajj.
The Flying Ambulance (source: personal communication)
7. After the 9/11 attacks in the US and terrorist attacks in Saudi, the rate of
visiting skilled workers and experts, especially from “Western”
countries, has dramatically decreased. Compounded with the high rate
of unemployment in the country, this left many developmental projects
on paper. As a result, there has been a recent movement in the country
to send its students on scholarships for tertiary education. This strategic
plan not only aims to increase opportunities for students beyond
secondary schooling, but also to invest in those students to bring back
experience and skills from outside. This way Saudi Arabia would use
its own skilled workers and experts instead.
8. There has also been a move to “Saudize” available jobs and to recruit
more citizens into the workforce (Maben et al., 2010). This has
decreased the need to employ expatriates and their subsequent needs,
such as accommodating for language differences. With that in place,
however, there has been a move to increase the use of English language
in all official electronic and published materials in an effort to keep the
wider community informed.
Challenges and Future Opportunities
Emergency management in Saudi Arabia has advanced a long way compared to
some of its neighboring countries. Unfortunately, however, it is still struggling to
proactively manage current risks and vulnerabilities, let alone preparing for potential
future disasters. Such potential disasters include effects of climate change and political
instability in the region. Since we still have the time to prepare for such emergencies, it
might be wise to invest the time and money to do so. Otherwise, we would have learned
nothing from history, and the cost of this is nothing less than more lost lives and wasted
MVCs are still on the rise, both in Saudi Arabia and worldwide. With the new
introduction of the Saher system, it is hoped that it will slow down the alarming rate at
which fatalities and damages currently occur. However, nothing comes without
downsides. For example, some people have been complaining that speed limits have not
been set in all streets covered by Saher cameras. This leaves the driver puzzled as to
whether it is a 60 km/hour area or a 40 km/hour area. Other concerns have been that the
Saher system only covers certain vehicles (e.g. cars and trucks), but not motorbikes,
limiting some of its potentials. However, the project is still young and more
developments are likely to occur in the near future if it proves to be beneficial and cost-
Management of religious mass gatherings (i.e. Ramadan and Hajj) has
substantially improved compared to the situation as little as 10 years ago. Recent
developments, such as Makkah metro and the flying ambulance, are projected to help and
ease the trip of Hajj to the millions of pilgrims every year. On the other hand, significant
improvements still need to take place before such facilities can be safely used on such a
large scale. For example, helicopter bases, where patients can be received and flown,
have not been established yet. This can prove difficult, especially with the already limited
space available around the crowded sacred sites. Some critics have argued that the
establishment of a metro that runs for only five days per year is a waste of money and
resources. They have suggested that the project should be expanded to serve during other
busier times, such as Ramadan, and serve potentially larger areas, such as between
Makkah and Medina.
As far as managing natural disasters is concerned (especially floods), there has
been frustratingly very little done. This might be because natural disasters are still viewed
as rare and “low-impact” types of emergency. Also, trying to establish drainage systems
in an already heavily-populated city, such as Jiddah, has proven difficult. Many roads
will have to be closed down for extended periods; there is also little coordination between
different parties providing infrastructural services, such as power cables, telephone cables
and draining pipes. All of these factors have contributed to the delay in finding a solution
to such a significant threat. However, Jiddah 2009 floods have shocked policy-makers
and encouraged them to initiate new developmental projects and to hasten already
existing ones. All of this is in the hopes of finding a practical solution to prevent similar
tragedies in the future.
Finally, illiteracy and the subsequent lack of professional and skilled national
workforce have taken their toll on the country. With under 50% of the current workforce
being Saudi, it is estimated that as much as US$60 billion are sent out of the country as
remittances by foreign workers (Maben et al., 2010). Not only has this been draining the
country’s money and resources, but it has also increased dependence on such immigrant
workers in a country whose more than 30% of its youth is unemployed! This,
unfortunately, has not been limited to professional and skilled jobs only, but also includes
other more laborious jobs. Occupations such as plumbing, carpentry and nursing are
perceived by many to be demeaning or degrading for Saudis. This perception might have
arisen from the fact that this class of society has long been mistreated and underpaid.
However, this has recently been changing as more and more people are struggling to find
“clean” jobs to support their families. It is hoped that the increase in the Saudi workforce
will strengthen the country’s economy and keep the money within the country where it
can be directed into such projects as better education, infrastructure, and disaster
In conclusion, this chapter has shed some light on the current hazards and
vulnerabilities in Saudi Arabia. A list of almost all major disasters recorded to date has
been provided, and the chapter also described how policy-makers and emergency
planners have reacted when they occurred. Even though not much progress has been done
in terms of natural disasters (namely floods), the Jiddah 2009 flood has certainly served
as a wake-up call, and the pace on emergency management has started to pick up.
Saudi Arabia is often highly looked upon in the region. This, among other factors,
ought to encourage policy-makers and planners to intensify their efforts to make the
Saudi emergence management program a model to be followed by other countries in the
region. It is hoped that this chapter will serve as a first step in the path of documenting
current policies and provide a rich resource to build up upon.
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