Gulf States Close Up Shop, Stranding Foreign Nationals

TRAVEL options - or exits out of the Gulf - are rapidly closing for the estimated 23,000 American civilians still resident in the region. The airports of Dhahran and Riyadh are closed because of the fear of missile attacks from Iraq's mobile batteries. The latest missile strike on the Saudi capital has only heightened reluctance of local and foreign airline companies to venture into the Gulf at all.

Bahrain, once a prominent offshore banking center, and the oil state of Qatar have also closed their airspace. Both have bases from which the allied forces mount daily missions against Iraq and Kuwait. Although no missiles have landed in either state, local airlines are now refusing to fly there.

The fear of Iraqi-inspired terrorism is also closing the road options for civilians trying to get from the northern Gulf to the safe havens of the southern Arabian Peninsula. Hundreds of miles of desert separate these cities, and visa regulations are presenting an insurmountable barrier to civilians seeking a way out.

The causeway between the tiny island of Bahrain and the Saudi Arabian mainland was closed Jan. 20 when many Saudis tried to seek refuge from missile attacks in eastern Saudi cities by escaping to Bahrain. The local government worried about the possible influx of 2.5 million residents.

The border post from Saudi Arabia into the United Arab Emirates was closed to foreign nationals on Jan. 20. Only Saudi nationals are allowed free passage, Saudi officials say. Unless the border reopens, foreigners living along the northern Gulf will not be able to get to southern Gulf airports where airlines are still maintaining limited schedules.

High insurance is proving the most important factor keeping away airlines. Lloyds of London has set massive insurance premiums for the airlines, so large that insurance for a plane landing in the Gulf is between $140,000 and $200,000. Only a small fraction of these costs have been passed on to the customer, say the airlines. Surcharges to Europe are adding $350 to a one-way ticket.

For the poorly paid Asians working in the Gulf region, the surcharges have effectively closed the option of trying to leave. Many Gulf employers also keep their passports to prevent them departing.

Commenting on the plight of civilians trapped in the northern Gulf, a local airline official said: ``The foreigners had their chance to leave when the travel advisories went out.'' So far, United States and British embassies have only advised their nationals to send home nonessential staff and dependents.

Visa regulations are proving a barrier to civilians seeking refuge in the lower Gulf states. Foreigners have to have a local sponsor before they can enter. Access to Muscat, the southernmost Gulf city and the safest haven, is proving the most difficult. Gulf nationals, by contrast, are allowed to travel anywhere without visas.

``Wherever they go in the Gulf is home,'' says a Gulf airline official.

The insurance problem is beginning to affect shipping in the Gulf. Because of the war, shipping companies are already reluctant to enter the Gulf, and concern about mines is adding to insurance premiums.

All the Gulf states rely entirely on imports for foodstuffs, and already prices are rising locally as shops pass on insurance surcharge. Shopkeepers have been told they will be imprisoned if they increase their prices. But there is concern that food supplies could become tight if war continues.

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