Americans Seek Saudi Jobs, Buy Gas Masks

WAR with Iraq has some Americans rushing to buy gas masks - and others to apply for work in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil company, has not let incoming Scud missiles halt ``big time'' recruitment of employees. And its field of candidates has never been wider.

``We're having more people apply for jobs than ever before,'' says William Tracy, a spokesman for Aramco Services Company, a Houston-based subsidiary.

Saudi Aramco's already handsome salaries were boosted by 15 percent last November, but that isn't what is making the doorbell ring, Mr. Tracy says. Rather, it's the company's heightened exposure in the news, never mind that a war is the cause.

``How many average Americans had ever even given Saudi Arabia a thought before?'' Tracy asks. But now ``there it is, every day, staring them in the face.''

And if new hires haven't already bought a gas mask, Saudi Aramco will issue one to them on arrival in Dhahran. One employee says that the oil giant spent upward of $10 million to snatch up more than 250,000 masks from at least five sources, mostly East European, for its 45,000 employees and their dependents. That was far more than initially expected, because native Saudi workers insisted on gas masks for their extended families, the Saudi Aramco employee says.

On the home front, concern about terrorism is making cash registers ring at army-surplus stores everywhere. Gas mask sales are up nationwide and throughout Europe, says Allen Schreck, whose Chicago-based Schreck Inc. wholesales military surplus in all 50 states. The company is also the exclusive supplier of the desert camouflage uniform to the Defense Department.

Michael Bafundo, owner of First Army Supply in Chicago, laments that his wholesale supplier sold out its stock of 10,000 gas masks in the first 10 days of the war. Of 175 masks, Mr. Bafundo has just 60 left to offer customers. Comments son Tony: ``It's just like life insurance. They'd rather have it than not have it.''

Bill Campbell, manager of Military and Police Supply Inc. in Chicago, marvels that he has sold 150 in less than a month when he usually moves 20 a year. Mr. Campbell says one woman called ``in absolute tears'' because she could not find one for her seven-month-old daughter. Another woman wanted a gas mask for a dog. Only one customer planned to send the gas mask to a relative in the Middle East. ``I don't understand the paranoia. I just absolutely do not understand it. I have a wife, two daughters. I'm not going to get any of them gas masks,'' Campbell says.

In addition to masks, big selling items include chemical protection suits, desert camouflage uniforms (both to soldiers wanting extras and to war-enthused civilians), American flags, and water cans.

Most people ``aren't stocking up for air raid shelters that I can see,'' Mr. Schreck says. ``They'd have to be on the fringe to even think about that. But there are [cults] in the Western and Northern states who are stocking up for armageddon: They buy gas masks, they buy first-aid equipment, they buy the kind of stuff that you'd stock an air-raid shelter with. Which is to say usually the average person doesn't worry about that,'' Schreck adds.

While he personally doesn't worry about a terrorist attack, ``I don't blame people for being cautious and preparing,'' Schreck says. ``Because 30 years ago I did the same thing when there was the Cuban missile crisis. I had something converted into a bomb shelter. But I'm older now.''

One item in demand that is not yet in army-surplus stores is the global positioning system, which uses satellites to calculate the user's exact location on Earth. The military has bought 10,000 of the gadgets for use in Desert Storm. But that's only one for every 50 US troops. One of the suppliers, Magellan Systems Corporation of Monrovia, Calif., has sold ``three or four'' of the $3,500 devices to mothers who shipped them to their sons in the Gulf, says Richard Sill, vice president of marketing and sales.

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