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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Caution (and Common Sense) is the Order of the Day

December 3, 2014

Riyadh – Ministry of the Interior

It’s an odd feeling knowing that somewhere out in the sprawling conurbation of Riyadh there might be someone who wants your blood – or that of someone like you. The Saudi media today revealed  that what appears to be an ISIS video is doing the rounds of the social media purporting to show the shooting of a Danish guy in south Riyadh a few days ago.

I’ve not seen it, because I don’t make it my business to scour the net for ISIS snuff videos, or, in this case a video of an attempted snuff. Fortunately the Danish guy survived a gunshot wound to the shoulder.

But a trend might  – or might not – be emerging of attacks on western expatriates. Whether they are all ideologically inspired is not proven. But the murder by shooting of a Vinnell employee near a petrol station was followed by the attack on the Dane, and last week a Canadian guy was stabbed by a “metal object” in a mall in Dammam, to the east of the country. A little disquieting, but the fact that two of the three victims survived suggests that the attackers are more likely to have been enthusiastic amateurs than hardened assassins.

The same cannot be said about the group who mowed down a group of young Shia worshippers in Al-Hasa last month. They clearly knew what they were doing and how to do it.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a number of westerners across the Kingdom worrying about what to do. Is it time to get out before the trend is confirmed? Or does one take the phlegmatic view – as do many who lived through the far worse attacks in 2003-4 – that you have a far greater chance of dying on in a car accident than in a hail of bullets?

Statistically, the current odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are pretty low. Three victims out of maybe 50,000 westerners living in the country. Perhaps it’s worth putting things into perspective. As a British national, do I feel safer in my own country, where the security services, cheer-led by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, are pushing for extra powers to combat the threat from returning ISIS fighters, than I do in Saudi Arabia? If Mrs May is to be believed, the police and MI5 are busy foiling plots left right and centre. So if you live in one of the urban areas where plotters seem to hang out – London, Luton, Bradford and Birmingham for example – you would also surely have cause to look over your shoulder when you walk down the street, take a bus or a train. Just as I remember doing in Birmingham immediately after the IRA pub bombings in 1974.

But the fact is that it would be almost impossible to anticipate an attack in one of those centres, unless, of course, as was the case with poor Lee Rigby, you happen to be in uniform, when the odds probably shorten. Do you therefore stop going out, stop working, stop going to the shops and live out your life in fearful seclusion behind closed doors? And should people in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam do the same?

Not right now, I suggest. Many westerners live in compounds fortified in the aftermath of 2003-4. They might still be vulnerable once they step outside these havens, as was the guy from Vinnell. I have no doubt that security experts with various large companies are advising their people to vary their travelling routes and routines, to keep an eye out for parked cars with people inside them waiting outside the compounds or workplaces, and to watch for any activities that might seem to be out of the ordinary. That’s what security experts are trained to do. But most of us don’t have those observation skills, and wouldn’t know what to look for. And there are lots of people who don’t work under the protection of companies like Saudi Aramco and British Aerospace.

So what it probably comes down to is to what extent you will let yourself be dominated by fear, and to what extend fear dictates your actions to the point that life becomes intolerable. And that’s down to the individual. If I was a resident in one of the big cities in Saudi Arabia (right now I’m a visitor, though I was once a resident both of Riyadh and Jeddah), I would take what in my terms were reasonable precautions. I would drive to most places – it’s easier to get away from an attacker in a car than on foot, as the late Simon Cumbers and Frank Gardner found out in 2003. I would stick to places and routes I knew well, to avoid the chance of getting lost in a strange part of the city. I would avoid places with large crowds but little security presence – souks for example. If I wanted to be ultra-cautious I might drive in convoy – at least that way someone in the group might be able to raise the alarm if something untoward were to happen.

Otherwise, I would try and get on with my life, just as I would at home. I would watch and wait for further developments, if any. Should things turn really nasty, as happened in 2003, then there would be another decision to make – whether to stay or go. But right now three incidents that may or may not be related do not constitute a terror campaign. And it would be wrong to underestimate the Saudi security forces, who since 2004 have had a good record tracking down “militants” and of pre-empting further major attacks.

Nobody in this country but a tiny minority, whose sights are set on Syria and Iraq, wants to live in a war zone, least of all the vast majority of Saudis themselves. And Saudi Arabia isn’t a war zone. It’s a country that for foreign residents carries with it certain risks. Perhaps more than some, but far less than others I could think of. Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Karachi, Nairobi, Caracas and even certain parts of London, for example.

It’s simple. You earns your money and you takes your chances. When the chances don’t look good, you do something about it. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. No room for complacency, but no cause for panic either.

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