Most U.S. contractors to stay put in Saudi Arabia

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Western defense contractors insist they will not leave Saudi Arabia despite warnings from their governments in the wake of Al Qaida attacks that have killed up to 91 people.

But some contractors said they are withdrawing non-essential staff and evacuating personnel who were caught up in the suicide bombings in Riyad.

They said they would resume normal levels of staffing when the United States deems the kingdom safe from Al Qaida attacks.

For its part, the State Department said it would evacuate all non-essential staff in the embassy in Riyad and consulates in Jedda and other Saudi cities. The U.S. embassy in Riyad urged all Americans to remain indoors, Middle East Newsline reported.

The Boeing Co. said it was evacuating 11 of its employees from of the kingdom until further notice. The 11 Boeing employees were instructors who trained the Royal Saudi Air Force on the operation and maintenance of five Boeing airborne warning and control systems aircraft procured by Riyad in the 1980s.

Boeing said it would send another team of trainers to Saudi Arabia once the State Department deems the kingdom as sufficiently safe. Three Boeing trainers were injured in Tuesday's attack.

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Nine of the Americans killed in the Al Qaida bombings were employees of the Vinnell Corp. a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. Vinnell was one of three compounds attacked by Al Qaida insurgents in Riyad on early Tuesday.

A Northrop Grumman statement said Vinnell would remain in Saudi Arabia. But an executive said some employees of the company would be allowed to end their contracts early and return to the United States.

"We continue to work closely with the U.S. government to secure the safety of all company employees and their dependents in Saudi Arabia," Donald Winter, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, said.

Vinnell Arabia has been under contract to the U.S. Army to provide training services to the Saudi National Guard. The company employs about 800 people in Riyad, including 300 U.S. citizens as well as Saudi and other nationals.

BAe Systems, one of the largest contractors in Saudi Arabia, said it would not withdraw its staff from the kingdom. BAe has about 5,500 employees in Saudi Arabia, more than 3,000 of them from Australia, Britain and the United States.

Since the late 1980s, BAe has been the prime contractor of the Al Yamamah project. Al Yamamah has overseen the British export of $8 billion in aircraft and naval vessels to the Saudi kingdom.

"We have a contract and we intend to continue with it," BAe Systems spokesman Mike Sweeney said. "We will follow Foreign Office advice and we're only allowing essential business travel."

The British Foreign Office warned that Al Qaida would probably attack again and urged its nationals to leave the kingdom. Many of the casualties and injured were said to have been Britons.

"There remains a high threat of further large or small scale attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia," the Foreign Office said. "Terrorist attacks could involve the use of chemical and biological materials."

BAe said none of its staffers was injured in the Al Qaida attacks. Sweeney said 25 percent of the 2,000 family members of Western staffers have not returned to Saudi Arabia since January.

But industry sources said staffers from Western defense contractors are expected to be sent home over the next year. They cited the winding down of several projects as well as the withdrawal of Western military forces from Saudi Arabia.

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