Do You Feel Safe?

Do you feel safe?

When I am talking to people about living and working in Saudi Arabia, that is the question I get asked more than any other. Questions about how women are treated here come in a close second; but it’s the question of safety that tends to predominate all initial conversations on the subject.

Much to the surprise of nearly everyone, I have to respond, “Yes. I feel safe.”

Now, it is true Westerners can be the target of anti-Western elements in the Middle East. Just last February, four Frenchmen were murdered in the northwestern part of the country – despite the fact they’d recently converted to Islam. These guys resided in the same compound where most of the Western employees of our company live, and several of the guys I work with knew the men. In 2003, Al-Qaeda elements launched rocket attacks against three of the residential compounds with deadly results. And, in that same year, an American contractor working for Lockheed Martin (for whom I also worked at the time) was kidnapped and beheaded. A British worker was shot and killed at a stoplight on his way home that same year, and another Westerner was killed at another stoplight in a random act of murder.

Such facts certainly are relevant when considering one’s safety in a foreign land. However, there are mitigating factors, which lessen the day-to-day concern. As a result of the 2003 compound attacks, the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia instituted a series of sweeps wherein they arrested hundreds, perhaps thousands (the real number is unknown) of known and suspected terrorists – primarily Al Qaeda members. The Kingdom also ordered concrete barricades and fences be placed around compounds, hotels, governmental and diplomatic buildings. Car searches were also implemented. It’s nearly impossible to get into one of the aforementioned facilities without having to pop the hood and the trunk so security guards or soldiers can look for bombs. “Shunta,” is a word everyone who drives into work knows, and we all dutifully pop our trunk. In most places, k-wall (movable concrete barricades) have been placed so that cars must negotiate a serpentine drive into these places, a tactic meant to slow car bombs and armed vehicles.

Failure to obey commands can (and have for a couple of folks I have known) result in several rifles, handguns, or machine guns bearing down on oneself. So, it is important to pay attention to what is being said. In cases of unclear instructions, it is best to ask again until they are understood or the guards get tired of repeating their words in broken English and simply give up, allowing the passage of the person or vehicle. Any place where a soldier is posted there are many, many guns. Usually, they carry Russian rifles or .45 handguns; however, in almost all cases, there is at least one machine gun mounted on an armored personnel carrier or within a camouflaged nest. There are several machine guns guarding the entrance to my residential compound. The guns are loaded.

Riyadh is like any other big city. Anywhere 5 million people gather, they validate Malthus. So, on the whole, living in Riyadh is like living in Las Vegas. Actually, given the gang activity in Vegas, one is probably more likely to get shot there than in Riyadh. I feel very comfortable going to the store at night; but I always park where there is light. I tend toward crowds, and I try not to stop, alone, in an isolated area. When I mentioned one specific part of the city where Westerners are told not to go, one of the Saudi guys working for me laughed and said, “Mr. Greg, I don’t even go down there.”

The greatest hostility toward Westerners tends to be in the more isolated and rural areas of the country. It’s a good idea to have a Saudi host in those places. Or, at least someone who is Arabic. A couple of years ago, while out camping, several Western and Lebanese friends were camping together when a truck full of guys showed up. They began demanding whether any Americans were in the camp. Intelligently, the Westerners had made themselves scarce, and one of the Lebanese men assured the visitors that no Americans were around. After a couple of repetitions of that assurance, the truck full of men left. But, that is the exception to the rule. On the whole, the people are incredibly nice and polite (save on the road). Many will offer a smile and a courteous greeting. Those that
don’t simply ignore your existence.

I have had two instances of hostility directed toward me since I got here. On one occasion, a Saudi guy passing me spewed a mouthful of Arabic curses at me as I walked toward a mall entrance. The other was from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi guy who stared at me with an openly hostile gaze of loathing. The meaning behind his eyes were not lost on me. Truthfully, most of the areas where Westerners fear for their safety tends to be among the Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas of town. Not coincidentally, these are the poorest areas of town, where crime is more likely to occur.

Things are a lot worse in neighboring Yemen. I met a Canadian guy on my way back from Christmas vacation. He told me that they have to travel in armed convoys in order to go anywhere. Both Al-Qaeda and Hamas have recruiting offices in the city where he works – with the Hamas office being across the street from his place of work. Two Belgian women were killed their last week. I don’t plan to work there. Nope…give me the UAE or Qatar or Bahrain…all of which are considered quite safe.

Over all, I feel as safe in Riyadh as I do in most American cities – maybe a little safer in some instances. Of course, this could change tonight. If it does, I have no problem putting in my notice and returning home. One has to be wise, aware, and vigilant. But, that is true everywhere.

Copyright 2008 by Greg Hubbard

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