Fear turning Saudis' sentiment against gulf war WAR IN THE GULF

January 27, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- First came the rumors: Saddam Hussein will strike Jidda, the city along the Red Sea coast where many families have sent their children to keep them safely out of the range of Scud missiles. He will attack Mecca, the holiest city of Islam. He has super-missiles unknown to the West. He has super-airplanes.

Then came unmistakable expressions of fear: Merchants opened their shops for a limited number of hours or not at all. Restaurants found themselves hampered by cooks and waiters too frightened to come to work after dark, prime time for Scuds. Streets became deserted because people either stayed at home or fled the Eastern province.

Now comes an early, caustic revisionism about the war against Iraq: After a week and a half of fighting, many Saudis say the U.S.-led bombing campaign is a grave mistake. They say that forcing Iraq out of Kuwait is not worth the destruction of Iraqi cities and warn that Arab public opinion could quickly turn against the West.

"It's nice that the U.N. got to vote on war, and your Congress voted on it, but no one asked us about it," said a Saudi working in the oil industry. "Who has a house here? I do. Who has family here? I do, and I don't want this war."

His opinions appear to be widely shared. They also are exactly contrary to the views he and others expressed before the Persian Gulf war started, when the same Saudis were eager hawks. But many Western-educated Saudis now are expressing fear that the conflict will traumatize the Arab world and endanger their comfortable way of life.

"After the first week, we needed to re-evaluate what we had been thinking," a Saudi businessman said. "We have to begin to think of Saddam's point of view. We are very scared we will be getting chemical warfare if the Americans continue to push him."

This is a society that usually frowns upon public displays of emotions, including fear. In this case, the feelings are impossible to mask. Since last Sunday, when Iraq launched its first missile barrage against the kingdom, Saudis have shown symptoms of a deeply felt anxiety.

Businessmen talk of colleagues with children who cry uncontrollably, of doctors dispensing sedatives, of relatives fleeing to the relative safety of Jidda, where every available hotel room and furnished apartment has been filled.

There is a powerful, choking sense of claustrophobia. Most air links between the kingdom and the outside world have been severed. Dhahran has no commercial flights at all, so that foreign workers flee to Jidda in a steady stream of taxis.

People talk incessantly about Scuds, missile payloads and ranges. More than 20 Scuds have been fired at Riyadh and Dhahran; people are greatly upset that the air raid sirens sometimes sound only when the missiles are directly overhead.

Before the fighting began, the risks of war went largely undiscussed in the government-monitored press. There was little any discussion about the potential for destruction or injury here or elsewhere.

War was to be something that happened only to others and was to be painless. Americans were to fight it, and Iraq was to behave chivalrously toward its neighbors.

hTC One Saudi said he prayed that the war would begin during the school vacation period, which is now coming to an end. He assumed that a war would cause the least disruption when his children were at home and would be over by the time schools reopened. The televised violence and the air raid sirens caught him by surprise.

Part of the shock is due to Saudis' unaccustomed access to Western news broadcasts. Government-controlled television in Bahrain, the island nation a few miles east of Dhahran, canceled most of its regular programming and substituted Cable News Network.

More conservative Saudi television began broadcasting an hour or more of edited CNN reports a day.

Saudis and Westerners can draw radically different conclusions from the same televised scenes. In a report showing destruction in Baghdad, Westerners may see encouraging evidence of military success. For Saudis, the pictures document a deeply disturbing attack on fellow Arabs and one of the capitals of Islam's golden age.

Television has helped feed revisionism. One of the revised truths is that the damage in Baghdad is worse than anything Iraq has done to Kuwait.

"We saw tapes of tanks rolling into Kuwait, but we didn't see mass slaughter like we're seeing on TV today in Iraq," the Saudi in the oil industry said. "It's tearing people's guts apart to see it."

So great is the nervousness that many Saudis willingly forgive Mr. Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait and turn their anger on the Kuwaitis -- anything to bring the conflict, and the anxiety, to an early end.

"Strutting little peacocks," the Saudi businessman said of two Kuwaitis, sitting at an adjacent table in a hotel coffee shop. "They're rats."

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