Prisoners in their own luxury homes, Saudi's expats fear even those sent to protect them

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The Independent Online

They went from house to house, separating Muslim from non-Muslim, coolly debating whose life they should spare and whose life they should take. And after the four young Saudi gunmen had completed their "tour of duty", 22 people, mostly foreigners, were dead. Then the security forces sent to kill them let three of them escape, to fight another day. Small wonder Western expatriates in Saudi Arabia have lost all trust in the security forces.

They went from house to house, separating Muslim from non-Muslim, coolly debating whose life they should spare and whose life they should take. And after the four young Saudi gunmen had completed their "tour of duty", 22 people, mostly foreigners, were dead. Then the security forces sent to kill them let three of them escape, to fight another day. Small wonder Western expatriates in Saudi Arabia have lost all trust in the security forces.

The attack in Khobar last weekend was the second on an oil-related target in the Islamic kingdom in a week. But it was the first since the 12 May bombings in Riyadh last year, which ushered in what increasingly appears to be an Islamic insurgency in the eastern province, a region of densely packed refineries and export terminals that make up the nerve centre of the Saudi oil industry.

The Saturday before, Islamic radicals had attacked a petrochemical plant in Yanbu on the Red Sea coast, killing five Westerners. There are other disturbing similarities in the attacks; in both, Saudi security forces took more than 90 minutes to engage each al-Qa'ida cell after the shooting began; by that time, both had dragged the body of a Westerner through the streets from the back of cars.

Travel agencies in the Eastern Province say big joint ventures and multinational groups have made mass bookings for their American and European executives. "In our apartment accommodation, there's no security," said Fergus McArdle from Northern Ireland, who works at Jubail Industrial College, a short drive from Khobar. "Considering what happened in Khobar, it's pathetic. You're safe here, they tell us, and that's what those who were killed in Khobar thought."

There are even unconfirmed reports of mass resignations from the state-owned energy giant Saudi Aramco, where Americans make up the bulk of the more than 10,000 Westerners whose expertise the kingdom still largely relies on to run its most vital economic sector.

"It's all fudge and compromise; that's the way it always is here," Peter Kirk, a Briton who has lived in Khobar for 24 years, said. "It's hard to know if there was a cock-up or conspiracy last week, but the spectacle of helicopters landing on the roof of the apartment at 7am when the terrorist had 'escaped' at 3am is simply appalling."

Luxury compounds such as the Oasis, which was targeted in Khobar, were designed to provide maximum comfort for the expatriate. Their high walls keep the desert, and the local culture, at a distance. The tight security was touted as a benefit of life at a year-round luxury holiday resort, but now the compound guardhouses have become more like entrances to prisons, and there are fears that the ranks of those whose job it is to secure them have been infiltrated by al-Qa'ida.

The 12 May suicide bombings depended on a significant level of insider knowledge. The mission of the American personnel employed by Vinnell Corp, a Virginia-based defence contractor, was to train the National Guard, which protects Saudi royalty from armed insurrections and democracy advocates. Nine of the Vinnell staffers died in the attack, when al-Qa'ida was secretly assisted by members of the Guard, military trainers say. Some Saudi commentators say the compounds, and the people who live on them, were always part of the problem.

"The expats who live in those compounds live an artificial life," Dr Mohammed T Al-Rasheed, a Jeddah-based columnist said. "They meet only vetted and semi-Westernised locals, they ooze a sense of condescension that rubs the nerves of the local population, and they seem to tell everyone that they are better, smarter and make more money."

Perhaps. But try telling that to the family of Michael Hardy, a Briton who changed his name to Michael Muhammed after he converted to Islam, and who was among the five Westerners shot in Yanbu. He had been about to return to the Indonesian island of Batam to start an idyllic retirement. Mr Hardy was helping to upgrade the oilfields which remain remarkably vulnerable to a major terrorist assault. More than 10,000 miles of pipeline crisscross Saudi Arabia, an oil web more than double the size of Iraq's, where insurgents repeatedly sabotage lines, despite the massive US military presence.

Al-Qa'ida cells in Saudi Arabia appear to be holding off from a direct attack on an oil installation or the Saudi royal family, and most expatriates will delay departure until they do. Self-appointed al-Qa'ida spokesmen say on websites that the princes' "separate fingers will become an iron fist" if their rule is threatened. A major attack would result in imposition of a state of emergency, making movement of terrorists much more difficult. So better, the terrorists' spokesmen say, to let the royal family squabble among themselves over reforms as resentment grows over increasingly difficult economic circumstances. An unstable Saudi Arabia would remain fertile recruiting ground for arms, money and volunteers.

Members of the state security apparatus, whose job now ostensibly amounts to keeping the Al-Saud in power in the face of growing domestic opposition, find themselves directly in the radicals' firing line. A radical Saudi Islamist group affiliated with al-Qa'ida claimed it blew up a car last December in Riyadh belonging to Lieutenant-Colonel Ibrahim Al-Dhaleh, a senior Saudi security officer, who escaped.

The group, the Brigade of the Two Holy Mosques, also said it had tried to kill Major General Abdel-Aziz Al-Huweirini, the number three official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, shot in Riyadh that month. The statement warned Colonel Dhaleh "and those like him" against pursuing their war against Islamists in Saudi Arabia.

That is why three of the four members of the al-Qa'ida cell in Khobar got away. To have reneged on the promise of a safe getaway would have left the security forces, and the Al-Saud ruling family, fearing for their lives in revenge attacks.

John R Bradley, former managing editor of Arab News, Jeddah, is the author of the forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers & Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom

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