For Americans, Safety in Desert May Be Mirage

AFTER SAUDI BLAST

The automotive American Dream lives on in Saudi Arabia - a land marked by broad avenues, immaculate highways, and the cheapest gas in the world - about 66 cents a gallon.

For Americans living here, the endless Cadillacs, Buicks, and luxury Chevrolets - gas-guzzling juggernauts that shimmer along desert roads in air-conditioned splendor - bring back the era when American land yachts ruled the road.

Along with other all-American totems such as Safeway, Fuddrucker's World Famous Hamburgers, and countless shopping malls, the cars give the 40,000 Americans here reason to feel a tinge of deja vu.

But there the similarities end, and cultural contrasts begin. Life for many Americans working in this desert kingdom - mostly in oil and other multinational businesses - is isolated from average Saudi citizens and often leads to an unsettling culture clash.

In the aftermath of the bomb attack two weeks ago that left 19 US servicemen dead, and another last November against a US military training facility in the capital, Riyadh, Americans are reexamining this cultural gap - and their own sense of alienation in a tightly controlled society.

They fear that another attack could occur and could target American civilians for the first time. Four Islamic extremists were beheaded for their role in the November bombing, though no one yet knows who is responsible for the latest one.

American concerns now are compounded by a distinct lack of information about the secretive Saudi regime.

Americans have been warned to keep a low profile, and the US embassy operates a tape-recorded "security update." But there has been little to reassure them that they are still safe, and that Saudi Arabia - with its flashy cars, fast food, and Western-style malls - is home.

Safety was once taken for granted here. "For a long time, the most dangerous thing we did was drive," says one American businessman who has lived in Saudi for well over a decade. "Perhaps that is changing now," he says. Like all Americans interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition that he not be identified, even by type of work.

Required to adhere outwardly to social codes of Saudi Arabia's conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam, Americans say such restrictions underscore a cultural chasm that is difficult to bridge. In public, Western women must wear a baggy black cloak called an abayya. One of the most stifling prohibitions, the women say, is that they are not allowed to drive.

But with the strict codes comes a welcome trade-off: Violent crime is almost unheard of in the kingdom. Culprits are sentenced according to Islamic Sharia law. The harshest punishments include amputations, stonings, and beheadings.

For many Americans, their lifestyles and the amount of contact with ordinary Saudis are determined by living arrangements. Those who live and work in sprawling, company-built compounds, cut off from the rest of Saudi society by high walls, are sometimes immune from religious restrictions. Saudis who might be offended rarely visit such compounds.

On the biggest compounds, Western women can drive their children to company schools; they can swim in company pools in modern suits without drawing condemnations from the religious police, and they can leave their abayyas at home.

"Some people don't leave those compounds for 20 years, except to go home," says one American businessman in Jeddah. "They have no interaction with Saudis. They are really living in America."

Step outside this rarified world, however, and foreigners are expected to conform, at least partly, to Saudi custom. Saudi women can travel only with men of their family, yet Western women - who say they would otherwise be trapped at home - can hire drivers.

Infractions are not forgotten, Saudis say. One liberal-minded Saudi remembers his shock during the Gulf war, when twice he saw American women soldiers driving and carrying guns. He asked one of them what the Saudi reaction had been: "Some people give me a thumbs up," she replied. But some definitely didn't.

Today, even while dressed in black, Western women can still be stopped by the mutawwaeen, or religious police, whose formal title is the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They carry sticks to remind errant Muslims when it is prayer time and enforce female dress codes. Westerners, and even many Saudis, resent their zealous enforcement.

"Bored, educated wives are a serious problem," says one businessman. His wife was accosted last week in a shopping mall. A man with a beard came up to her and said "Cover your head, cover your head!"

"Was it a mutawwa? The police? Or just people who wanted to clean the place up?" he said. "You don't know."

Another unsettling factor for foreign workers is that their Saudi "sponsors" - usually their employers - keep their passports. That policy works, unless there is a dispute. One man described how a British colleague had waited for more than two years for his passport, sleeping on friends' floors and penniless. Another man shipped himself out in a crate.

The final departure can be like a "hostage release," he says. "This is one of the most unfree places I've ever lived. You can't walk away."

Such measures are a backlash against the 1980s, when oil profits spurred a heavy import of foreign workers. Americans and Europeans help guide Saudi and foreign companies; while South and Southeast Asians do manual work.

By 1991, the official census showed that 4.6 million foreigners were in the country, more than one-quarter of the population. "The Saudis felt they lost their country," says one long-time Western resident.

But for all the restrictions, Saudi Arabia has provided peace of mind. "No one will mug you like in New York," says an American businessman in Riyadh. "Women get hassled, and it's a pain. There's a lack of freedom. But the gold chain is not going to get yanked off your neck."

Americans have been in Saudi Arabia since the Standard Oil Company of California won the first concession to explore for oil in 1933. By 1939, there were 325 Americans in the kingdom. US aid from 1944 cemented the growing alliance.

Some 5,000 US troops are also in Saudi today, a residual force left over from the 1991 Gulf war to "help" Saudi defend itself from Iraq and Iran, and to protect the largest oil-producing nation in the world - the linchpin of American energy strategy.

When describing Americans, Saudis make a clear distinction between individuals and the US government. Thousands of Saudis have studied at American colleges and respect Americans. But the US represents a "bully superpower."

"On the street, Saudis are nice to Americans - they are not against music or burgers," says Dr. Othman al-Rawaf, a political scientist at King Saud University in Riyadh. "But in private they complain that the US, with Israel, is trying to dominate the world."

Americans can be just as two- faced. As much as they pay respect to Saudi custom in their personal dealings with Saudis, privately some refer to the abayya as a "black bag."

Still, the dependence is mutual. "The Saudi royal family needs America. They can't survive without America," says a Saudi political commentator in Jeddah. "And for America, it is the biggest gas station in the world."

Despite this relationship, nervousness among Americans is growing. And the root of this anxiety is the information vacuum. Skeptical of the Western press, Saudis cut out nearly every article on their country from US and other newspapers.

"It is very, very difficult to know exactly what is going on," says one American businessman. "The opposition is repressed, and people grumble that the royal family takes money off the top. But is it true dissent that leads to bombs? I don't see it." But, he says, "The danger is that it could be happening, and we don't know it."

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