Growing awareness of disasters in traditionally safe country

Desert Middle East

Saudi Arabia is not the country most prone to natural catastrophes – that dubious honour is currently held by the small island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, according to the latest edition of the United Nations University’s World Risk Index.

By contrast, the index ranks Saudi Arabia as the fourth-safest country when it comes to natural disasters.

But due to its currently low defences the country is vulnerable to a number of natural disasters, and the awareness – and cost – of these is increasing.

One recent example is flooding. In November 2009 the city of Jeddah was struck by a rainstorm that saw three and a half inches of rain fall in four hours – almost twice the yearly average for the area. The rain caused a widespread flood that swept through the city, washing away cars, killing hundreds of people and inflicting $270m in economic damage.

Aon Benfield Middle East & North Africa chief executive Ahmed Rajab said: “Major cities such as Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah are exposed to flash flood, which, back in 2009-2010,-2011-2012 and 2013, caused major damages to property and infrastructure.”

As Jeddah is surrounded by desert, the hard and very dry soil was unable to absorb the water, causing the flood. The city is now investing in storm drains, but the disaster is still hard to plan for.

So apart from flooding, which natural catastrophes could affect the country, and what impact will these have in the future?

AM Best MENA, south & central Asia general manager Vasilis Katsipis said: “”Typically, Saudi Arabia is considered a non-cat exposed market.

“It certainly is not on a major fault line and few would associate the Kingdom with hurricanes.”

But the country is not immune to earthquakes. As Saudi Arabia sits largely in the middle of the Arabian Plate it has largely been spared from large earthquakes, but the North-west corner of the country does come close to the Dead Sea Rift that runs along the Jordan Valley.

However, although it is seldom directly impacted by earthquakes, there is still the risk of earth tremors caused by other threats under the sands. One natural hazard in the country is one that is frequently overlooked – that posed by volcanoes. Saudi Arabia has a number of volcanic fields (areas of volcanism) and also volcanoes. Although many of these are extinct, the rest are dormant, with five having erupted in recorded history – and the threat from these isn’t confined to lava.

On 19 May, 2009, 19 earthquakes of Magnitude 4.0 or greater took place in the volcanic area of Harrat Lunayyir to the north of Yanbu, including a magnitude 5.4 event that caused minor damage to structures in the town of Al Ays, 40 km away.

The Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) is now responsible for all earthquake monitoring in the country. Most earthquakes greater than magnitude 2 within the Kingdom are now routinely located and a comprehensive earthquake data base has also been established for earthquake research. Eventually when the network of about 100 stations is completed the coverage will enable earthquakes as small as magnitude 2 to be detected and located anywhere within the Kingdom.

It is difficult to assess the possibilities of a volcanic eruption in Saudi Arabia. The SGS certainly monitors behaviour carefully but such disasters can still catch the region by surprise. In 2011 a new island appeared off the coast of Yemen, just to the South of Saudi Arabia, when a submarine volcano erupted enough material to broach the surface of the sea. And in 2007 Jabal al-Tair Island, again off the coast of Yemen, saw a sudden volcanic eruption take place, which took the small Yemeni military garrison on the island by surprise, killing eight.

Drifting sand and dune movement are some of the most serious natural problems facing the Arabian Peninsula due to the expansion of cities, roads, industries, and agricultural development.  If not controlled, movement of sand dunes creates problems for industrial plants, residential areas, roads, power lines, and pipelines. Problems that have been studied within active dunes include closing of roads, as well as other problems that affect the development of various areas.

But overall, Saudi insurers are still relaxed about natural catastrophe losses. “The main reason is the low level of insurance penetration, especially for personal property, which resulted in low levels of insured losses in all of the events mentioned earlier,” Katsipis explained.

But as levels of insurance penetration increase and the growth of the country’s affluent middle class increases, natural catastrophe protection will move up the agenda of insurers, the government and property owners alike.