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Some Americans Say They Feel Trapped in Saudi Arabia - 2004-06-22

Some Americans living in Saudi Arabia say they are beginning to feel trapped in the kingdom because they will suffer financial penalties if they leave quickly. The State Department has issued an urgent appeal for Americans living in Saudi Arabia to leave the kingdom because of the recent series of terrorist attacks. But not everyone who wants to leave is able to do so.

At a heavily-guarded housing compound in Riyadh, protected by cement barriers and men with machine guns, several residents who asked not to be identified said the Saudi-owned businesses they work for are holding them to their contracts.

The contracts require employees to give 90 days' notice before they can leave. If they do not, the company will not pay their moving expenses or consider transferring them to another country so they can keep their jobs.

According to senior officials at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, that has not been the case among American-owned businesses in the country. The embassy says the U.S.-companies are encouraging their employees to follow the State Department's recommendation, and are also offering employees full compensation and benefits.

Despite complaints and inquiries to the U.S. embassy, officials say they cannot legally involve themselves in contractual agreements between Saudi-owned businesses and the Americans who work for them.

There are an estimated 35,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia, most of whom work in the oil-industry.

Many of them live in compounds like this one, similar to one that Al-Qaida terrorists attacked last month, killing 22 people. Since then, security has been increased at such compounds, and it is not possible for a reporter to go inside, even as the guest of a resident. The people quoted in this report spoke outside the compound's main gate.

An American consultant to a Saudi-owned oil company, who asked that he not be identified, acknowledged that many Saudi companies have the 90-day notice requirement in their contracts with foreign employees. He says companies want to protect themselves from a sudden loss of workers. He also says there will always be Americans living and working in the kingdom because, as he put it, "The American economy drives the world's economy". And, the American economy, he said, remains dependent on oil from Saudi Arabia.

The spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Carol Kalin, says all non-essential embassy employees and their families have been ordered to leave the country. But Ms. Kalin says the embassy will remain open because, as she put it, The United States has diplomatic business to conduct with Saudi Arabia.

She would not disclose how many Americans work at the embassy or how many have actually left the country. She also said the embassy does not know how many Americans who were working in the kingdom have left since the recent wave of terrorism began.

Residents at the housing compound in Riyadh said while they intend to honor the 90-day requirement, they are beginning to feel, as one person put it, trapped in Saudi Arabia, especially after terrorists beheaded American Paul Johnson last week. As one resident said, when most people were signing their contracts calling for the 90-day notice, no one could have possibly predicted the level of terror that has gripped Saudi Arabia.