February 25, 2006

Relief in Saudi oil town after failed Qaeda attack

By Souhail Karam

ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - In the dusty desert town
of Abqaiq, residents heaved a sigh of relief on Saturday after
al Qaeda militants failed to destroy the oil facility that is
the mainstay of their existence.

"Before oil, there was nothing, it was a desert. What you
see here was plain desert with a few sheep and camels," said
Mishael Azaabi, a retired employee of the state-owned oil giant
Saudi Aramco.

"Now oil is providing jobs for us, for our sons and our
grandsons," he added.

Suicide bombers on Friday tried to storm into the heart of
the world biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq in the east of
Saudi Arabia, where most of its oil wealth is concentrated.

The attack was claimed by al Qaeda militants, who have been
fighting to topple the U.S.-allied Saudi monarchy since 2003.

"They want to destabilize the country and hurt the economy.
If Abqaiq was hit then the whole of Saudi Arabia would be
damaged," said Mamdouh al-Rashidi, one of hundreds of anxious
townspeople milling around outside the vast complex.

Abqaiq is one of many oil towns to develop in Saudi Arabia
after the oil boom in the 1970s that transformed life in this
vast desert country and catapulted it into the modern world.

Most of the town's 20,000 population are employed by Saudi
Aramco, which took over the oil industry in the 1970s from the
major U.S. oil companies.

Oil has been at the heart of an intimate alliance between
the Saudi royals and Washington which al Qaeda and other
opposition groups across the Arab world dream of seeing ruined.

Islamists and other opposition groups across the Arab world
accuse governments of not doing enough to stand up to the West.

But in Abqaiq the residents -- who mostly hail from Bedouin
tribes who for centuries wandered the desert or settled in
small oases -- dream only of getting a job at the oil company.

"I'm hoping to get a job at Aramco. If people live in this
city, it's because of Aramco," said Suleiman Al-Shiban.

Another young man of Bedouin origin with family members at
the company, said his parents remember how teachers used to use
pieces of coal to write with since there were no pens or chalk.

"There wasn't a garden or a restaurant until this facility
opened," Mohammed al-Maznai said.