Daniel Sanchez stood outside a fire station Thursday, thinking about plunking down the equivalent of $40 for a gas mask.
"If it is necessary it is nothing, but if it is not necessary then it is a lot," said Sanchez, a 44-year old Filipino presser in a laundry.With the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait just days away, Saudi Arabia is stepping up civil defense efforts in the Eastern Province bordering Kuwait.
"We are prepared for any event," said Prince Fahd bin Salman, vice governor of the Eastern Province. "I don't think it's even needed, but just in case, you never know."
He said his advice to both Saudis and foreigners was to rely on the over 600,000 multinational troops to protect them.
"With such armies around I don't think you could feel safer anywhere," he said.
Diplomats say Saudi officials want to reassure the population that they are prepared for a disaster, but avoid panic by not having practice evacuations or other such exercises.
"The Saudis are basically trying to convince themselves that come the crunch, everything will be contained and there is no need to cause panic," said one Western diplomat.
"But when the crunch comes people won't know what to do," he said. "There is no great, proper coordination on the thing."
Col. Mohammed Saleh Al-Maghrebi, commander of civil defense of the Eastern Province, said more detailed plans will be released next week, but he was not sure people would be protected in event of an attack.
"I can't order people to buy gas masks," he said.
Private firms import and sell the masks, many from Eastern Europe, with the government paying a subsidy of about $93 per mask. Those who cannot afford the $40 price will get one free, officials said.
Al-Maghrebi said that in the six days the masks have been on sale, 50,000 people have come to collect them at the distribution centers set up at each of the 60 fire stations in the Eastern Province.
Al-Maghrebi said the firms selling the masks had not done enough advertising to let people know where to get them, but the government would not step into the process.
"The government doesn't sell anything here," he said. "If we do it (advertise) maybe people think it's the government selling. They'll think it should be given to them free."
Al-Maghrebi said about 500,000 residents would get gas masks through the large government-run companies in the region such as the oil company Aramco. Up to 1.5 million more would have to get them through the distribution points. The British Embassy will start distributing masks to its nationals on Sunday.