Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Foreigners express fears in meeting with Saudis

SECURITY CONCERNS About 50 diplomats and foreign executives, the foreign minister and an anti-terrorism official met for an unusual discussion


Two senior Saudi princes held an unusual town hall meeting on Sunday with representatives of the kingdom's foreign population to discuss security fears after two months of terror attacks that killed about 30 foreigners.

Participants later said that the meeting of about 50 diplomats and executives of foreign companies and Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, and Prince Muhammad al-Nayef, the top anti-terrorism official at the Interior Ministry, was marked more by cordial diplomacy than a hard-headed look at the threat.

"I think it was a wonderful first step," said Georgene Wade, a senior administrator at the American International School of Jidda, "but the audience glossed over the severity of the problem."

She noted that several senior American executives did not tell the princes that their companies had ordered the families of their employees out of the country.

At a brief news conference after the session, which lasted two hours, US Ambassador James Oberwetter said the topics included a need for better training and equipment for Saudi security forces, better security at some com-pounds, more information from the Interior Ministry about threats and attacks, and some means for foreigners to contact Saudi security forces directly in an emergency.

"Many expatriates are going to stay and want to stay, but they are concerned about their security, and they are concerned about their quality of life," Oberwetter said.

But others said that the corporate chiefs, presented with a rare opportunity to air their grievances to two such senior royal figures, used the meeting to focus on lesser problems like the bureaucratic hurdles required to obtain employment visas.

One subject touched on, but not delved into, was whether there should be armed guards inside the gated residential compounds where most Westerners live, and which terrorists have chosen as their targets. Although the perimeters are often guarded by the National Guard, security inside is usually provided by unarmed foreign civilians.

Last week the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, suggested that people from other countries would be allowed to apply for gun permits. But Saud made it clear that any armed guards would have to be Saudi.

Foreign workers are often skeptical of how committed Saudi guards will be to protecting a Western lifestyle in compounds where, for example, women often ride bicycles in shorts, unlike the Saudi women who are normally enveloped in a black shroud.

Several executives stressed that the kingdom risks losing its foreign workers if it does not maintain this kind of life while fighting terrorism. They said Saud acknowledged the problem by saying the Saudi government had yet to find the fine line between making sure Westerners felt secure and curtailing any of their freedoms.

Saud, speaking at the news conference, said he took from the meeting a strong sense that foreigners want to remain.

"It is poignant to know that all of the questions that were asked by the expatriate community were questions dealing with how they can stay, not what reasons they have to leave," he said.

It is difficult to gauge the size of the exodus that might follow the recent attacks, given that many foreigners leave the country each year to escape the Saudi summer. But one indication that many foreign workers will not be coming back is the booming business at moving companies in cities like Khobar, where 22 people, most of them foreigners, were killed in a terrorist attack on two businesses and a residential compound on May 29.

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