The Guardian: Shaken expatriates rethink Saudi future
Ewen MacAskill and Brian Whitaker
Wednesday June 2, 2004
Foreign companies in Saudi Arabia are offering to repatriate the families of their staff in the wake of the bloody weekend rampage by militants that left 22 dead, most of them foreigners.
As new clashes between suspected militants and security forces were reported in the west of the country, several Japanese companies joined Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, in offering to pull relatives out of the kingdom.
One Japanese firm said it may also evacuate its workers, though it was too early to tell whether there would be an exodus. Saudi Arabia relies on 6 million expatriates to operate its oil and other industries. The vast majority are Asian, with British and American workers numbering around 25,000.
As the hunt for three militants responsible for the attack in Khobar continued, Saudi Arabia's entire Eastern province was placed on red alert. Arab News, the Jeddah-based newspaper, reported yesterday that security had been intensified around the cities of Dammam, Khobar, Dhahran, Jubail, Ahsa and Qatif.
Last night, the Saudi security forces fought a gun battle with suspected militants near the city of Taif, in the west of the country after gunmen opened fire on a police checkpoint.
Key installations and business premises were heavily guarded and police battalions were on patrol. Police in some areas have asked companies employing western staff to keep their main gates closed during working hours, and for employees to remain indoors.
A spokesman for the Japan External Trade Organisation in Riyadh told the Associated Press news agency that four or five companies were sending relatives home "to be on the safe side". He said Nippon, Sojitz and Idemitsu Kosan were among them.There are 700 Japanese in Saudi Arabia.
An official with a Japanese government-backed oil research group yesterday told Dow Jones newswires that it might evacuate 15 researchers - 11 of whom lived at the Oasis compound which was attacked at the weekend. All the researchers are Nippon staff taking part in a joint project with Aramco, the Saudi oil giant.
Some families are considering relocating to neighbouring Bahrain. Estate agents and international schools there reported an increase in interest after the recent attacks.
International schools in Saudi Arabia remained closed yesterday.
Kevin Rosser, an analyst at the security consultants Control Risks, said the latest attacks would probably accelerate the transfer of expatriate staff to other Gulf states that are considered safer.
"Keeping everyone inside for a few days will help to calm frayed nerves and give the authorities a chance to round these guys up," he said.
The Foreign Office said yesterday it had no figures to suggest there would be a wide spread flight from the country.
The Asian community suffered the most casualties in the Khobar attack, with 13 people killed, but many said that returning home was not an option, for financial reasons. "They killed many Indians. They didn't differentiate between them and westerners," Manoj Kumar, an IT manager, told the news agency Reuters. "Even extra security will not protect us; if they want to kill us, they will. We are no longer safe here."
A team from the British anti-terrorist group SO13 has flown to the country. A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said the team was "offering assistance and support to the Saudi authorities". It was also gathering information about Michael Hamilton, the Briton killed in the Khobar attack.
Four of the five major attacks in the past year involved militants known to the authorities, he said.
But Mustapha Alani, a security expert at the Royal United Services Institute, believes there could still be 500-700 people associated with al-Qaida in the country.