For a former Richmond resident, living in Saudi Arabia isn't what it used to be. 

Quietly American

What's it like living in Saudi Arabia these days — a few weeks after 9-11-01? I feel a bit uneasy and quite stifled. Adding fuel to this stifling uneasiness is the Oct. 6 bombing on King Khalid Street in downtown Al-Khobar that left one American dead and another wounded. I've often shopped — even hung out — on King Khalid Street.

I live on an enclosed compound in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province — a place patrolled 24 hours a day by armed guards. Only people employed by my husband's company and their dependents live on camp. We have access to a commissary, a post office, a hospital, a library, and a beauty salon. I've been cocooned on the compound for weeks and suffer from a raging case of cabin fever.

The United States Embassy recently hosted a town meeting for American citizens "to answer any questions you might have in light of the current situation." Richard Ober, the consular security officer, recommended that Americans "keep a low profile." Translation: Stay out of public places as much as possible. And for heaven's sake, don't wear T-shirts that say "I Love New York," and while you're at it, take those decals off your car that identify you as American.

The aim: To be as inconspicuous as possible. "Ladies, you may want to wear your abayahs," suggested Marc Desjardins, the consulate general. The abayah is a long, black, shapeless, outer garment worn by Saudi women. Western women are not officially required to wear this traditional garment as long as our dress is "modest," but there is pressure placed on Western women from many sources to cover in public. Many Western women refuse to do so "on principle." Marc said, "This may not be the time to stand on principle." You bet. I don my abayah these days on those rare occasions when I go public. I'm keeping a low profile.

The Saudi government assures its citizens and OFWs (overseas foreign workers) that "travel in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains safe." But somehow I lose any trace of the travel bug when I hear U.S. Embassy reports that American citizens are being harassed with catcalls and obscene language, and even spit on as they shop in Al-Khobar's Safeway.

Enjoying Al-Khobar's restaurants and shopping along King Khalid Street for me is a thing of the past. I no longer sip tea in Joffrey's Coffee Shop, listening to the majestic call to prayer as it wafts along the wind from the minarets of the local mosque. And strolling along Al-Khobar's Corniche, gazing out across the Arabian Sea just doesn't happen any more. I'm keeping a low profile.

From the Arab press, I get a sense that there is considerable popular support for Osama bin Laden and Co. in Saudi Arabia. So far, there have been no public anti-American or pro-bin Laden demonstrations. Many Saudis enjoy a comfortable lifestyle made possible by oil revenue. Do they really want to risk losing that comfort for a cause? The royal family seems to walk that razor's edge, balancing their own interests (wealth and power) with the admiration many Saudi folks have for their disowned son, Osama.

My neighbor Tom, a former Houston policeman, has worked in the company's Security Department for several years. We chatted one evening while hauling our garbage out to the curb. He said, "When they [the Saudi people] start to bite the hand that feeds them, I'll know it's time to leave. You'll see me cruise on over to Bahrain and outta here."

If things get to that point, you'll see me hitching a ride with him.

Esther Nelson is a writer who previously lived in Chesterfield County and now lives in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia.


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