Unease sets in as kingdom struggles to maintain security

25 June 2004
Video footage of foreign hostages on Islamist websites is not a new phenomenon. In recent months dozens of foreign contractors have been held to ransom in Iraq, their dishevelled features deliberately filmed to disturb their compatriots back home.

However, the internet publication on 16 June of images showing blindfolded American hostage Paul Johnson opened up a new and potentially divisive chapter in the war against terrorism. The Lockheed Martin employee was not captured in a war zone: he will go down as the first foreign contractor taken hostage in Saudi Arabia.

Until the Riyadh bombings in May last year, the kingdom was considered relatively safe. However, Johnson's capture, combined with the targeted killing of two American contractors and an Irish cameraman in the space of a week, have created a renewed sense of unease in the world's biggest oil producing state.

Following the Al-Khobar and Yanbu attacks in May, the latest incidents were the last straw for many companies and organisations. British Airways announced on 13 June that it would not permit aircrew to stay in the kingdom overnight, while the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office on the same day allowed its non-essential staff to leave. London's decision came just over a month after the kingdom's US ambassador urged US citizens to quit the country.

Crown Prince Abdullah appeared on national television on 12 June to dampen fears that further attacks could lead to a mass exodus of expatriates. 'As you know, these despicable incidents were being committed by the sons of this country. As a brother and citizen I must say I am appalled and sickened by what happened,' he said. '[The kingdom] is capable of doing more than it has done. For the sake of mercy towards the errant group, we maintained patience and refrained from doing certain things that I cannot disclose now. We have been patient all this time... but our patience has limits.'

But the immediate situation shows no sign of improvement. Capitals around the world will be keeping a keen eye on Riyadh's efforts to clamp down on militants operating in the kingdom. They will also hope that Johnson's hostage takers' threats do not become a reality. 'Rivers of the blood of other crusaders will be spilled this year in the Arabian peninsula,' they swore, if their demand for the release of several militants was not met.

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