Riyadh, (Reuters)- Madeline Herselman watched a friend”s husband die in a car bomb attack in the Saudi capital three years ago, and lived next door to an American engineer who was beheaded by Islamic militants in June 2004.
But she and her husband, Gerhard, decided to stay in Saudi Arabia with their two children. They are part of a growing South African community which is helping fill the gap left by jittery westerners who have left the kingdom after a wave of attacks by followers of Osama Bin Laden”s al Qaeda over the past two years.
"We”ve had our ups and downs but generally speaking I don”t think it”s been too bad," said Gerhard Herselman, who manages an auto business in Riyadh. "I think South Africans are a bit more resilient to violence and crime and this kind of stuff."
"If there are incidents here it”s very high impact, but in South Africa you have a constant security concern. If you weigh up the pros and cons it”s still acceptable," he told Reuters.
The Herselmans arrived from Pretoria five years ago with their first child.
They consider Saudi Arabia as a perfect place to raise a family because there is little crime – unlike their own country, which has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.
Many other South Africans appear to think the same.
"I don”t feel at all scared because South Africans are not targets here," said Johannes van der Walt, a dentist from South Africa”s southern coast region.
"You are much less safe in South Africa where you are more of a target because you have a cell phone or a car – the chances of getting killed here are less."
South Africa”s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdulhamied Gabier, says the number of South Africans living in the country has nearly doubled to more than 7,000 from about 4,000 when he took up his post in October 2002.
"Conditions are O.K for South Africans here and the money is good," he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
There are still more than twice that number of British and American expatriates, but diplomats say up to 20 percent of them have left since al Qaeda opened a new front in its global struggle against the United States and its allies two years ago.
Trade and tourism between the two countries is also on the rise, building on ties that go back to the time when the kingdom supported the anti-apartheid movement. Trade excluding oil has rocketed to $3billion from $400 million in 2002, Gabier said.
While Nelson Mandela has been a frequent holiday visitor in Saudi Arabia, the number of South African visas given to Saudis, some of whom now shun western nations, has risen to between 5,000 and 6,000 during the northern hemisphere summer from just a couple of hundred.