Having a Scud missile detonate 800 feet above his apartment was enough to convince Alan Behunin it was time to leave Saudi Arabia.
But it was the line after line of stacked, empty caskets at the Riyadh airport that really drove home the scope of the current conflict.The caskets were one of the last sights he observed in Riyadh before boarding, along with about 50 other Americans, a military C-141 transport Monday on an evacuation flight, arranged by the U.S. Embassy.
Behunin left his home in Salt Lake City 18 months ago to work for the Riyadh Bank and had planned to stay there at least until his contract with the bank ran out in June.
He was drawn away from his public relations job at First Security Bank in Salt Lake City by the opportunity to develop a public relations office at Riyadh Bank and by a salary hike of 50 percent over what he made in Utah that was entirely tax free.
Banking is a relatively new industry for the Saudis, whose Muslim beliefs put an interesting spin on the banking business by forbidding the charging of interest. The Saudis are also acclimating to public relations tactics very slowly, Behunin said, adding that he was told by another American after going there that he could consider himself successful in his work if he accomplished 5 percent of his work objectives.
His wife chose out of convenience to stay in Salt Lake City after the couple traveled home for vacation last summer. Behunin returned to Saudi Arabi, came home again over Christmas and then returned to Riyadh relatively unshaken by the tensions and military buildup that followed Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The almost daily Scud attacks since the allied offensive against Iraq prompted him to move his departure plans from the end of his contract period in June to Feb. 5.
Employers hold the passports for all foreign nationals, which gives them greater control over when foreign employees enter and leave the country. It was unsettling when all of the bank's senior officers left Riyadh while wanting him to stay. He quit on the spot and took the first flight the embassy offered once the bank told him it was not accepting leave requests.
Behunin considered leaving on several occasions following disturbing occurrences.
He thought it odd that the U.S. Embassy was the only embassy in Riyadh that did not issue gas masks. Scud attacks showered his residence with debris (he brought home a piece as a souvenir) and badly damaged a building several hundred yards from his office. The 30-minute drive to work became a 15-minute drive as Saudis began leaving Riyadh in droves for safer refuge south and west in Jiddah - out of the range of Iraqi Scud attacks.
He heard stories about people staying in $30-per-night tents in Jiddah because all other accommodations there were packed. Every extra room in homes in that city was packed with out-of-town friends or relatives.
Americans working in Saudi Arabia still have the option of staying, but Behunin said the embassy and military flight crew took exceptionally good care of those who decided it was time to leave. The military flight out took the group to an air base near Madrid where Behunin and others made connections with commercial flights.
Behunin described individuals on the plane as "people going out of their way to help each other."
The mood of those leaving was not one of panic but more of relief: "Thank goodness we're out of here." Behunin only hoped that no one had told the children on the flight what the stacks of boxes at the airport were.
Behunin is now back in Salt Lake City looking for his next job a little ahead of when he thought he would. He'll likely be the only public relations man in town with a Scud missile paperweight on his desk.