Saudi attacks shake expat workers

Some 38,000 Westerners are employed in key Saudi industries. Monday, all 90 workers at a Swiss firm decided to go home.

Larry Thaxter returned to Saudi Arabia in August after being evacuated with the other Western staff of the Saudi Arabian International School last spring. He believed last year's car-bomb attack on Western compounds in the capital Riyadh, which killed 35 people, was an isolated incident. But despite a massive security crackdown since then, Westerners continue to be targeted by suspected Al Qaeda militants, most recently at a grisly shootout in the industrial city of Yanbu on the Red Sea over the weekend.

The attacks are intended to sow fear, and are causing many Western workers to consider whether the higher pay and perks of living here are worth it. If an abrupt exodus of foreigners occurred, the Saudi economy would suffer, say economists.

"We thought the Saudis had things under control. But it seems the situation is bigger than they thought it was," says Mr. Thaxter, the school's principal, who comes from Alberta, Canada.

Since last May there have been two major attacks, on a housing compound and on the police headquarters in Riyadh last month, followed by a two-day shootout in Jeddah. But the most disturbing of the incidents was Saturday morning's attack in Yanbu at a refinery project owned by Exxon-Mobil and Saudi petrochemical firm Sabic. Gunmen entered the offices of ABB-Lummus, a subsidiary of a Swiss engineering company, and started firing.

Two Americans, two Britons, an Australian, and a Saudi were killed. Four of the attackers were later killed in a shootout with police after a car chase across Yanbu in which they also shot at a McDonald's. According to the local press, one of the dead Westerners was tied to a car and dragged for more a mile through the streets of Yanbu.

The incident, widely reported, has had an impact. All 90 employees of ABB-Lummus have decided they want to go home.

"We offered them heightened security, we offered to take over security ourselves, but every single one preferred to leave," says Bjorn Edlund, spokesman for ABB, speaking from Zurich.

Losing benefits

The group, mostly Americans, with some Australians, Europeans, Indians, and Filipinos, will depart with their families over the next couple of days.

Monday in Yanbu, the US ambassador told a group of Americans to leave Saudi Arabia because their safety could not be guaranteed. The Associated Press reports that Ambassador James Oberwetter left without speaking to reporters after the hour-long meeting with about 100 members of the local American community and a few other Westerners trying to decide whether to stay.

Most expats who work for multinational firms in Saudi Arabia earn tax-free salaries and get overseas premiums. Their children attend private schools at company cost, and employees here get other generous benefits not found at home. But that may no longer be enough to keep some Americans here.

"I'm very, very frightened. We still don't know whether we are going to stay or not, but I think it's really time for us to leave," an American teacher, who would not give her name, told the Associated Press. She said she and her husband had decided to stay after past attacks in Saudi Arabia, but this time was different. "The last time we were thinking about leaving, we thought about all the benefits we would lose. But, honestly, now I don't care," she said.

If others follow the trend of ABB-Lummus's employees, the Saudi economy could be seriously hurt, economists say.

"There are an estimated 38,000 Westerners working mostly in management or as experts in the oil, banking and finance, and medical sectors," says Omar Bagour, a professor of economics at King Abdul-Aziz University. These sectors are the main income generators in the Saudi economy, and oil alone accounts for 80 percent of Saudi income, he says. "If they [Westerners] decide to leave in the span of one month, it would cause a drop of about 50 percent in estimated economic growth for 2004."

Mr. Bagour says that there are very few Saudis available to replace the expertise of departing Westerners, both in the energy sector as well as in other areas like the medical field.

By local estimates, several thousand expatriates left after last year's compound attack, and last month about 25 nonessential personnel and families of American diplomats returned home following an ordered departure.

But so far there hasn't been a mass exodus. Many expats know that such threats come with the territory. They know that the Saudi government and their companies are bolstering security. But another major attack targeting foreigners could change minds quickly.

Level-one lockdown

At the Saudi Arabian International School several teachers and students didn't show up the day following Saturday's attack, Thaxter says. A number of his teachers and some parents have talked about leaving. But no one has made a firm decision yet. "I think they're in a wait-and-see mode. If nothing happens in the next couple of days they might stay; if something does happen, many will probably leave, which would be devastating to the school," he says.

The school's fine-arts festival went ahead on Sunday, and social-studies teacher Michael Szweko stood by the wall watching the Middle School orchestra perform the Cool Cat Shuffle.

Mr. Szweko's wife returned to Florida in December because of the security situation. But Szweko, who's been in Jeddah for two years, wants to at least finish the school year, despite his growing apprehension. "The news was very shocking. It was so barbaric it hasn't even sunk in yet," he says. "I'm afraid to get a taxi, to go shopping, and to eat out."

The school went into level-one lockdown after news of the attack Saturday morning. with students remained in his class with the lights out, blinds drawn, and doors locked for close to three hours.

Thaxter, the middle school principal, has signed on for two more years, and says he's taking things one day at a time.

"You've got to keep things in perspective. Jeddah is a city of 2-1/2 million people and it really is relatively safe compared with many cities in North America. The threat here is different, but it's not unique to the Middle East."

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