From offices in Saudi Arabia, Washington and Pasadena, Parsons Corp. has won engineering contracts worth billions of dollars from governments in the Mideast. Now, as the risk of doing business there has become painfully apparent, the company is engaged in a frustrating bid to monitor the safety of its employees trapped in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and to gain their release.
Parsons, like other U.S. firms with Kuwaiti operations, is finding that it can do little. Still, it tries mightily to do something--and to keep families informed.
The Pasadena-based engineering and construction firm has about 100 employees in the oil-rich emirate at the head of the Persian Gulf. About half are Kuwaiti nationals and the rest are Europeans and North Americans. There are 12 U.S. citizens, along with their eight dependents.
The effort to reach Parsons' employees in Kuwait began immediately after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion.
On the day of the invasion, the State Department accounted for all Parsons employees, declaring them in no immediate danger. Parsons business offices elsewhere in the Middle East corroborated the State Department report after talking with some employees by telephone.
A day later, Parsons President Ray W. Judson said the company "will do everything we can to assist our employees in leaving the country of Kuwait safely."
However, Parsons, which has had operations in Kuwait for 30 years, has been unable to make direct contact with its employees since Aug. 2.
Last Sunday, the Iraqi government ordered Kuwaiti-based citizens of Western countries opposing Iraq militarily to report to authorities at three hotels in Kuwait. An estimated 2,500 Americans are in Kuwait, most of them employees of private companies and their dependents. Most are believed to have ignored the demand.
However, some Americans and other Westerners have reportedly been detained and taken to strategic civil and military sites as human shields against possible U.S. attacks.
"This heightens our concern for our people (in Kuwait)," said Parsons spokeswoman Debra Williams. "At this point, any communication is critical, because we've not heard from our people (since Aug. 2). Now that the situation is deteriorating, there is even more concern."
Communications have been hampered because telephone lines in Kuwait have been damaged, destroyed or overloaded.
Parsons, one of about 60 U.S. firms with operations in Kuwait, was designing and supervising construction of highway systems there. Some employees had helped with construction of an oil-fired power plant and were designing a waste-water treatment facility.
If Parsons contacts any staff in Kuwait, the firm will seek information on the condition and location of other employees and dependents. However, Parsons isn't likely to have much useful advice; Iraqis have closed Kuwait's airports and are not allowing Americans to leave the country.
"We're relying on the State Department and the government to look out for the well-being of employees," Williams said. "We'll do anything to help, but the opportunity has to be there--and it's just not there."
Williams said the State Department has supplied periodic reports on the status of employees--informing the company last week, for example, that some individuals were known to be unharmed.
The State Department is using the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and sources in the region to maintain contact with corporate employees there, said department spokesman David Good.
This week, Iraq has tightened its grip on foreigners--on Monday ordering embassies in Kuwait to close by Friday or run the risk that diplomats will be treated as "ordinary foreign nationals," making them liable to be rounded up. The U.S. Embassy plans to ignore the Iraqi demand and continue efforts to maintain contacts with American citizens, Good said.
Good said the State Department is advising U.S. citizens in Kuwait not to report to Iraqi authorities at designated hotels "because their position afterwards would be uncertain." He also said the State Department is urging employees of U.S. firms in Kuwait to "remain at their homes," to stay away from their corporate offices and to "keep a low profile."