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The Gulf War




Invasion Day: Thursday, August 2nd, 1990

It was  late afternoon on the weekend (weekends in Saudi Arabia are Thursday/Friday) and I was lounging by the pool with a couple of other guys. I had only been in country about a month, and the heat was brutal, we were in the hottest days of the year. In order to combat the heat, swimming was prescribed, and catching serious rays while drinking lousy home made wine. The wine was terrible as it still had that yeasty after taste. Seven up was used to try and make the brew more drinkable, and it helped, but just barely. However, along with the sweltering heat, the wine produced the desired effect: the afternoon buzz. We were breaking open a new bottle when one of the guys from another villa strode by and told us the Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. For the most part, this didn't concern any of us because we didn't really know where these two countries were. We resumed our drinking, and enjoyed the rest of the day.

Later on that night, after supper, my room mate and I checked our Middle East map and looked for Kuwait. We were dismayed to see that it bordered Saudi Arabia to the north, and that Iraqi troops could easily be in Riyadh in about 6 hours by land. 

At work the next day, the topic of conversation was of course the invasion. People were hungry for news. Sales of broad band radios sky rocketed, and the hospital 'magically' started broadcasting CNN to our villas. It had been unavailable till now. 

Panic began to settle in as it was not known if Saddam was coming into Saudi Arabia. He could have sent in his Republican Guards and be in Riyadh within 6 to 8 hours. 

At that time, there were still no Allied Forces in the country, and the Saudi 'army' would have been no match to the Republican guards. The Gulf War would have been a totally different battle had Saddam taken over at least the Eastern and Central parts of Saudi Arabia. The rich Saudi oil fields are on the north Eastern side of the country, only three hours from Kuwait. What was Saddam waiting for? 

What alarmed and surprised the expatriate population living in Riyadh is that the local Saudi's started leaving the city for the western coast to Jeddah and other cities that border the Red Sea. Some left for their villas in Europe and the USA. City streets that were always so busy at night became quiet and barren. 

Operation Desert Shield is Born

After a week or so, it was apparent that Saddam was not coming into Saudi Arabia, clearly, one of the biggest war blunders in military history. This gave the chance for the Allies to begin sending troops into Saudi Arabia. 

The Allied military buildup and growing tensions did begin to frighten the Expatriate community and they began leaving. American, Canadian and British Embassies in Riyadh advised the expatriate community to send family members home if possible.

The exodus of the expatriate community posed another problem for the Saudi's. Who was going to do the day to day work that kept the country going?, especially in the local hospitals? In order to stop the bleeding, the Saudi's, ever cunning, solved the problem: offer more money and pay increases to try and keep the people from leaving. For the most part, this worked, however, some people still left and went home. 

Personally, I found the whole Allied troop buildup for Operation Desert Shield (which later became the famous Operation Desert Storm) very interesting.. It was a welcome change from the usual boring day to day routine in Riyadh. The old Riyadh airport is located in central Riyadh and this is where the troops landed. We could see the planes arriving daily from our balcony, our compound was close to downtown as well. It was VERY interesting to see military jeeps in Riyadh being driven by women in desert fatigues carrying an automatic weapons. Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, this really shocked the locals.

Another bonus was Armed Forces Radio being broadcast from Riyadh. This was great because they carried all the news and sports, and even carried football, baseball and basketball games. Radio stations back then in Riyadh were very limited, and were all in Arabic with religious content.

As expected, the locals did not like the Allies being in Riyadh or in Saudi Arabia. (This sentiment still exists today as the Saudi's would prefer that most if not all Westerner's would leave the country). 

Make no mistake about it though, if it had not been for the rich oil fields that are located in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the Allies, in particular, the Americans, would not have come to the Middle East.

Get Your Gas Masks while they Last...

While it appeared that Saddam would not be  rolling into downtown Riyadh in military vehicles, he could still reach the capital, (as well as Israel), with his Scud Missiles. The new fear was now the possibility of Saddam shooting missiles into Riyadh, (and Israel), loaded with chemical weapons or using them to spread deadly bacteria: germ warfare.

Local Embassy Officials, including our own Canadian Embassy, advised us of the possible dangers of chemical and biological warfare from Iraq. They offered to supply us with gas masks which we had to pick up. The Diplomatic Quarter is the location of all of the major Embassies in Riyadh, and is just located on the outskirts of the city.

We drove into the Diplomatic Quarter which was under heavy guard and security, much more than usual. The American Embassy was very heavily guarded with huge cement blocks protecting the perimeter. We drove on to our Canadian Embassy and noticed the Maple Leaf fluttering on the flag pole, it was especially nice to see it at this point in time. After thoroughly being searched at the gates, we entered the Embassy. It is very impressive with granite floors and ordained with water falls. Apparently the granite was actually shipped in from Ontario somewhere. The walls of the main lobby and reception area are ordained with photographs that depict different scenes from each of the 10 provinces and territories. 

We met with the Military Attaché who issued our gas masks and briefed us on how to use them. We had to sign for them, and promise to return them when the 'war' was over, whenever that may be. We then left the embassy and returned to work and every day life.

When Is Bush (George) Going In?

After the initial excitement and uncertainty of the invasion and Kuwait, and watching the allied troop buildup over the following weeks and months, we settled back into our usual routine. Wednesday night, (which is similar to Friday night here at home), was card night. A group of us would gather and play cards and drink the home made wine, our gas masks always at our sides now. The topic of conversation now was,  was not if then US President George Bush and the Allies were going into Kuwait, ("This will not be another Vietnam" he promised the American public), but when he was going in. The weather would certainly be a factor as to when the Allied invasion would take place. If they waited to long, that is, into spring and early summer, it would be too hot for the troops. Temperatures in the desert during this time of the year can reach the middle 50's in Celsius.

January 15th, 1991: Operation Desert Storm is Launched

As fate would have it, and after all of my anticipation, preparation and expectations of being in Riyadh when the Allied push began, I was in the Philippines on vacation when George Bush gave General Schwarzkopf the green light to begin 'Operation Desert Storm.' I remember being on the beach on one of the remote Islands of the Philippines listening to the radio and hearing that Allied war planes had begun the Air Campaign against Saddam Hussein.  I felt a degree of disappointment at not being there when things really started happening. 

This would be a vacation I would never forget. Saddam Hussein, in retaliation of the Allied Bombing, starting shooting Scud Missiles into Riyadh, hence, the International Airport was closed to commercial air traffic, meaning, I could not return to Riyadh and to work. I had phoned the laboratory where I was working to see how things were going and the people there were now quite afraid now because of the Scud Missiles. While the Scuds were quite old, they were still doing limited damage to the city, but provoking lots of fear. More people were trying to leave now, but with the airport closed, they were basically stuck now.

Since I could not return to Riyadh, and with my funds almost depleted from my vacation, I decided to return home to Vancouver and visit my parents. I could also plan on how to return  to Riyadh, I really wanted to go back and be part of the 'action.'  It was a long trip to Vancouver, from Manila to Honolulu and on then on to Vancouver. Finally reaching home, I parked myself in front of the TV and watched CNN. The war was great for CNN as it really brought them into the lime light as people all over the world followed the Gulf War on TV. Can anyone forget Charles Jayco's famous words when he was reporting  from Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, just as a scud missile was launched and headed his way: "This is Charles Jayco reporting live from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, let's get the hell out of here." And how about Peter Arnett reporting from Baghdad, with his little satellite phone link up on the roof top on one of the bigger downtown Hotels?

I was really itching to get back, and luckily, my entry visa to Saudi was still valid. I was able to get a flight to Jeddah, on the western side of the country, and then, would have to take an 11 hour bus ride across the deserts of Saudi and into Riyadh. The flight originated from New York's JFK International Airport. Needless to say, security was very tight prior to getting on the flight. We had our luggage inspected in the terminal, and then after walking across the tarmac to the big Saudia Boeing 747, had our bags checked again. 

The flight to Jeddah was uneventful, and getting through customs was the usual hell. Passports and Visa were inspected with increased scrupulosity.   A quick taxi ride to the bus terminal where it was complete chaos. I purchased the ticket to Riyadh on the air conditioned bus and waited for it to depart, wondering if I had made a mistake in coming back.

After a hellish 11 hours on the bus, in which sleep seemed to come in spurts and hazy fog, we arrived in Riyadh in the early morning. It was like a ghost town as there was little traffic on the roads. The first thing I noticed that was different about the buildings was that all the windows were taped up. This to keep the glass from flying around should they break if a scud missile were to hit the building. 

I arrived at my apartment, turned on the air conditioning, and went to bed. 

Air Raid Siren: Scud Attack Imminent!!! 

I woke up in the late evening and caught up on all the latest news from my roommate. He said the Scud Attacks, which were happening on a nightly basis, were not inflicting much damage on the city, but were still causing  fear among the people. The new Allied dilema now was that Saddam was launching Scuds into Israel. Knowing how the Arab countries felt about the very existence of Israel, Saddam hopped to split up the Allied coalition, which included Arab countries such as Syria and Egypt. As well, Scuds into Tel Aviv could then spite Israel into he war and make things messy. It took some heavy diplomacy on George Bush's part to keep the Israeli's out of the Gulf War. 

After retiring for the night, we were awakened by the television set in the living room just after midnight. The Hospital Audio Visual department had rigged the TV's to come on automatically  and issue warnings to the residents when an imminent air raid attack was coming. I was awakened by the air raid sirens that are located throughout the city of Riyadh. It was a high, pitching wail that woke us up. I grabbed my gas mask and ran into the living room, my roommate was already there and the TV was blaring. It was telling us that Scud Missiles were on the way, that we were to put on our masks, stay low and keep away from the windows. So what did we do, we put on our masks and ran to the window to see what was happening outside in the night sky. I was looking up, scanning the black of night and the twinkling stars, looking for ... it. And there is was, a small white speck high in the sky arcing over the city, and moving very fast. We followed the trajectory, and then ... WOOSH!. Two U.S. Patriot missiles were quickly launched from the old airport in downtown Riyadh just 10 km's from our building. The two missiles screamed upward and intercepted the Scud, causing it to break into pieces and fall to earth. Despite the intercept, one building in the downtown area still received considerable damage. When the remnants of the Scud and Patriot missiles hit the ground, we felt our windows shake and rumble.  With our gas masks on, my roommate and I tried with difficulty to carry on a conversation, the excitement and adrenalin still pumping through our veins. It was truly an  exciting night, and while we felt no fear, we realized then and there we were in a limited war zone. Watching the Scud Missile come in and subsequent launch of the Patriot missile is a sight I will never forget, it is burned in my brain, just like this scene was burned into the film of the camera of one of our friends who lived one the floor above us.  This guy was able to capture on Kodak film a picture of the Patriot Missile as it fish-tailed upwards to intercept the Scud. When he got the film developed, and the saw that the picture was clear and focused, he realized he could make a lot of money with this photo, selling it to anyone and everyone who wanted it. Nobody for sure knows how much he made off this photo, (some say it was $100,000), but he ended up going home earlier than he planned. Not only did he sell individual photos, he ended up selling the exclusive rights of the photo to the Raytheon Company, the facility that made the Patriot Missile. Some years later, I was leafing through a magazine and saw the photo as advertisement for Raytheon, it was amazing. 

After about a month of the air campaign in which the Allies bombed the crap out of Iraq and the National Guard, the land offensive commenced, and thankfully, the war was over shortly after that. The Republican Guard were surrendering without much of a fight, mostly because they had no ammunition, they were hungry and most did not have the proper foot wear (boots), to fight a war. 

Operation Desert Storm was a success, after 100 days or so, the Allies removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and secured the world's oil supplies. 

It was an exciting time for most of us who stayed in country, and financially beneficial as well as the hospital gave those people who stayed a 25% increase in pay. I will never forget my 'tour of duty' in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. 


The Fires of Kuwait              Satellite Photos of the Fires

Saddam Hussein                    Operation Desert Storm

The Stealth Bomber                            Iraq 



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Copyright © 2001 Mario J. Hemens
Last modified: September 02, 2001