The Scientific American had a lovely article about how MERS, the Saudi version of SARS, is going to kill a great deal more people than it ought to. As I’ve already noted, Saudi Arabia is a horribly run place. This MERS outbreak is a glaring example of how incompetent the government there really is. (

For the record, I currently reside in the United Arab Emirates, a neighbor of Saudi and a country facing many of the same problems but to a far lesser degree.

We’ve already been over how jobs in the Gulf countries are typically bribes for locals. While you’d think the health sector would be immune, you’d be wrong. Part of it is because terribly trained doctors and administrators come to work in the Gulf. But another part is the fact that the health care organizations responsible for tracking a pandemic must be by their job description part of the government.

Here in the emirates, this results in redundant idiocy and sluggish services. To be absent from work, even with a sniffle, I must provide a doctor’s note stamped three times – by the doctor, the hospital, and finally the Ministry of Health. Yes, I said “stamped” – as if we’re sending secret love letters back and forth in Wuthering Heights.

This has gotten a bit better, with all three stamps now being provided by most hospitals, but is still an asinine procedure that saps time and energy from the real health problems in the country. Hospitals are overcrowded and slow – in fact, I’m sitting in one right now as I write this, trying to get a general physical.  I don’t think any hospital here has ever had a mass casualty event or, for that matter, faced down an epidemic.  I shudder to think of those poor souls who show up expecting treatment after a building falls down.

It’s not that Saudi is going to wholly cover up MERS, although, because the annual Ramadan pilgrimage is coming up and could potentially cause mass infections should one dude cough on the Kaaba, an incentive to play down the disease does exist. That may cause local bureaucrats to engage in some wishful thinking and fail to report symptoms they might spot.

But really, the problem will be the bureaucrats’ work habits. Imagine you’re the WHO, freshly dispatched to Saudi to monitor, report, and sort MERS. First you have the immigration nightmare because you may not be Muslim and you’ll need special papers to get in. You may also be a woman, so you’re double fucked. If the king makes this a priority, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to sort as the disease continues to spread.

After arriving, you encounter the morons. You’ll need one guy to open a door or unlock a computer file or give a report, and he’ll be off eating goat (not a joke – in the National Bank of Abu Dhabi last year I found an entire floor of staff eating goat on rice, not sorting my loan problem) or he’ll have gone home or he’ll be doing God knows what and you’ll stand there, like an idiot, waiting for him to arrive. This will be your new normal.

Meanwhile, all the data you get from the local hospitals will be inaccurate, incomplete, or won’t arrive on time. It’ll be easier to start completely over.

The king and his princes might throw a fit and get a lot of this moving a lot faster. But only after that happens will it dawn on you that most of the local staff have no fucking clue what they’re doing. A few bright doctors and administrators will feel like a Godsend, and when you complain to them that a country as wealthy as Saudi should have an online record system that works, they’ll shrug and say that’s just how it is in the kingdom.

While you waste time just doing the basics, MERS goes unchecked. Tasks that should be simple will be monstrous.

It won’t matter how much the king wants this or that done. He won’t be in the room as you try to stop MERS. His lackeys will scare the hell out of people but will only get them to run a lot faster rather than do anything useful. And this will be the result of the nature of Saudi society – the loyal are rewarded over the efficient. Worse, the efficient will be worn down by Saudi and either give up or quit, thereby leaving the system in the hands of the retards on whose support the regime relies. At no point will an efficient person be allowed to embarrass or surpass a loyalist, so no change is possible.

I’m not saying the world will end because of MERS or because of Saudi.  But I am saying this same disease would be far less lethal in an developed country.  Because of Saudi Arabia’s underlying problems, it will kill a bunch of people who might otherwise survive.

In 2009, the Gulf was scared shitless by H1N1. I know because I was here. But they only did so after the rest of the world had their panic. They could follow the models other countries adopted. This time, MERS is local. There’s no one to follow. And the Saudi government’s natural idiocy is going to get a lot of people killed as they struggle to suddenly discover an efficient healthcare system.

And herein lies Saudi Arabia’s massive challenge.  The king and his inner circle are practically the only people who can wake the system up and get it to perform at even a basic level.  But they can only be in so many places at once.  They might be good men; they might sincerely want to stop this or that or make the world a better place, and yet there are still only so many hours in the day.  They can really only focus on one problem at a time, swooping in to save the day.  This was all well and good in pre-modern days, since problems were simple and solutions equally so.  But in the new, globalized, multi-threat environment of the modern age, Saudi’s king is already overwhelmed.  Take his eye off the Shi’a in the east and he loses the kingdom’s oil reserves.  Focus on Syria too much and Iran suddenly ends up with an atomic bomb.  Fret about MERS a week too long and suddenly a palace coup has ousted the whole damned royal family.  Forget about education, proper hospitals, and the country’s infrastructure – he’ll have to just slap a “Good enough” stamp on them and call them done.

The United States has massive problems, sure.  But it has a system that can handle them.  People do their jobs effectively and with minimal corruption.  The U.S. can fight two wars, have a few natural disasters, a recession, a huge drug problem, and a dysfunctional Congress and still not miss a beat. The U.S. can rely on its people to do what they’re supposed to; employees who don’t do their jobs lose them.

Saudi is the opposite.  Only the eye of the king can move things in Saudi Arabia.  MERS is no different.  The king can’t be everywhere and sure as hell won’t be tagging along with WHO as they face the mindlessness of the health care system.  So it will take much, much longer to contain and stop the spread of MERS than it otherwise would.  And as threats multiply with globalization, the system will increasingly buckle under their weight until it finally breaks.