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The World | DISPATCH FROM DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA

Wives Consider Abandoning 'Leave It to Beaver' Lifestyle

Money may not be enough for Americans who no longer feel safe in an oil firm enclave.

June 06, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — It was the sort of lazy, sun-dappled day made for lemonade and swimming pools, and all over the sprawling, fortified Aramco headquarters the kids banged in and out of their houses with the taste of summer freedom on their lips. Portly men wearing headphones and jogging shorts grunted along the sidewalks. Children wheeled past on bicycles.

The four American women gathered to sip Diet Pepsi in the deep leather sofas in Valerie's living room. There was really only one thing to talk about; it's been that way since gunmen killed 22 people, mostly foreign workers, a few minutes' drive from here. And so they discussed who's quitting the company, who's heard what rumors about the attack and which wives will take their kids back to the States for good.

"I made iced tea," Valerie announced gaily, her Southern lilt ringing through the air-conditioned rooms. A tall, blond aerobics teacher with blue eyes and fine features, Valerie, who did not want her last name used, slipped a platter of homemade chocolate chip cookies and cake onto a low-slung coffee table.

"My husband isn't ready to go yet, and I'm like, 'When can we go?' " said Tracy Thompson. A substitute teacher and wife of an Aramco employee, Thompson wore a Miami Dolphins sun visor. Her husband was urging her to take the kids out, she said, "but I didn't sign up for this single mom thing."

"I told him, 'We can go back and you can flip burgers if that's what you need to do, but we need to stay together.' And then my daughter said, 'If he's here alone, maybe he'll get a girlfriend like Mr. So-and-so.' "

"She did not!" the other women cried. "She did!" Thompson said. "She did," another woman confirmed.

Until recently, these women were living what they like to call "the good life." They'd found a corner of the planet where salaries were high, streets were safe and the sun shone year-round. Ensconced in a sort of corporate resort and military base rolled into one, utterly removed from the severe desert kingdom that they call home in only the most theoretical sense, they enjoyed the romantic mystique of expatriate life without the pesky inconveniences of foreign language, unfamiliar mores or strange cuisine.

The Aramco headquarters feels like America in a way that's hard to find in America itself, "that 'Leave It to Beaver' thing," Valerie said earlier, steering her Land Rover through the quiet streets lined with lush lawns.

No pork is allowed, and the drinkers are reduced to making moonshine with woodchips, but living here has its perks: One can cruise the desert on a Harley or in a golf cart, then go home to mingle with like-minded international neighbors. Everybody here works for the same company; they all underwent background checks and medical exams before arriving, the women said.

"You have to be perfect to be here," Thompson said. "It's like Stepford -- everybody's healthy, smart, good-looking."

"Oh, don't say that!" Valerie interrupted. "Now it will be in the paper, the Stepford Wives of Aramco."

"It's true," Thompson cried. "My mother came here and she was like, 'This is kinda weird. It's too perfect. It's like the Stepford Wives.' "

But the tranquillity has been broken. The women believe something bloody and enormous has begun in Saudi Arabia. They have listened to dire warnings from embassy officials, and they believe the bloodshed they've seen so far is just "the tip of the iceberg," as Valerie said.

They are frightened, and seem to be struggling to comprehend what they know intellectually: Beyond the thick walls of Aramco, Islamist radicals are plotting to drive them out of the kingdom with violence.

"To me, it's not the money. It's, if you knew for certain, you'd go," said Amy, 41, who did not want her last name printed. "But you're pulling your kids out of school, and they have games, and they have ballet recitals. And you see all these terror warnings in the U.S., and nothing happens. So how can you know?"

If they decide to leave, they'll be giving up a lot. Valerie, who once dreamed of horseback riding, shares a horse with her daughter at stables five minutes from the house. The children go on school fieldtrips to Nepal and South Africa and Switzerland. They are so sophisticated and worldly, the women say somewhat immodestly.

"My kids have studied the Nile and been down the Nile," Thompson said.

"They know how to sign their room numbers for drinks at the hotel bar," Valerie said. "It's unbelievable. They're not going to Pinewood Whatever, Wherever," Thompson said.

"Camping on vacation," chimed in Cora Lee, a 44-year-old accountant.

"Commuting," Thompson said. "Going to Grandma's. I mean, we like Grandma's, but we want to see New Zealand."

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