On the Front Lines: Soldiers Replace Bedouin Customers

Sheep market becomes bazaar for many nations' troops

KHALID stands in his small shop, its shelves piled high with brightly woven saddle bags, sheepskin cloaks, rolls of harness straps, and every other accouterment that a Bedouin and his camel might need. He is doing little business. But across the souk, merchants selling more modern equipment - hose pipes, jerrycans, electrical goods - are doing a roaring trade.

``Ici devellopement peliculle photo'' - photos developed here - reads a misspelled sign in French in the window of a photo shop, undoubtedly the first advertisement in that language ever to appear in this desert town sprawling across the sandy wastes of northern Saudi Arabia.

It was put there by a French soldier to alert colleagues, explains the shop's manager, Bobby Koruth, who says he is doing ``too much business from the military - Americans, British, French, Saudis, all.''

War has quite transformed Hafar al-Batin, a large town of low, flat-roofed dun-colored houses scattered apparently at random across the sand. Lying just 60 miles from the Iraqi front line and at the heart of the coalition armies' deployment, most of the town's traditional customers, the camel drivers and shepherds, have fled.

Their place in the souk has been taken by soldiers. Soldiers of every description. Fair-haired boys from Montana, bearded Saudi special forces, rough necks from the French Foreign Legion, and black men from the southern reaches of Egypt, all in town to buy the bits and pieces they need, but which their logistics officers cannot find through official channels.

Hafar has always been a trading post, lying at a strategic crossroads. From east to west runs the historic trade route linking the Arabian Gulf ports to Jordan and Syria. Bisecting it from north to south is Wadi al-Batin, a broad watercourse offering firm sand on which to travel, that sweeps down from Iraq toward Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital.

Its location has made Hafar al-Batin the sheep-grading capital of the Gulf region and a major wool market. In normal times, traders bring their animals from as far away as Turkey to sell at the weekly Hafar market, and shepherds from all over the Arabian Peninsula come to buy.

Today, the sheep market is closed. It is on the other side of a Saudi Army roadblock on the road north along which only military traffic may pass. And two weeks ago, the town itself was nearly deserted, its shops shuttered, its scattered houses shut up against the war.

But as coalition armies have moved west, Hafar's shopkeepers have followed them, opening their doors to these new, free-spending clients. The streets are crowded again, although they are as jammed with desert khaki Jeeps, olive-drab American Humvee's, and mud-brown three-ton trucks draped in camouflage netting as they are with civilian traffic.

Taking a welcome break from life in a desert foxhole, the soldiers squeeze maximum advantage from their trips into town. They are sent here in search of equipment their units need - on Feb. 11, for example, British squaddies were looking for gas cylinders to fuel their stoves, a US captain was buying auto parts, and a Saudi sergeant was cleaning one shop out of its supply of size D flashlight batteries.

But when they have run their errands, the troops line up at phone booths to call home, drop by the Fao Hotel for a rare taste of pizza, or browse through shops selling imported watches and cheap jewelry.

With a start to the ground war apparently still some weeks away, Khalid will likely have to resign himself to the fact that his nomadic Bedouin customers will not be back for a while.

But shops catering to the men who have taken those Bedouins' place in the desert can look forward to a boom.

``Since we came back two weeks ago, the Army is our main customer,'' grins Abdullah al-Muaijel, who owns an auto-parts store. ``I'm very happy. We are making a lot of money now.''

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