Family members of four Frenchmen killed in Saudi Arabiaarrive in Riyadh, late February 27, 2007. (Agence France Presse)
THE BLOODY attack this Monday on a group of nine French residents near Madain Saleh in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, which left four of them dead, was extremely hard to cover for all journalists, not only because of the traditional reluctance of local authorities to divulge too much information quickly to the public, but the fact that the French authorities were also being extremely tight-lipped.
As the French reminded the press this week, they have a policy of not divulging the names of victims of acts of terror. This of course obviously made our jobs as journalists very difficult. Who were these French people, what were their names, ages, why were they near the ancient ruins of Madain Saleh, were some of them Muslim and on their way to Makkah to perform Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage)? These were questions that no one was willing to answer either directly or quickly.
Luckily for us at Arab News we had an impeccable source that phoned us and tipped us off to the attack at around 6 p.m. on Monday. The story had not hit the newswires yet, and would not for nearly 40 more minutes. He told us that 3 Frenchmen had been shot dead near the ruins and told us the name of the company that two of them worked for in Riyadh: Schneider Electric. A few phone calls later and we had the names of two of the dead men.
But confusion still reigned. The French consul general in Jeddah was not answering his mobile phone, and the French embassy in Riyadh only took messages left for the press attaché and advised to call back in the morning.
Finally a Saudi Ministry of Interior statement was released saying that a group of nine French citizens, including women and children, had been attacked by machinegun-toting assailants as they rested along a road outside Madain Saleh. Two Frenchmen had died on the spot, one driven to a nearby clinic where he later died and a fourth victim, a 17-year-old, taken to Madinah to undergo surgery to remove a bullet from either his lung or shoulder. We got the number of a wife of one of the victims, but she was understandably too distraught to speak to us and declined comment.
We still were not clear who in the group were Muslim, either by birth or conversion, and who was not. We speculated that all in the group of nine must have been Muslim if they were allegedly going to Makkah, the holiest city in Islam, and open only to Muslims. But an Agence France Presse story later that night created more confusion when it quoted a French diplomat anonymously insisting that none of the nine were Muslims!
The age of the young Frenchman who was wounded and being operated on in Madinah also fluctuated because of a lack of certain information from any official source. The 17-year-old became a 22-year-old, then a 15 year-old, and finally a 17-year-old once again. What we did know for sure was that the nine French citizens had originally been part of a larger group of expatriates from Riyadh that had gone on a desert camping trip to Madain Saleh. On Monday morning, a group of 19 Belgians had left the French and returned to Riyadh. The French group was allegedly taking a quick side trip to Makkah to perform Umrah when they were so brutally mowed down by as yet unidentified assailants. All we know so far is that were masked, and that they separated the women and children from the male adults before shooting them.
On Tuesday I phoned the French consul general again, who had rushed to Madinah along with the French ambassador from Riyadh to look after the survivors, but I was told by a man who answered his phone that he was in a meeting and to call back after the midday prayers. Later that day we heard that the fourth victim had succumbed to his wounds and died. Sources at the hospital told us that his name was Mubarak and that he was the son of a Frenchwoman of Moroccan descent. Bingo! So we were right, some of the group were Muslim after all. That same day we would hear that funeral prayers were held at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for two of the victims.
Because of the French refusal to speak to the press about this case, many of the details are still vague and the exact sequence of events unclear. Some sources told us that the attack happened on Monday morning at around 11 a.m., but that Schneider Electric was not aware of the attack until around 3:30 that afternoon.
This being the first attack on Westerners in the Kingdom since the September 2004 shooting of French Laurent Barbot on a Jeddah street, has left many expats here jumpy and sad.
“Madain Saleh has been a major tourism spot for Western expats, so I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” one British woman, who has been in the Kingdom for 23 years, told me in an interview. “This is certainly going to cause an upset for the Kingdom’s plans of promoting tourism here.”
While many observers have jumped the gun and called this attack a terrorist one possibly linked to Al-Qaeda, no group has come forward to take responsibility yet, and the possibility that this was just a hate-crime directed at Western-looking tourists is possible.
Nevertheless, it is another blow in favor of those critics of the Kingdom who like to write this country off as being full of xenophobic extremists that hate everything foreign. One Italian resident here that I spoke to gave me hope though that all may not be as bleak as it seems.
“I’ve never had any problems in this country. Everywhere I have gone in this country, either in cities or in the desert, Saudis have always been happy to meet me,” said an Italian interior designer who has lived here for eight years.
“There is always that 0.5 percent of the population that will do such things such as the attack on Monday, but the majority of Saudis are very friendly,” he told me. Let’s hope he’s right and that the war in Iraq is not fueling a whole new generation of young Saudis who hate the West and everyone associated with it.