Saudis approach Jan. 15 deadline without much apparent apprehension

January 14, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- For many Saudis, Jan. 15 was an important date long before the arrival of American soldiers, a day whose significance was not appreciably altered by the impasse between the United States and Iraq or any other events.

For soldiers, tomorrow is the day when the United States gains United Nations authority to launch a war against Iraq to push it out of Kuwait. For Saudis, it remains primarily the date for school vacation and taking relaxing trips abroad.

"It's part of a 10-day break," a Saudi businessman earnestly explained. "The weather is really great, especially in Cairo or Cyprus. If people are leaving, it's for their trips, not because they are afraid."

To the extent that Saudis have even been aware of a countdown, they have listened to the ticking of a different clock than the one heard by soldiers.

This is a country that appears to disbelieve in danger or even in anxiety, regardless of the preparations of its allies. For many Saudis the main concern for now is that vacation plans may be upset by foreign airlines canceling their flights because of a dizzying rise in insurance costs.

The risk of war goes largely undiscussed; the potentials for destruction and injury are considered illnesses threatening only foreign armies, not Saudis. When the threat is acknowledged, it is examined in order to be belittled. Attempts to discuss war-related problems turn into lectures of reassurances, as an overprotective parent might speak to a child.

Saudi TV, whose content is tightly controlled by the government, attempted a sort of breakthrough last week by broadcasting its first program on chemical weapons. A civil defense official cut off his interviewer's questions about what precautions to take by asserting that chemical weapons would never be used.

Nowhere is there frank talk about threats by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president. He has left little to the imagination in challenges directed against Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. Mr. Hussein has vowed to take control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, destroy the kingdom's oil fields, overthrow the government and redistribute the country's enormous wealth.

Few Saudis show any sign of concern. "No one says, 'Look, it's going to be like this or that, and we should prepare,' " an exasperated civil servant said. "There's a kind of immobilism," a response partially explained by the fatalism that is an important part of the national psyche.

As a people, Saudis attribute their great material wealth to good luck and to the generosity of Allah. They just as readily accept that their fortune could suddenly change in ways that individuals would be powerless to influence.

"We are good Muslims, and we believe that if something bad is going to happen, you can be hit riding your horse, driving your car or riding in a plane," said Talaat Wafa, editor of the English-language newspaper Riyadh Daily. "If something will happen to us, whatever it is, it will happen."

That belief extends to all parts of society. It seemingly applies equally to concerns about war and about the weather. A university professor said, for example, that while he canceled plans to leave the country, several colleagues were packing to attend a conference abroad:

"They're leaving their families behind because they're so sure nothing will go wrong," the professor said. "Maybe it is wishful thinking. With some people it is the idea, 'God will take care of us.' People just don't think there's going to be a war."

Only in the last several days have authorities begun to prepare people for conflict. Civil defense offices opened yesterday in Riyadh to distribute gas masks, and sirens were sounded as part of a drill.

In Dhahran, a major air force center, hotels and other businesses conducted their own drills, sending guests and staff members into shelters.

In newspapers, the first articles are appearing with suggestions that people keep rags on hand to help seal windows and doors in case of a chemical weapons attack, and to tape windows to prevent them from shattering in case of bomb blasts. But the dominant message remains unchanged: Don't worry.

"Our culture never experienced a war, or a bullet -- nothing," the Saudi professor said. "They only hear a bullet when they go hunting. I'm afraid if something happens, there'll be a panic."

People are not entirely anxiety-free, as shown by the current crop of rumors. Saudis gossip that airports are about to be closed -- a rumor that the civil aviation authorities have gone to the trouble to deny.

There is gossip that King Fahd plans to flee if fighting begins, following the example of Sheik Jaber al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait. Or that Mr. Hussein has aircraft waiting to take him to Cuba.

If fighting actually occurs, the government risks having to cope with a population that is caught psychologically unprepared or that may be far less hawkish than its rulers.

Saudis have little affection for Mr. Hussein, Arab and Western analysts say, but they have strong brotherly feelings for his country. And they would object to intensive bombing of Baghdad, one of the capitals of Islam's golden age.

"When you're talking destruction of Baghdad, in the Arab world, you're talking about the destruction of Paris for Frenchmen," said an Arab academic.

Saudi Arabia's government meanwhile continues to prepare in an unflappably low-key style. King Fahd made his first visit to Saudi troops near the border with Kuwait only last week to give a speech later broadcast repeatedly on TV. His remarks, delivered from a suitably royal-looking tent, were more a fireside chat tracing the history of relations between the kingdom and Iraq than a stirring appeal for national resolve.

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