Executives with Saudi Arabia’s largest oil company, frustrated with the failure of Saudi security forces to protect their employees, want the company to hire private security workers as is done in Iraq, according to confidential e-mails between Saudi Aramco officials.
The memos came to light as authorities searched yesterday for American engineer Paul M. Johnson, a Lockheed Martin employee whom an al Qaeda cell said it kidnapped on Saturday.
An al Qaeda-linked Web site said that Mr. Johnson had been working on Apache attack helicopter systems and that he would receive the same treatment as Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Lockheed Martin confirmed he was missing.
Another American, identified as Kenneth Scroggs, was fatally shot in the back as he parked his car at his home on Saturday; it was the sixth attack on foreigners in Saudi Arabia in as many weeks.
The attacks appear part of a coordinated campaign to drive out skilled foreign workers, a development that is causing deep concern to the nation’s oil companies.
The Saudi Aramco executives acknowledged in their e-mails that the hiring of Nepalese Gurkhas or of retired U.S. and British commandos would violate Saudi laws, but argued that those laws must be changed if the country is to prevail over terrorism.
Two intercompany e-mails, which were obtained by United Press International, were exchanged among three Aramco executives on June 3 and June 8 under the heading: “Security Concerns and Suggestions.” Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, holds the world’s largest oil reserves and bills itself “the world leader in crude oil production.”
The e-mails speak of “a new level and type of threat to the kingdom and to expatriate employees” and say “oil industry workers and non-Muslims in the Eastern province” are the targets.
The e-mails also say, “Aramco and Saudi Arabian [security] forces are completely inadequate in terms of training, capability and motivation” to deal with the threat.
The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans yesterday that the latest attacks showed extensive planning and that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Scroggs appeared to have been watched for weeks.
The Aramco executives say in their e-mails that security at Saudi Aramco residential facilities “is completely inadequate against the type of attack that occurred” two weeks earlier at a residential compound in Khobar, where 22 persons were killed.
“Terrorists that take hostages, kill hostages and then barter for their escape are a new threat that the compounds are not protected against.”
One of the executives, whose name was removed from the original document before it was provided to UPI, proposes the need for “a team who can take action within minutes and take out permanently any unauthorized armed intrusion.”
“There are contract hired guns available. Ex-[British Special Air Service], U.S. Special Forces and ex-CIA operatives have set up private security firms,” he writes, adding that Aramco “should consider hiring these chaps.”
The executives also discuss the hiring of Nepalese Gurkhas, a number of whom are now working in Iraq for Global Security of London, and are in high demand. One says that a rival company, ChevronTexaco, already is considering hiring Gurkhas.
“This violates all sorts of laws in the kingdom,” the executive acknowledges, but given the circumstances, the Saudi government must be convinced that business as usual is going to lose them the business.
“Laws and regulations must be changed to prevail over terrorism,” the e-mail says.
One of the e-mails says the proposed security measures “will take hundreds of millions of dollars or, put another way, one day of revenue.”
Asked to comment on the exchange of memos, a Saudi Aramco spokesman in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, said, “The company is doing everything it can to guarantee the safety and well-being of its employees and dependents.”
Asked whether the company was considering retaining “hired guns,” the company spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, said, “Saudi Aramco and Saudi government authorities work together closely to ensure their safety.”
Saudi officials continue to publicly play down the threat posed by Islamist terrorists.
“Of course it is a problem, but it has not reached a stage of crisis in Saudi Arabia,” said Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al-Shaikh, minister of Islamic affairs, speaking from London on Saturday.
Nevertheless, the exchange of e-mails makes it clear that Saudi Aramco is concerned about its ability to maintain foreign staff in the kingdom.
“The exodus of ex-pats has begun,” one executive warns.
There are about 6 million expatriate workers in the kingdom — of whom, 35,000 are Americans working mainly in the oil industry and as military and civilian advisers. Saudi Aramco employs 56,000, of whom about 2,300 are U.S. or Canadian citizens. An additional 1,200 are European.
“Retention of existing expatriates and attraction of new expatriates is a critical success factor for the company and the kingdom,” continues one e-mail. It warns that failing to “retain and attract the non-Saudi knowledge and experience will cause significant risk to staying a reliable oil supplier for the world.”
Among those leaving are employees with many years of experience and those with young children.
“We lose our experience and our most energetic in one sweep,” the executive lamented.