Fear grows in the company compounds of Riyadh after British worker is shot dead

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The Independent Online

For many British expatriates in Saudi Arabia, the war on terrorism and the impending allied action against Iraq have had little effect on day-to-day life.

For many British expatriates in Saudi Arabia, the war on terrorism and the impending allied action against Iraq have had little effect on day-to-day life.

But the fatal shooting on Thursday of Robert Dent, who worked in the capital, Riyadh, for BAE Systems, has caused widespread fear among expats.

Although the Saudi authorities immediately arrested the alleged murderer, panic spread through British communities. "This changes everything," said a British worker in Jeddah. "We have had several warnings from the British consulate but, now we know that this could happen to any one of us at any time, it's frightening."

After a spate of car bombings in Riyadh in 2001, many expats began checking their vehicles every morning and limiting their travel around the country.

The bombings were blamed on British expats involved in illicit alcohol trading and two men, a Briton and a Canadian, have been sentenced to death.

Few people in the country believe there is any truth in the allegations levelled against those imprisoned for the series of explosions.

"It is obvious to many of us that the bombings and this recent shooting are nothing to do with alcohol trading," said Dennis, 43, (his name has been changed) a Briton working in Jeddah. "When you walk through the streets you get dirty looks from everyone, especially the Mattawahs [religious police]. There is a real tension in the air, everyone is just waiting for something bad to happen."

Although the country does not publicly oppose allied action against Iraq, the feelings on the street are savagely anti-Western.

A British couple driving through Riyadh last month were run off the road by a four-wheel-drive that had been following them, and late last year there were reports of a crowd burning American flags outside a hospital in Jeddah.

Even the local police who guard the British consulate in Jeddah are on the side of the Iraqi dictator, according to a British woman who used to work there. "It was obvious that we were not welcome there," said the 40-year-old expat who has recently returned to the UK. "It just was not worth staying there to find out the hard way."

The British consulate has issued several warnings to Britons to keep a low profile, and avoid areas of cities where they could be in danger.

Most of the estimated 20,000 British expatriates in Saudi Arabia live in secure company compounds. They tend to be men whose families remain in, or have returned to, their homes. Many of the wives of British expatriates working in the country return to Britain to escape the frustrating local laws. Women are required to cover themselves in black abayahs, they are not allowed to drive, they have to eat in separate "family" sections in restaurants and signs reading "No women" are displayed on many shop doors.

The men often remain after their partners leave. Alcoholism is rife among this group, despite the fact that alcohol is illegal. Few feel the need to venture past the compound gates for anything other than work.

There is big money to be made by the production of a homemade spirit called Sid – a shortened version of the Arabic word sidiq (my friend). Before being watered down, Sid is 49 per cent alcohol and undoubtedly affects the health of many who drink it. It is a popular drink among expats and sells for about £20 a litre, a much cheaper alternative to the £100 bottles of Johnnie Walker available on the black market. Expats say that the Saudi authorities are well aware of the alcohol peddling among Westerners. "They tend to ignore it," a British expatriate told me. "You have to be careful though, they know they can play the illicit alcohol card on us at any time and have us thrown out of the country."

There have been suicides and several reports have filtered back to Britain of bachelors dying and not being discovered for weeks.

Because of the lack of alternative entertainment, expat parties tend to be wild and often last well into the small hours. Some lonely Westerners make regular visits to Bangkok to sample its thriving sex trade.

"It's a strange kind of existence," said one British woman who recently returned to the UK to live. "Only after you get out do you realise how cut off from the real world you have been. It's a fascinating country, and an equally fascinating way of life but it has a habit of breaking up families."

There are no public cinemas or theatres in Saudi Arabia; entertainment of this kind is considered Haram (against Islamic principles) and some satisfy their need for entertainment by visiting a parking lot in downtown Jeddah to watch the beheadings that take place every week. This bleak way of life is the norm for many British expats in Saudi Arabia, but recent events have caused some to rethink their future in the Kingdom.

Dennis told me: "I think we are going to see a lot of people leaving their jobs and returning to the UK. With everything that has been going on recently, I'd say the time has come to get out."

Many remember the Gulf War, and talk of how their lives were changed by the allied action against Saddam Hussein then, but few are prepared to go through the experience for a second time, especially while living in fear of terrorist attacks.