Islamist terrorists targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia continues to raise security concerns despite assurances from authorities that the situation has not reached "crisis levels," as the kingdom's Islamic Affairs minister claims.
But just how many deaths does it take to reach a crisis level?
One American was shot dead in Riyadh and another kidnapped Saturday. Last Tuesday gunmen killed an American citizen only two days after an Irish BBC cameraman was killed and a British journalist wounded. These attacks come on the heels of two earlier bloody raids on an American company in Yanbu that killed six, and a housing complex in Khobar that left 22 dead.
Meanwhile, foreign oil workers bemoan the incompetence of Saudi Arabia's security forces whom, they say, seem unable to tackle the problem.
United Press International obtained copies of e-mail exchanges between Saudi Aramco executives pointing out the ineffectiveness of Saudi forces in dealing with mounting threats of Islamist terrorism. They discuss the lack of security for foreign employees and their families and ask that "hired guns" be retained to provide better protection. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, holds the world's largest oil reserves.
"Aramco and Saudi Arabian forces are completely inadequate in terms of training, capability and motivation," reports one of the executives.
As demonstrated during the last few weeks, al-Qaida and their sympathizers in Saudi Arabia are getting more brazen, despite denials to the contrary. Saudi authorities say they have "dismantled" five of six al-Qaida cells operating in the kingdom. A number of analysts disagree.
M.J. Gohel and Sajjan M. Gohel, London-based terrorism analysts, offer a different view: "The fact that most of the arrests have resulted in open gun battles suggests either that the Saudis are remarkably inept at security operations or that the terrorists know that security forces are coming."
Either way, the situation in the kingdom demands that immediate action be taken.
In their e-mail exchanges, the Saudi Aramco execs talk of "a new level and type of threat to the Kingdom and to expatriate employees" and warn of "a clear danger to Saudi Aramco's expatriates." Their fear that "oil industry workers and non-Muslims in the Eastern province" are specifically targeted, are not unfounded.
The terrorist's ultimate goal they say "is to harm the Saudi government by disrupting Saudi oil operations and, thereby, disrupt the global economy." An unstable economy, al-Qaida hopes, will help them attain their goal: the overthrow of the House of Saud.
Stressing the fact that Saudi forces are not up to the task, the oil executive recommends retaining armed contractors.
"I am going to talk tough, so here is my opinion," he says, suggesting the company retains the services of private firms. "There are contract hired-guns available. Ex-SAS, (British special forces) U.S. Special Forces and ex-CIA operatives have set up private security firms."
He stresses the need for "a team who can take action within minutes and take out permanently any unauthorized armed intrusion."
Yet, despite the killing and kidnapping of foreign workers a number of Saudi officials are reluctant to admit the kingdom faces a crisis. Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al-Shaikh, Minister of Islamic Affairs, agrees there "is a problem," but denies it has reached "crisis levels."
Maybe not, but the British are not taking any chances and emulating his American colleague, Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's ambassador Sunday advised Britons to leave.
"The exodus of ex-pats has begun," the Saudi Aramco executive warns. More than 35,000 Americans work in Saudi, mainly in the oil industry, but also as military and civilian advisers. Saudi Aramco employs 56,000 people, of whom about 2,300 are U.S. and Canadian citizens. Another 1,200 are European.
Continued migration of expatriates from Saudi Arabia will affect the confidence of global oil markets. "The kingdom's ability to deliver (oil) will be impacted."
The memo next addresses the issue of dependants. "The security of our wives and children is paramount. We need to have armed guards around the schools, and we also need to erect more barricades." It stresses weaknesses in existing defenses that, it says, are highly insufficient.
The executive points out that employees face "tough and expensive measures." Added security measures, they say, "will take hundreds of millions of dollars or, put another way, one day of revenue."
Asked to comment on the safety concerns raised by its employees, a Saudi Aramco spokesman in Dhahran replied that "the company is doing everything it can to guarantee the safety and well-being of its employees and dependents."
Sources in the private security industry confirm that the oil companies in Saudi are getting edgy and have been approached for consultation.
Elaine Carey, vice president of Control Risks Group, an international firm specializing in security work, said her company had received several requests for security revisions from Saudi oil companies.
One of the Saudi Aramco executives recommends the Saudi Government turn to the British for help. "Counter-terrorism is their forte," he states.
Al-Shaikh, the Islamic Affairs minister sees things differently, and says, "Our assessment of the situation is that it is controllable."
In closing, the report states that the company must "do absolutely all that we can to provide security to people, assets and markets. Otherwise, the terrorists win."
The Saudis say they have the matter in hand despite terrorism analysts - and continued attacks - attesting otherwise.