My Experience Developing Saudi Campus Emergency Management Programs

Published: May 11, 2011

In May 2010, I had the opportunity to work for one week with emergency management colleagues from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who were at the ground level of developing a new (literally being built from scratch) emergency plan, emergency management (EM) program and system. The Saudis wanted to know what I did as an emergency manager from UCLA, how our EM program was structured, and how to adapt and integrate what we do here in the United States. They wanted to incorporate some of what we do into their university.

This is difficult to do when FEMA, state, county and local EM programs do not exist in your country (actually, that may be good thing depending on where you work). Over the course of two weeks, one year apart, we built a framework that used local cultures, government and campus organizations, and built a rudimentary EM organization for their campus.

The Middle East Has Disasters Too

A few months before I went to Saudi Arabia, a major disaster struck that region. In November 2009, the Saudi kingdom and western Saudi university campus (adjacent to the Red Sea) experienced a major flash flood when a five-hour deluge dumped nearly four inches of rain on the community. When the floodwaters receded, more than 200 people were dead; over 10,000 buildings destroyed; 4,000 vehicles washed away; greater than 25,000 people had been physically displaced by the floodwaters; and many areas of the campus were devastated. The floods created a public fury of protest  similar to the public outcry in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

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In January of this year, the campus and Jeddah region experienced another flash flood. The Kingdom paid a sum of $1 million Saudi Riyal ($275,000 US) to the families and survivors of those killed in the disaster. Saudi authorities have launched investigations into the infrastructure problems that contributed to the loss of life.  

Although there was significant damage, the damage was lessened by ongoing hazard mitigation efforts introduced the prior year. Over the past year, in forecasting future events, the Saudi university faces many more disasters with projected impact of global warming and changes in weather and meteorology. The Saudi Kingdom has instituted a $30 billion dollar flood mitigation project to mitigate future disasters. It has also seriously committed to improving local civil defense, emergency plans and operations.

It is quite an endeavor. The project will take just three years. This commitment is unprecedented. This effort could take 10 to 20 years in the United States with all of our environmental law, bureaucracy and red tape. There will be tens of thousands of new jobs; the effort will be enormous. It is something that I have never seen in my experience. Something good is really happening here.

Barriers Are Different in Saudi Arabia

As it is in the United States, the Saudi university is one of the largest employers in the region and has great economic impact to the region. It has much to gain from planning efforts. Unlike the United States., in Saudi Arabia, there is lots of funding to promote the birth of a very progressive emergency response system and implement hazard mitigation strategies. 

Last week I was invited to come to Saudi Arabia to present as a speaker on two topics: emergency plans and emergency plan implementation. I also came to visit and follow-up on the progress of their past planning efforts. 

The university at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) is a very large campus – over 100,000 students, residents, faculty and personnel. The campus is more than six million square meters and six kilometers (3.72 miles) in size (2.5 kilometers wide by 3 kilometers long). There are 11 total university campuses in the kingdom; seven campuses located within the Jeddah province.

A Saudi campus opened the eyes of this westerner. There is both a combined female and male campus, as Saudi (Islamic) culture mandates that women be covered and that the sexes remain largely segregated. Saudi men and women are only permitted to work together in hospitals. Men and women who socialize but are not related can be arrested by the mutaween, the Saudi religious police. From an emergency management planning perspective, this creates major logistical issues.

My exposure to disasters in Saudi Arabia was a major life experience for me. If you are not a Muslim, you may not enter Saudi Arabia without an invitation, and you may not leave without an exit permit (visa). Visitors to Saudi Arabia are subject to the same rigorous Islamic law as Saudis. It is not uncommon for Westerners to be imprisoned for possessing illegal substances such as alcohol, pork or narcotics. There are no movie theaters. Women are forbidden to drive (try evacuating people in a crisis when you must rely solely on male drivers).  The painted lines on the road are simply guides: three-lane roads easily become five-lane roads; and any lane is a turn lane (right or left) no matter what lane you may occupy.

But Some Things Are the Same Everywhere

My trip to Saudi Arabia just reinforced that all disasters are local, no matter where you live in this world. Whether it’s a suburb in Main Street USA, a university in the Middle East or United States, it’s all the same.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series