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12 October 2012

Bring back the Koreans!

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By Tariq A. Al-Maeena

Back in the 1970’s when the price of a barrel of oil broke all records, the Kingdom’s treasury was brimming with petrodollars. The government embarked on building the infrastructure of a modern state on a massive scale. As expertise was limited, they had to seek outside help, and thus multi-national companies such as Fluor Corp, Bechtel, Hochtief AG and others brought in their expertise, their people and to some extent their equipment and began the process of building elements of the infrastructure literally from scratch.

For the most part, they spent a little more than a decade living in their isolated camps and the job was eventually done. Roads were built connecting major cities, airports and communication systems were set up and expertise was exchanged. By the time they left, cities and towns had undergone a remarkable transformation and there were few complaints.

Many in Jeddah and other cities remember armies of skilled and semi-skilled Korean laborers who worked diligently under the direction of their American and German supervisors. They put in long hours and worked in severe conditions but we hardly ever heard any complaints arising from them. They kept to themselves in their off duty hours and observed local customs respectfully. And the blood and sweat expended through their efforts stood the test of time for decades. The roads they built remained in good and true condition, the bridges and towers they installed remained standing and the legacy they left behind was a job well done.

When they returned back to their country, those same Koreans began using the expertise they had acquired on our projects in developing their own country. Today, South Korea can truly consider itself among the most advanced countries in the world with one of the fastest growing economies and whose varied exports we consume voraciously.

Following their departure and that of the multi-nationals, the scope of development fell on the shoulders of Saudi companies in partnership with other Arab nationals. They were tasked with setting up the sewage network, a job that to this day remains unfinished. Streets and roads in the major cities were laid out in a haphazard arrangement of circles and dead-ends leading to today’s road bottlenecks and traffic jams. Underpasses and bridges built by these new companies had their share of woes as they kept falling down or getting flooded at the earliest sign of a drizzle. 

The ignorance or negligence of our municipal inspectors has added to the list of problems facing the city of Jeddah. There have also been the recorded cases of corruption charged against this entity; one that tragically led to the deaths of over 130 people following a rainfall some years ago. The city’s infrastructure, built over four decades ago, is showing signs of strain under the onslaught of a growing population and the lack of proper maintenance.

City planning is almost non-existent in Jeddah with new malls coming up at just about every intersection, while school children continue to be taught in dilapidated and unsafe old buildings. The sewage network still remains a sore subject among the city’s residents. The government cannot be blamed. Billions were allocated for such projects, but somehow through lack of ethics, integrity or knowledge, most of the money was ill spent elsewhere. 

For years the city had to endure a lack of libraries, parks and other recreational areas. The seafront drive, the Corniche, witnessed public access dwindling as seafront areas were granted to developers who put up chalets or restaurants and deprived most of the public of the opportunity of “smelling the sea breeze”. 

In almost every neighborhood today, the streets have been dug up, some for more than a half dozen times in recent years for the installation of more piping. Whether it is for storm water drainage or sewage disposal, it does not matter. Old time residents of the city will tell you that this has been going on for more than three decades. Pipes are installed and pipes are dug up. 

The digging is a nuisance as streets are never paved back professionally to a level surface. Some sink to precarious levels in a matter of weeks after they have been re-paved, leaving one to wonder what kind of contractors have been recruited for these jobs, and just who is signing off on the completed work. Motorists are left to maneuver their vehicles among some dangerous potholes or road diversions.

Residents today lack the confidence in the quality of public projects coming up and with justifiable reasons. They see the shoddy work all around them. They do not have much faith in the public quality control inspectors either.

It is enough to compel some to say, bring back the Koreans. And while we are at it, let us not forget the Americans and Germans.

[The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com.]

(Courtesy: Saudi Gazette)

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