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Life as a Target in a Besieged Kingdom

4 minute read
Hassan Fattah

Life is getting lonely for Tom Cox. Many of Cox’s friends and neighbors in the heavily guarded housing complex where he lives in Riyadh either have left or are thinking of leaving. His boss, a Saudi American, packed up a few months ago after his family was injured in an attack. Other colleagues have taken extended sabbaticals. The cocktail parties that Cox, 73, used to frequent rarely happen anymore. Those Westerners, who, like Cox, choose to stay in Saudi Arabia despite the escalating threats have no illusions about the dangers they now face. “I intend to stay here,” Cox insists. “But I’m looking for signs to get out.”

Western residents of Saudi Arabia have long existed in a world all their own, making their homes in walled-off compounds away from the country’s citizens and the strictures that dominate daily life in the kingdom. In exchange for often hefty paychecks and perks, Westerners provide much of the technical know-how that drives the Saudi economy. But recent events have forced many expats to reconsider the terms of that bargain. Terrorists linked to alQaeda have gone on a killing spree aimed at driving foreign workers out of the kingdom and hastening the Saudi regime’s collapse. Militants have killed three Americans in the past month, including Paul Johnson, an engineer and a 20-year veteran of Saudi Arabia who was kidnapped and beheaded. After Johnson’s murder, Saudi security forces killed the purported leader of alQaeda in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz alMuqrin. Last week Crown Prince Abdullah announced an amnesty for extremists willing to surrender over the period of one month. The government also announced that for the first time, foreigners will be allowed to carry weapons.

But few expats feel reassured. American officials say that while there is no evidence yet of a large-scale exodus, even the U.S. embassy has scaled down its staffing. “We’re all adjusting,” says a U.S. official. With school now out for the summer, many of the 25,000 Americans who live here are heading out on long vacations. Hundreds of others have decided to leave for good, either relocating to gulf states like Bahrain and Dubai or returning to the U.S. “There’s no doubt about it. The terrorists are winning here in terms of instilling fear in us,” says an American businessman. He sent his wife and children back to the U.S. last November after al-Qaeda attacked a compound housing foreigners. He has stayed in Riyadh, but just barely: he stopped driving and hasn’t been outside his compound in a month. “I won’t be here long,” he says.

For others, life has become a daily series of calculations. Going to the store usually takes some thought–should you go to the supermarket or the little store inside your complex? Cox says he frequents only malls he knows are owned by one of the Saudi princes, “because they have the money to pay for security.” He attends parties only rarely: “I used to go out all the time. Not anymore. I just go from home to work.” Most of the time, he prefers to stay home, either finishing work or watching movies. “My social life is zilch,” he says.

Some Americans are trying to blend in, growing beards and donning thobes–the traditional ankle-length garments worn by most Saudi males. But even that isn’t enough to avoid being targeted. A Saudi businessman says he now advises his Western friends on how to walk inconspicuously. “Don’t walk like you are going somewhere,” he tells them. “Here we walk like we’re not going anywhere. We saunter as if we have nowhere to go.” And, he advises them, if you’re walking with another man, hold his hand, as Saudis do. “That makes you look more authentic,” he says.

For his part, Cox bristles at the idea of altering his behavior to fend off terrorists. “I won’t hide like that,” he says. Like many others, Cox tries to rationalize the risks. He won’t become a victim of terrorists, he tells himself; he’s smarter than that. Lately he has tried to convince himself that most of the recent attacks have targeted people connected to security and the military. As an economist, he feels he’s on relatively safe ground. He expects the security situation to get worse, but he’ll take his chances for now. “I know how slow things happen here,” he says. “It will take a long time for things to get really bad.” By then he may be gone too. –With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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