by Ann Gaylia O’Barr Breedlove
Like other newly-minted FSO’s, I was informed of my assignment to Jeddah during the Department’s A-100 junior officer training course. I took my Saudi flag from the ceremony and tried to explain to the folks back home where I was going. That was in the early summer of 1990. By August everyone at least knew where Saudi Arabia was, if not Jeddah. Shortly before my A-100 ended, Iraqi forces had overrun Kuwait, setting the stage for the first Gulf war.
I reached Jeddah in early December 1990, just after the Thanksgiving visit of President George H. W. Bush. Not surprisingly, post personnel were exhausted. People told me later that it had been hard to find a sponsor for me to help me during my first days of adjusting to life and work at the post, but the American Citizen Services officer and his wife volunteered and were admirable sponsors. This was all the more astounding since ACS is one of the busiest places in a mission when armed conflict threatens. We are still friends and correspond.
I had arrived suitably jet-lagged after my first across-the-Atlantic hop, plus assorted plane changes to reach Jeddah. Unfortunately, I mistakenly took someone else’s suitcase from the luggage carousel while changing planes in Riyadh. It was eventually straightened out, but I had only the clothes I was wearing for my first few days.
My first full night on the Jeddah compound, I had to search for my house after a gathering in another part of the compound. I wandered for a while with blistered feet from my one pair of shoes as the surrounding mosques chanted the prayer calls and the desert moon shone down. I was so excited that I hardly slept those first few nights. Exhaustion set in later, but no one had time to rest. I eventually paid the price with a bad respiratory infection.
I did not have to worry about a warm welcome. My predecessor had left several months earlier. With the war looming, they quickly tossed me on the visa line as the only full-time visa officer. No one had much time to show me the ropes. I had taken ConGen, the training course for consular officers, hadn’t I? Nothing, however, can prepare one for the alphabetic soup that greets a new visa officer, especially those “J” visas for those qualifying for the U.S. Exchange Visitors Program. My supervisor was a great guy, but the thousands of rattled American citizen expatriots were his main concern. Most of my learning was personal and up close. I must have looked up fifty percent of the cases in the Foreign Affairs Manual.
I found that applicants for student visas were the hardest for me to interview, especially the non-Saudi students. The majority of them were looking for a ticket out of Saudi Arabia. They generally had been raised in Saudi because their families worked there. Although Saudi had been home to them, they would not be allowed back as adults unless they had a job offered to them. Such an applicant illustrated the classic case of not having a permanent residence to which they planned to return. I had to turn down most of them (though in hindsight, probably not enough) and listen to their pitiful pleas that they must go to America to study. When their parents became involved, it was worse.
Eventually, of course, I developed a thick skin and learned to turn down and survive, as all visa officers must. For a while, though, the emotional toll of feeling like a blighter of dreams was intense.
As the war approached, we focused most of our efforts on American citizens. We worked mightily to update warden lists and set up telephone trees. E-mail and cell phones were years in the future.
Everyone was giving parties as though we must enjoy life before it ended. I learned to square dance at one of the western compounds. At one party, we watched on television as then Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Azziz left a last meeting with diplomats. We were informed that diplomatic efforts had failed. A few nights later, the Consul General’s office manager woke all of us with news that the air war had started. We could hear the B-52’s taking off on their bombing runs.
I was given the graveyard shift in the control room since I was in charge of the visa section during the day. Most of our calls were from the States, including one from a group in Texas who wanted us to know they were thinking of us. “Y’all be careful.”
Riyadh was the capital, but the King spent much of his time in Jeddah, so that’s where all the visiting American VIP’s came, straining the Consulate staff. Vice-President Dan Quayle was the lucky visitor over New Year’s. Not yet jaded by official visits, I was honored one night to pass on a message from the French to the appropriate colleague, sure the information must be a vital part of the war effort. As it turned out, I had highly overrated its importance. (Yes, the French were working with us then, although the French official who spoke with me said he enjoyed it more when they and we were at loggerheads.)
Looking back, it seemed a short time from the beginning of the ground war, as coalition forces entered Kuwait, and the victorious (at the time) end of the war. We breathed a sigh of relief and basked for a brief period in the pride of being Americans. Shortly, after multiple visits from Secretary of State James Baker, as well as visits from the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the inevitable congressional delegations, VIP visits became just a part of the exhausting work of the Consulate.
Interesting to note that the second Gulf war took place during my last overseas assignment. I was closer to the front this time — in Dhahran and Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil fields. This time the joie de vivre had vanished.
The author retired in 2004 and now lives in the state of Washington.