Why Americans are leaving Saudi Arabia

Built at a cost of some $1,100 per linear foot, the massive new security fence rambles around the main Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Its several-thousand-meter length is a bastion against a possible truck bomb attack. Its Jersey Barrier base and heavy steel picket topping appear almost as a shield against anticipated terrorist attacks. But fears of aerial bombing, or an influx of rioters from the easily influenced Shiite population just down the road, put the real benefit of this fence into the background. It is more of a gesture, really, than an effective deterrent. And it is not keeping the Americans inside. They are packing up and taking off for United States shorelines. Why?

The war next door between Iran and Iraq has been a major reason of late. With Iranian air power only minutes away, there is concern that sudden suicide attacks might be made. The real possibility of this happening emerged a few weeks ago when an Iranian warplane attacked a tanker inside Saudi waters. Standing out like a sore thumb, the refinery at Ras Tanura lies defenseless against a determined Iranian air attack. The main computer center in Dhahran is not invulnerable. There have already been at least two bomb threats inside the sprawling EXPEC building that houses the company's engineering and exploration centers. Evacuation and searches revealed nothing - but when does the threat become a reality?

Two other factors are forcing Americans to leave the kingdom for safer pastures. One is the Saudi-ization program; the other is a definite drop in the activity of company operations. Oil revenues have slid to not-yet minimal levels , causing major projects to undergo constant redesign and reevaluation, if not cancellation. Competitive oil production from the North Sea and new US offshore discoveries have led to less demand for Saudi oil. This has, in turn, produced diminishing national revenues. Aramco's program to replace its non-Saudi Arab staff with locals is proceeding with increasing speed. Whereas this replacement had occurred only in the lower supervisory levels, changes are now being made at the highest echelons of Aramco. Ali Naimi is now president, and there are several Saudi Arab senior vice-presidents, vice-presidents, managers, hundreds of supervisors, and certain divisions are 100 percent Saudi-ized. This change has not been without negative impact on company operations and morale. The quick and informal American ways of getting the job done no longer apply. Tribal prejudices, fear of making decisions, and concern about doing something that the boss will not like, permeate decision-making, slowing it to a crawl at best in some cases. Trying to be an American in this environment is not always possible.

With these adverse conditions, why would an American choose to remain here? The first (and nowadays only) reason is money. Base salaries are not significantly different from what they are in the US, but the extra benefits more than make up for any differences. A typical annual salary for a five-year veteran in Saudi Arabia is $85,000 to $120,000, most of it tax-free. There are no maintenance costs to be paid for housing. Utilities are free. Families are given yearly round-trip air tickets to their point of origin. Schooling allowances are paid for children living out of country. Frustration, though, is increasingly lessening the value of high overall incomes. Couples are being harassed in the streets by religious authorities for dressing immodestly in public. Major articles in magazines are ripped out or edited with thick marking pens to erase anti-Sharia or anti-Saudi values. The disappointment in reading through an interesting article only to find the last thousand words torn away can only be imagined.

So the recent reduction in American staff in Saudi Arabia has been a mutual decision. On the one hand, Americans are getting tired of putting up with conditions they feel are unsafe and ridiculous. The Saudis, for their part, are glad to see this very expensive drain on national revenues departing.

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