Beehive: Isn’t the Blood of Saudi Teachers Red? The Saudi Education Ministry’s Reaction to the Death of Teachers in Traffic Accidents as Seen on SNS

MDC Researcher Dr. Michael Barak discusses the social protests that have erupted in Saudi Arabia over the national epidemic of deadly traffic accidents involving teachers.
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“Most of the world dies in bed but in Saudi Arabia we die on the road.”[1] This tweet was written by a Saudi physician in response to the dramatic increase in the number of Saudi teachers who were killed in traffic accidents while traveling to work during November-December 2014.[2] This is indeed a common event, a “national plague” in Saudi Arabia; tens of thousands of teachers, all women, are forced to travel hundreds of kilometers to work in remote locations, far from home and at their own expense, in chartered vans.[3]

The sharp increase in the number of accidents in recent months has aroused renewed interest in the topic, particularly on social networking sites (SNS). From there, the conversation has made its way into the real world. The discourse is characterized by growing resentment at the incompetent way in which the Saudi Ministry of Education is handling the problem, and its discriminatory attitude towards women teachers.[4] Many users uploaded pictures, videos, and graphs showing alarming statistics on the extent of the phenomenon, and emphasizing that immediate, careful attention must be invested in solving the problem, because the loss of teachers’ lives is doing serious damage to the social resilience of the kingdom.[5] A user from Jeddah wrote: “The meaning of a teacher’s death is orphaned children, broken families, damage to education, and above all the loss of life.”[6] Other users listed the forces they believe are the cause of the increasing number of accidents, including the deficient condition of infrastructure and roads, the poorly maintained vans, driving at excessive speeds, and drug use by drivers.[7]

Some women drew a connection between the accident rate and another controversy in recent years, tweeting that if Saudi women were allowed to drive this tragedy could be prevented.[8] Many users pointed an accusatory finger at senior government officials, particularly the Ministry of Education and former Minister of Education Khalad al-Faisel. One user wrote: “Dear senior official, How many teachers need to die in order to convince you that we are experiencing a crisis and genuine disaster?”[9] Another demanded that the Ministry of Education consider the blood of teachers as valuable as the blood of martyrs. Another user from Jeddah tweeted that despite living in a region plagued by traffic accidents, the Saudi princes do nothing to resolve the problem, even though there are solutions available. These include assigning teachers to schools near their homes, arranging transportation through the Ministry of Education, and increasing enforcement, etc.[10] Another suggested that the Ministry of Education allocate resources to construct residences for teachers near the schools where they teach.[11] Yet another wrote to the Minister of Education: “We want you to imagine what would happen if your daughter were riding that bus!”[12]

The phenomenon itself was also reported in the establishment media but on a much lower level, as not to anger the regime. Meanwhile, the discourse on SNS was truly heated and the emotional atmosphere eventually managed to move beyond the online arena and come to the attention of senior officials.[13] For example, some circles in the religious establishment acknowledged the issue and blamed the ongoing tragedy on the Ministry of Education.[14] Last December, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia called on King Faisal to examine ways to contain the phenomenon. He supported his demand with the claim that the needs of families are being ignored because teachers must rise very early in the morning and spend most of the day away from home.[15] The political establishment also responded strongly to the accidents. Member of Parliament Dr. Amal al-Shaman cast doubt on the suitability of the measures taken by the Ministry of Education to reduce the number of traffic accidents involving teachers. She claimed that most of the ministry’s efforts were focused on illusory steps intended only to reduce the amount of media coverage. Al-Shaman demanded that the ministry transfer teachers to positions closer to their homes and treat them respectfully.[16] Teachers’ voices were also heard on SNS. One tweeted a message to the Minister of Education: “I am your sister, who works as a teacher. I have diabetes and am a pedagogical supervisor in distant villages in al-Qasam. My husband is threatening to divorce me and my life is about to collapse. If only I could transfer to a position in the city of Medina.”[17]

After the king’s death last month, Minister of Education al-Faisal was replaced by Azzam al-Dakhil, who has connections to the education system. It is likely that one reason for this appointment was the regime’s understanding that it would be worthwhile to calm the atmosphere and mollify the critics who took aim at al-Faisal. Many people welcomed the appointment of a new minister, and expressed cautious optimism about his willingness to solve the difficult problem. One user noted that al-Dakhil will be remembered in history if he makes an effort to improve the status of teachers and solves the problem of accidents. Several teachers suggested that al-Dakhil establish a government transport company that would be responsible for providing safe transportation. The new minister’s declaration that he would seek a solution for the problem and act to improve the status of teachers reinforced the feeling of optimism.[18]

The discourse on SNS shows that the government’s response to traffic accidents generally, and to those involving teachers in particular, stirs massive criticism. This is expressed through purely social discourse that, although neither political nor disseminated through official channels, is significant enough to force the Saudi government to respond to an issue it would have preferred to conceal, as evident in the limited coverage of the issue in the establishment media. This again exposes the importance of SNS as a new arena where the government has limited ability to exert control, and one that is capable of forcing the authorities to respond and take action. Now it remains to be seen if the new Minister of Education can indeed meet people’s expectations.

 



[2] In 2014, 18 women teachers and 90 other women were killed in traffic accidents. In early January 2015, another four teachers were killed. https://twitter.com/star0o0o/status/553592213590900737. See also a graph on this subject https://twitter.com/alsarab28alharb/status/552314739326734337/photo/1/.

[3] In 2005, a Saudi study on the subject was published in Arabic. It analysed the issue, and outlined ways for dealing with it http://www.kau.edu.sa/Files/320/Researches/52668_22974.pdf .

[4] #حوادث_المعلمات_إلى_متى

[5] See, for example, a video posted by users, showing farewell messages to a teacher who was killed in a traffic accident: 12.1.15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkNKNV5Xbik. See also a video documenting traffic violations by a van driver transporting teachers and expressing citizens’ protest of the situation 4.1.15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K76j2EBZ3FI. Another attempt to increase awareness of the scale of the problem can be found in the Saudi television series “The Teacher’s Road” 27.1.15 http://www.raialyoum.com/?p=210361.  

[7] See, for example, the report of a committee investigating the accidents that found that drivers’ use of drugs as the leading cause: 29.1.15 http://www.makkahnewspaper.com/makkahNews/loacal/107929.html  .

[8] #حوادث_المعلمات_إلى_متى. #حادث_معلمات_تبوك.

[12] 10.1.15 https://twitter.com/aboabokhaald/status/554013689385193472 . #المطالبه_بإعفاء_خالد_الفيصل_من_التعليم. #كفاية_غربة_نريدها_كبيرة. #وزارة_التربية_والتعليم_تستهتر_بأرواح_المعلمات.

[14] 26.11.14 https://twitter.com/Falmotairi/status/537498045617680384. See the hashtag relating to the Ministry of Education’s responsibility for the teachers’ death #وزارة_التربية_والتعليم_تستهتر_بأرواح_المعلمات.

[15] Al-Hassan, Gharwan. “بالفيديو.. "المفتي" لـ"الفيصل": عيّن المعلمات قرب منازلهن.” SaBQ, December 7, 2014, http://sabq.org/wqsgde.

[16] Al-‘Ajeeban, Sa’ad. “«الشورى».. جلسة رأى أعضاؤها التعليم.. «حشو»!!.” Al-Jazira, February 11, 2015, http://www.al-jazirah.com/2015/20150211/ln66.htm.

[17]  https://twitter.com/ahlamab5500/status/562236164497608705 Another teacher wrote a letter to the King of Saudi Arabia saying that she has diabetes and travels 350 km. each day to teach in remote villages, and therefore she requests a position closer to her home. 5.2.15 https://twitter.com/brk_KSA/status/563221613638737920

[18] Al-Sakran, Rashid. “د. عزام : سنعطي ملفات النقل وحوادث المعلمات عناية بالغة,” Alriyadh, February 5, 2015,  http://www.alriyadh.com/1018915.