Memories - Saudi Part III  

Posted by CK in , , ,

I was 9 when the hostilities began that would go on to become the Gulf War. I remember not paying too much attention to anything but my parents and other people kept talking about it whispers. "He wouldn't!" "Saddam won't actually cross the line. He's just posturing." I remember wondering who Saddam was and what was wrong with his posture.

But it did happen. The Iraqi Republican Guard captured Kuwait City with very little resistance and Saddam overran it's oil rich neighbor with alarming ease. After a lot of pre-war diplomacy that went to naught, the United States and a massive coalition of 34 countries decided to launch a massive retaliation in order to protect the largest oil reserves in the world that are situated in Saudi. Saddam, then foolishly decided that since Kuwait had been such an easy target, moving further south to capture the oil fields of Al-Ahsa and Ras Tanura wouldn't be that hard. But this wasn't to be the case.

All this hardly affected us in Saudi but people started getting scared. What if Saddam decides to use chemical or biological weapons the way he did against the Kurds in Al-Anfal. Everyone started buying up war stores. Tonnes of food, batteries, blankets and a few hundred rolls of duct tape. Have you ever wondered what buying duct tape is all about? People seem to think of it as a miracle fix-all during hostilities. "Is that window shattered? No worries, we've got duct tape here.""Shrapnel wounds? Um... no surgical gauze available to stem the flow, but will duct tape do?" I swear to God, we had about 500 rolls.

My first real glimpse of what was coming was the first landing of US troops on Saudi soil in August of 1990. Well, not the first landing because they have Air Bases in the Kingdom but the first of the war. The coolest sight in the world to a 9 year old kid was scores of US Marines in their Humvees and camouflage walking through the streets of Dammam and Khobar. (The US 6th Fleet is anchored in Bahrain which is no further than 20 kms away). These troops were so cool and I thought they'd stepped right out of the movies. And also, there were WOMEN MARINES!! These chicks were no different from the men in their attitudes or actions and to someone who'd been living in the male dominated society of Saudi, seeing them in real life (as opposed to on TV) was crazy.

In fact, the presence of all these Marines didn't go over too well with the Islamists in the population. They felt that the Saudi government had sold its soul to protect the country. All these "decadent", gum chewing, loud-mouthed who had no fear of the local Mutawwa was something that was unacceptable. Having women Americans do that was just all too much for the local Mutawwa.

So, there was an incident where apparently, a Mutawwa walked up to a woman Marine and demanded she cover her hair and face. The Marine told him to go f#$k himself which would have given him a coronary. No one argues with the Mutawwa and to top it off, a woman had the gall to... so, he grabbed her arm and she coolly took out her gun and shot him. Now, would you call that a little extreme? Maybe. Was it awesome? Definitely. It was the talk of the town for ages. All the women in the country (local or otherwise) cheered for girl/woman power (albeit very softly). The religious fundamentalists were ticked off but couldn't do anything because the US had over 100,000 troops in the country and the woman Marine was airlifted out of the Kingdom before the Saudis could say "What the...?"

So, saying the influx of the US Marine core cause a flutter in the Kingdom is kind of understating it. But Operation Desert Shield (protection of the Saudi border areas) had begun. 

It was around this time that the schools had started shutting down and there was much rejoicing amongst all school kids. The first real scary aspect of the war hit home when my dad went out and got us all chemical gas masks. 

There is nothing even remotely cool when people are explaining to you that if the siren sounds, put this on, duck for cover and if you see a colored gas cloud advancing towards you, run in the opposite direction because the "cloud" will melt your skin.

Every day, Iraqi Scud missiles would be shot into Saudi airspace and a few hundred Patriots Interceptors would be fired to "intercept" them. I say this in quotes because despite our belief in American tech superiority, I later found out that it was a game of numbers. For ever Scud shot down, some 40 - 50 Patriots were sent up to intercept. The fact that they were peppering the sky hoping for a hit, gives me the jitters.

Two incidents happened that are kind of etched in my memory. The first was when my dad and I went out to buy groceries. We were in the shopping section of Dammam and were out there for maybe 5 minutes when the air raid siren sounded and my dad had asked me to wait in the car. I knew that the first thing I had to do was to reach for my gas mask and put it on immediately. I reached in to my canister bag (which all citizens HAD to carry at all times), hurriedly pulled it on and spent the next 5 minutes in absolute terror breathing hard through the lenses and staring frantically for my dad. Once you put one of those things on, it gives you a very surreal look at the world and everything looks like you're viewing the world through molasses. I think it must've been just a few minutes before my dad came back but it seemed like I was in there for a lifetime. Nothing untoward happened and I was fine but that was so bloody scary at the time.

The second was a little while later after which my folks immediately shipped us away. Like I've said before, off the coast of Tarout, there are, withing seeing distance, the oil platforms of Ras Tanura. These were the prize that Saddam so badly wanted but was never going to happen. So, he figured, if you can't catch them, burn them. He had already started the oil well fires in Kuwait that darkened the skies over Saudi for weeks. 

So, Ras Tanura being as close as it was, it was normal to hear the siren and see fireworks in the sky as multiple Scuds and Patriots fought it out in the air above us. One afternoon, the siren sounded as my sister and I were on the roof and we could see a missile sailing above and almost immediately, the multiple interceptor launches and this was one of those times that peppering the sky didn't help. The Scud got through and I saw it make its way inland (the Scuds were never accurate weapons, just brute force) and I saw it disappear over the horizon and then the sound of a huge boom. This was the one that landed in an American residential compound and killed six American families as they sat in their homes. 

These two incidents defined the war for me. The Americans called it the "Computer War" but there was nothing computer-like about either incident.

We had an uncle (a family friend) who was a senior executive at the AlMarai Dairy Farms very far removed from the cities and we were immediately sent there while my parents made arrangements for us to leave Saudi. This was a truly different experience. To give you an idea, I'll have to explain what these Farms are like.  

Almarai is the largest dairy food company in the Middle East. Normally, when you say the words Middle East, the first thing that doesn't pop into your head is rolling farmlands for as far as the eye can see. But that's exactly what we encountered. Hundreds of acres of lush, green farms growing fodder, amongst other things for the million or so Jerseys that they have on the farms. I guess it doesn't take centuries to make the desert into arable land, just millions of Saudi oil Riyals. 

We spent an idyllic few weeks there playing with my uncle's kids in their huge house, feeding the rabbits that were around and went riding a few times. 

Then came the final rush out of the country. As you could've imagined, all routes out of Saudi after the launch of Operation Desert Storm (the retaking of Kuwait) were packed with millions of expats striving to get out before any more bombs fell. And this was our last great trip during the war. My sister and I along with another family (close family friends of ours) drove across the Causeway to Bahrain, waited 16 hours to be let through to the airport, flew immediately to Oman, waited a day there and then took the next flight to Bombay. With that, we saw the last of Gulf War I. 

Of course, we came back a few months later after the liberation of Kuwait and the severe drubbing of the Iraqi armed forces. There were stories abound about the torture, rape and looting that the Iraqi regular army and the Republican Guard unleashed while occupying and exiting Kuwait. And I remember thinking, wow, I just experienced (somewhat) a war. It was unreal and though I never (thankfully) saw the mayhem and the devastation that the Kuwaitis must've felt, I still thought the experience was very poignant. 

There were still a few incidents which flared up through the next few years like the bombing of Khobar Towers of 1996 which claimed 20 lives and injured 370 others. I was a few kilometers away at the time in a friend's place and thought it was an earthquake. Windows shattered and the ground rumbled. But the rest of my years in Saudi were relatively peaceful compared to the turmoil of 1990-91. 

My next memory of note is near the ending of my school life in the Kingdom (Grade 10-12) and my subsequent and very eventful relocation to St.John's, Newfoundland. But I'll get to that in a little while. :)

This entry was posted on Monday, December 7, 2009 at Monday, December 07, 2009 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Wow! What an experience! Unforgettable... I'm sure.

I watched all these on television. 'Star Wars' were the two oft spoken words... those days.

I must say... you have quite a few stories to tell your grandchildren :)

December 8, 2009 at 6:12 PM

I do, for sure. :) And I haven't even hit Canada yet. That's where I did the most insane shit for the best 5 years of my life. :D

December 8, 2009 at 6:44 PM

PS: Don't plan on having grandchildren. Grand-puppies maybe. Grandchildren, no. :)

December 8, 2009 at 7:37 PM

Hehehe :) More power to puppies!

December 9, 2009 at 11:45 AM

i have no words. having lived in (for the most part) peaceful india all my life, and then the last 3 months in the even more peaceful country of Thailand, i must say, it feels like a surreal movie to hear this..

no grandchildren? hmmm...

December 24, 2009 at 6:39 PM

This is an amazing post! I have read it several times and have forwarded it to my friends.

The best part is the incident of the woman marine!

I can't understand why Google has flagged it as "adult content blog." It appears to be a normal blog as any other. Perhaps because you have described these reminiscences of Saudi Arabia?

October 7, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Hey Archana. Thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

It's flagged as an Adult Content blog cause of a few pics I have in an earlier post. Not because of Saudi. But the rest of the content is pretty standard fare, methinks.

October 13, 2010 at 1:20 PM

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