Wed, Jun 02, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Saudi Arabia's assurances of little comfort

Despite promises that foreign workers will be protected, militants appear to be succeeding in driving away Westerners

By Brian Whitaker  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The weekend carnage in Khobar came less than a month after Saudi Arabia vowed to "strike with an iron fist" against militants who carried out attacks and said it was making every effort to protect foreigners in the kingdom.

"The government is doing all it can to protect all residents," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference.

Such assurances have been heard before and will no doubt be heard again, though whether they are likely to cut much ice with the foreign workers on whom the kingdom depends is another matter.

Since the Riyadh bombings on May 12 last year, which left 35 people dead, including nine attackers, the Saudi authorities have rounded up hundreds of suspects, seized numerous weapons caches and fought gun battles with Islamic militants -- and yet the attacks show no sign of abating.

Seventeen people died in a suicide bombing in Riyadh last November; another in April killed five, including two senior police officers and an 11-year-old girl; an attack by gunmen on the offices of an oil company in Yanbu on May 1 killed six Westerners and a Saudi.

The ability of suspects to escape when apparently cornered, and the heavy casualties suffered by security forces -- five of them died in one raid last January -- has also raised doubts about the authorities' competence.

"The credibility of the Saudi statements about having the situation under control are looking very, very weak at the moment. The whole confidence in their security apparatus is getting lower and lower as we speak," Tim Ripley, a research associate at the Center of Defence and International Strategic Studies at Lancaster University, told Reuters on Sunday.

"The blatant nature of the attack [in Khobar] and the seeming inability of the Saudi security services to deal with it and even prevent it and contain it, will be sending real shock waves through the region," he said.

The first major attacks on housing compounds in the capital in May last year infuriated many Saudis who complained that despite plenty of warnings there had been little or no attempt to step up security. It was not until four days after the event that security around the compounds visibly improved.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef then bumbled through a press conference where he announced that a number of people had been arrested.

When asked how many arrests there had been, he gave three different answers and had to be prompted by an official.

In almost any other country, Nayef, who has run the Interior Ministry for almost 30 years, would have been forced to resign by now, but he is virtually unsackable because of his position in the royal family.

The prince, who is regarded as one of the main obstacles to reform, initially blamed the Sept. 11 attacks in the US on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and/or Zionists.

In the midst of the most serious security crisis the kingdom has ever faced, he has also found time to arrest liberal reformers and ban "un-Islamic" imports of female dolls and teddy bears.

The Saudi militants, though, would present a formidable challenge to any security system. They are difficult to detect since they tend to work in small, unconnected cells, and they prefer death to arrest -- ideally causing as many casualties as possible before they die.

Although their rhetoric is directed against "infidels" and "Crusaders," in practice their attacks are less specific and many of their victims have been Muslims.

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