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'I don't want to go home in a box'

International | SAUDI ARABIA: Latest al-Qaeda attack has Westerners and Americans fleeing, oil prices spiking, and people wondering whether the House of Saud is a house of cards

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

Staring down the barrel of a gun, Jerry Dizon apparently couldn't process the question being barked at him. "Are you Muslim?" the intruders demanded.

Mr. Dizon, the Filipino employee of a Saudi oil-services company based in the eastern city of Khobar, never got a chance to confirm or deny his faith. All he managed was a confused "What?" before his assailants shot him to death.

Also killed during the morning raid on Saturday, May 29: two more Filipinos, eight Indians, two Sri Lankans, and one victim each from America, Italy, Sweden, South Africa, Egypt, and Great Britain. Three Saudis were also killed-apparently by mistake, since the four al-Qaeda gunmen specifically targeted "heathen" foreigners.

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"We want the Americans.... We are looking for non-Muslims," the militants reportedly shouted as they stormed the five-story Khobar Petroleum Center, where they killed their first three victims. At the nearby Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation they murdered a British executive before heading to the luxurious Oasis Resort, where they held 50 hostages for more than a day before Saudi security forces stormed the compound.

When the rampage was over, government sources put the death toll at 22-the second-deadliest terrorist attack in Saudi history. Within 72 hours, officials claimed they had killed or captured three terror suspects tied to the shootings. But among the 6 million foreigners who keep the oil revenues flowing, the damage was already done. American schools shut down immediately. Britain warned its citizens not to travel within the kingdom. Western executives evacuated their families and moved up their summer vacation plans. Oil prices spiked worldwide. And within diplomatic circles, the question became: How long can the House of Saud survive?

Al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, has long vowed to drive Westerners from the birthplace of Islam, and the Khobar incident seemed calculated to further that goal. Among the expatriate community, the killings were noteworthy not just for the body count, but for their sheer brutality. The British victim was tied to the back of a car and dragged through the streets. At the Oasis Hotel, nine victims reportedly had their throats slit.

"A lot Westerners are really, really scared," said an American executive based in the capital city of Riyadh, where an American military convoy came under fire on June 1. "I'm not sure how long most of these people will last in this atmosphere of fear. We're oddballs over here, people whose tolerance level is higher than the typical person back home. But I can tell you this last incident, for a lot of people, is the proverbial straw that has broken the camel's back."

The executive, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals against his colleagues, told WORLD he had already planned to move back to the States this summer. After the Khobar attacks, however, he pushed his plans up by several weeks. "Part of the reason I'm bugging out of here is that I don't need to be here. I don't want to go home in a box."

How many like him will follow suit? The full impact of the Khobar attacks might not be known for months. Westerners typically leave the desert kingdom en masse during the hot summer months, so an exodus now would not be unexpected. But many foreigners might simply refuse to return in the fall, particularly if the attacks continue.

Luring qualified workers back to Saudi Arabia could prove difficult and expensive. Expatriate American managers already make 25-30 percent more than they would back home, and the first $80,000 of their salary is tax free. Then there are the perks: a company car, free private education for the kids, and luxurious free housing, perhaps with a cook and a maid.

Increasingly, however, the perks themselves are beginning to raise red flags. Westerners have been dragged from their company cars and murdered. Parents worry about security at private schools. And the gated housing complexes that once allowed liberal Western lifestyles to coexist with strict Muslim mores are now viewed by terrorists as symbols of the heathen occupation. "People used to desire these compounds for cultural reasons," a Western source told WORLD. "But now people in these compounds are sitting ducks. If you're a terrorist and you want to find 'whitey,' where do you go?"

Although Saudi officials insist the nation's oil wells and pipelines are secure, such infrastructure is of little use without the foreign brainpower that fuels the industry. Despite government assurances that all was well, world markets reacted with a jolt to the Khobar shooting spree. Crude oil prices jumped more than 5 percent, hitting a record $42.45 a barrel shortly after the attacks.

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