DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 10 -- In contrast to the panic last August, when Iraqi tanks raced through Kuwait to the edge of this country's oil-rich Eastern Province, Saudi society today appears distinctly calm despite the imminent threat of what Iraqi President Saddam Hussein calls "the mother of battles."
The Saudi government has done little to prepare its population for the possibility of extensive wartime casualties, and only recently began a mass education program on chemical warfare.
The Saudis' serenity is due partly to a widespread belief that their cities are immune from serious damage by Iraqi missiles -- with or without chemical warheads -- because of the 580,000 multi-national troops, including 360,000 Americans, who have arrived with sophisticated anti-missile systems.
"You want me to worry about Saddam making us suffer?" asked a Saudi Defense Ministry consultant, echoing a widely held contention that Iraq's chemical weapons and missile capabilities, as well as its military prowess, are greatly exaggerated. "No, we will not suffer."
"Even without the help of the allied forces, Saddam could not inflict as much damage as people are thinking," he said. "The information I have is that Saddam does not have the capability to put chemical weapons on his Soviet-made Scud missiles. The only way is through planes. And they will be taken care of before they reach any important target."
But even if civilian centers escape large-scale Iraqi attacks, Saudi armed forces could sustain heavy losses in an allied military campaign to free Kuwait, diplomats said.
Saudi military officials have said their forces will be in the forefront of any ground assault on Kuwait and Iraq. The Saudi air force intends to participate in the bombing of Iraqi military installations, according to one Western diplomat.
What impact heavy losses might have on Saudi Arabia, which unlike its Arab allies of Egypt and Syria has never fought a major modern war, is unclear. The government has steered clear of public discussion of possible deaths and injuries.
Some observers here say heavy losses could have political consequences for a government already pressed by its affluent middle class for greater political say.
"If there is sustained conflict and heavy Saudi casualties, you will begin to hear an intensification of the qualms many Saudis have already expressed about the custodianship of their military defense," said a Western diplomat.
"Obviously, any war is going to be devastating," said Teymour A. Alireza, deputy chairman of Saudi Cairo Bank. "The impact is going to be great not only on Saudi Arabia, but on the area as such. We have to think about what will happen to the Kuwaitis living in Kuwait. You must also think of the Iraqis who are going to be bombarded and naturally, if our children, our people and our soldiers get killed in the war effort . . . it's going to be bad.
"But we have a belief here that what we set out to do is to defend our country. We haven't asked for this war. We haven't asked for this threat . . . . If there is war, I think we are now mentally prepared to accept it."
Like other Saudis, Alireza said his country's Islamic beliefs will ease acceptance of personal losses. "Our religion is very strong in the belief that when the time for death comes, it comes. Of course the impact is great and you can't see your loved one get killed and not feel remorse and sadness.
"But in our belief, one has to do his duty when his time comes. It will be said that it's God's will. That's the way we have to look at it."
Despite such forbearance, civil defense authorities in the Eastern Province began advertising the sale of gas masks a few weeks ago. Retailed through outlets such as grocery and drug stores, the masks sell for $42, a price subsidized by the government. Low-income Saudis are issued free masks, officials said.
But the advertising has been low-key, apparently in an attempt not to spread alarm, and many residents complain that they do not know how to obtain masks. "We don't know yet where to buy them," said Mohammed Saleem Uddin, a 42-year-old salesman from India.
Military and medical experts also have been interviewed on television about what to do in the event of a chemical weapons attack. But these programs have been at pains to stress that such an attack is unlikely.
"Channel 2 and Saudi Arabia are not expecting a chemical weapons attack, and the information we are passing on is to ease people's feelings and make them feel more secure," said the host of a recent program. "The possibility of having our cities attacked by chemical weapons is very, very low," he added.
This may be the wrong message, said one expert on Iraq's chemical weapons capability. "It is absolutely stupid to bury your head in the sand and tell people it's not going to happen. You should tell them you don't know if it's possible. Saddam has a chemical arsenal; he has used it . . . and he may choose to use it again." Still, the Saudis "have come a long way" in their civil defense efforts since August, the expert said.
Col. Mohammed Saleh Maghrabi, chief of civil defense in the Eastern Province, said he began testing a public siren system three weeks ago, and is erecting a tent city on a nearby beach in case it becomes necessary to evacuate large numbers of people from urban areas. Officials also have plans to set up chemical decontamination centers near hospitals and local medical personnel have been trained in decontamination, he added.
Despite these precautions, some Western observers predict there could be panic after a strike, with families taking to the highways for points south unless public education is intensified. Maghrabi dismissed such fears, saying: "I think we are in a safe area and no problem will come to Saudi Arabia because we have now more than 500,000 military from many countries."
Meanwhile, several European embassies have passed out chemical warfare protection to their nationals.
The U.S. Embassy says it has no plans to pass out chemical protective gear, nor has it advised Americans to leave the area.
These decisions apparently reflect intelligence assessments that the likelihood of a chemical weapons attack is low, but U.S. officials have not said so publicly.
Many Americans in the Eastern Province, however, have received masks from their employer, the Saudi government oil company, Saudi Aramco. These Americans and their dependents account for a large part of the estimated 5,000 Americans still in the province.