Foreign residents of Saudi Arabia (search) will be allowed to carry guns, the police minister announced after a series of militant bombings, attacks and kidnappings targeting Western workers in the kingdom.
"In principle, a citizen has the right to carry a licensed weapon, and so does the resident. If he senses danger, he can carry a personal weapon as he does in his country," Prince Nayef (search) said late Wednesday.
A Western diplomat had said some embassies and foreign companies had asked Saudi authorities to ease rules barring private security guards from carrying weapons. Nayef's comment appeared to be a response to the requests.
Under Saudi law, foreigners — even security guards — cannot have weapons, while Saudis must apply for a permit. Nayef's comments suggested foreigners would be allowed to seek permits, though he did not elaborate.
Al Qaeda (search)-linked militants in Saudi Arabia have stepped up their campaign of attacks, targeting foreign workers with an assault on a Riyadh housing compound in May that killed 22 people, a series of shootings and the kidnapping and beheading of an American, Paul M. Johnson Jr.
The bloodshed has spread fear among foreign expatriates. An estimated 8.8 million foreigners work among 17 million Saudis. Most hold low-skill jobs, but many work in the oil, banking and other vital sectors.
Westerners working in Saudi Arabia contacted by The Associated Press had mixed reactions to the possibility of being able to carry firearms.
"I like the concept, I think its a great idea, but I hope they implement this quickly," said Jack Smith of St. Louis, who lives in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Smith, a gun owner in the United States, warned that people unfamiliar with weapons should get training.
"There's a lot of twitchy foreigners out there, and it could be a bigger problem if they are suddenly given a weapon in a moderately threatening situation," he said.
Another American working in western Saudi Arabia, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Bob, also welcomed the move, but urged caution. "There are many bad examples of people owning guns in the States and we don't want to have the same situation here," he said.
Another Western diplomat said a group of Western ambassadors will meet Foreign Minister Prince Saud on Sunday in Jiddah to discuss security for foreigners.
Nayef has urged wanted militants to take up an amnesty offer made by the kingdom's rulers, "or else they will face a stronger and tougher method."
Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, issued the ultimatum Wednesday in the name of King Fahd, his ailing half brother, for anyone not yet "arrested for carrying out terrorist acts."
Nayef said only those who committed acts that hurt others would be prosecuted, and no one who turns himself in would face the death penalty.
Late Thursday, the Interior Ministry said a wanted militant surrendered to police "hours after" the amnesty announcement. Saaban bin Mohamed bin Abdullah Alleihi al-Shihri, who has been in hiding for almost two years, was sought in a "security-related case," the ministry statement said without elaborating.
Al-Shihri's name does not appear on a list of 26 most-wanted Saudis. The ministry said he can stay with his family until investigations begin.
Nayef said the amnesty would also apply to two men who surrendered last year, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi and Mansour Mohammed Ahmed Faqih.
Saudi police on Thursday resumed searches in Riyadh's Suweidi neighborhood and several other districts for militants, conducting house-to-house hunts for suspects and advising families with children to leave the area.
Suweidi has been the scene of confrontations between government forces and militants.
The wave of violence began May 12, 2003, when car bombs targeted three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine homicide bombers. Since then, the kingdom has suffered a series of homicide bombings, gunbattles and kidnappings.
Johnson was kidnapped in Riyadh on June 12 and beheaded six days later. There are fears the violence could drive out American and other Western workers vital to Saudi Arabia's oil and other industries.
Nayef said Saudi authorities are still searching for Johnson's body.