updated 6/19/2004 12:34:31 PM ET 2004-06-19T16:34:31

If the recent past is any guide, the beheading of American Paul M. Johnson Jr. is unlikely to trigger a mass exodus from Saudi Arabia.

Most Americans in the kingdom have not heeded repeated State Department warnings that they get out, security consultants and analysts said.

“You can’t expect 30,000 Americans to pack up and leave,” Nawaf Obaid, a security consultant to the Saudi government, said Friday in an interview from London.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he does not want American workers to flee Saudi Arabia because that would reward the people whose violence in recent weeks has killed Johnson, two other Americans and more than two dozen other foreigners.

Speaking a day after the State Department strongly urged Americans to avoid going to Saudi Arabia and those there to leave, Powell said Friday in a radio interview: “If they leave, then the terrorists have won, and I don’t think either the Saudis, the Americans, or these brave folks who work in Saudi Arabia want the terrorists to win.”

Saudi officials agreed with that view in weekend appearances.

Security stepped-up
Americans and other Westerners are stepping up security precautions in what once was considered one of the safest workplaces in the Middle East for Americans. Some workers are sending their families home.

But many are reluctant to give up the high-paying jobs and business contracts that first drew them to Saudi Arabia.

Friday’s warning to Americans to leave was the latest of several.

The State Department had urged Americans to leave on Monday, after three Westerners were killed and Johnson was kidnapped. The warning was repeated Friday, as al-Qaida terrorists announced over the Internet that they had carried out their threat to kill Johnson, a 49-year-old New Jersey native who worked on Apache attack helicopters.

In April, the agency withdrew U.S. Embassy families and nonemergency personnel and urged Americans to leave. It has refused to say how many Americans remain in Saudi Arabia, fearing that information could help terrorists identify potential targets.

Private companies that advise U.S. employers on security say they take the State Department warnings seriously. Still, they are not offering blanket recommendations to clients to pull out of Saudi Arabia or avoid travel there.

“Generally speaking, we’re not saying you must leave, you mustn’t go there, because that’s not practical for a country like Saudi Arabia, but you must have a very comprehensive security system in place,” said Josh Mandel, Middle East analyst for London-based Control Risks Group.

Precautions recommended
Security companies recommend taking precautions to control access to residential and work sites, restrict travel and generally keep a low profile.

“For most of our larger clients, leaving Saudi Arabia is simply not an option at this point,” Mandel said. “It may be if this situation deteriorates further.”

Saudi Arabia, with a population of 17 million, has an estimated 8.8 million workers who play an important role in the country’s economy. Many Americans work in oil, banking and other lucrative businesses and have long felt secure.

“In the past Saudi Arabia was probably one of the most risk-free societies on the planet in terms of concerns about personal security,” said Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who now has a business arranging international investments.

That sense of security began to change on May 12, 2003, when car bomb attacks on three compounds that housed foreigners in Riyadh, the capital, killed 26 people and nine suicide bombers. A Nov. 8 suicide bombing of a Riyadh housing compound killed another 17, including the assailants.

The U.S.-Saudi Business Council says inquiries from Americans interested in doing business in Saudi Arabia have declined in recent months but have not stopped.

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