Saudi Signs Signal Ancient Past, Grim Reminders of Present

CAMELS are familiar animals in Saudi Arabia, treated much as sheep or cows might be at home. But at the same time, the legendary ``ships of the desert'' are afforded rights and privileges to match their status as the only beast of burden that can live in the desert. Every few miles along the Riyadh road, for example, is an interchange, with entrance and exit ramps and a four-lane bridge over the highway. The signs say only ``Desert Access,'' alongside signs warning drivers to ``Beware of Camels.''

Nor do the ramps lead anywhere, except to 100 yards of tarmac that then peters out into emptiness and sand dunes.

The bridges have been built for the exclusive use of camels and their nomadic Bedouin herders. Their right to range freely across the desert must never be curtailed.

IF you are short of a camel, you can always cross the desert by train.

At the beginning of this century, hundreds of thousands of Muslim hajjis made their pilgrimage to Mecca on the Hejaz railway. The rails from Damascus to Mecca were laid by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Middle East then, and Lawrence of Arabia made the line a prime target for his raids as he led the Arab uprising during World War I.

But romantic thoughts of clattering through sand dunes in a wooden carriage were quickly dispelled at Dammam railway station, on the Gulf coast.

Built just five years ago, the station is impeccably clean, hushed, and equipped with automatic doors and an X-ray baggage-searching machine more reminiscent of an airport than a Middle Eastern railway terminus. The air-conditioned Swiss-built carriages have reclining seats, piped music, and closed circuit television.

But if this is not the Hejaz, it is still Saudi Arabia. A sign by the ticket office at Dammam station warns passengers: ``It is absolutely unacceptable for women to travel by train without being accompanied by a mahram, i.e. father, brother, son, or husband.''

THREE weeks into the war, and with the town still standing, residents of al-Khubar next to Dhahran air base are coming home and opening up their businesses again.

When the war broke out, almost everyone in al-Khubar who had somewhere else to go and a way of getting there fled. Afraid of Iraqi bombing raids and Scud missiles, they sought refuge in more distant cities.

Left behind were the tens of thousands of immigrant workers from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines who could not leave town because their Saudi employers keep their travel documents until they have served out their contracts.

But the bombing raids have not happened, and the Patriot anti-missile missiles have protected al-Khubar from the Scuds (although a lamp post was knocked down on the seaside promenade by a piece of falling debris), and there are traffic jams again on the main street.

Fewer and fewer people carry their gas masks with them, for it has been several days since the last Scud attack here. Shops and restaurants are open after dark again, and the town's mood is relaxed despite the war.

But people are still worried that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might still have something up his sleeve, and a sign that this reporter drives past each day certainly dispels complacency.

Above a list of precautions to take in case of a gas attack reads a chilling warning: ``If you are inside your car (and see birds dropping)...''

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