As an ad executive from India, Ajay Gopinath was all set to earn someinternational experience with a stint in the Middle East, finally settlingon an agency in Saudi Arabia. Upon his arrival in Jeddah airport, however,he confronted an altogether unfamiliar side of business travel.

"I was carrying a picture and a small Ganesha idol," recalled Gopinath, whohas since returned to India. "The picture was torn up in front me and theidol crushed. I also saw Bibles being torn."

Within Saudi Arabia, as hewould soon learn, even aprivately heldnon-Islamic religious display can get one arrested. This includes, forexample, praying alone in one's house.

Nonetheless, thousands of Hindus and other Indians flock to the Middle East each year. Once wooed by the seemingly endless wealth of the oil industry, immigrants are now drawn to a variety of fields.

To be sure, life in the largely Muslim Gulf ranges widely, from repressive, fear-filleddays in SaudiArabia, through a laid-back existence in easy-going Oman, to the relativeexcess of Dubai. But even in Dubai, it is hard to forget that you are in anIslamic country, and this, mixed with rumor, mutual stereotyping, andexpat-unfriendly residence laws, makes the Hindu in the Middle East always alittle nervous, and never completely at home.

But in countries like Oman and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, this fear is being increasingly temperedwith liberalization.Nandini Hazra, a devout Hindu in Dubai, notes, "That feeling of being trappedis just not there any more. The changes have been tremendous in the last sixor seven years."

Hazra acknowledges that when she first came to Dubai nine years ago, it wasdifficult to pursue a Hindu lifestyle.

"These days, however, I can get anything I want -- all utensils -- in silver,copper or steel, Hindu magazines, prayer books and tapes ofbhajans."The lenience of the Dubai authorities extends much further than availabilityof items. According to Hazra, the Indian community is now able to openlycelebrate traditionally "loud" festivals like Holi and Divali. There hasnever been any problem with celebrations in the privacy of one's home, butnow, Hindus are able to use public spaces for their revelry. Hazra talksabout how Hindus gathered last year at a large open space in Dubai and"played color" for Holi. During Divali, they actually set off fireworks in a spacebetween buildings in the area of Bur Dubai.

"Three years ago, we would never have dared do this," she says. "Now, nobodybothers. The police come, watch us for a bit and then leave. There is noharassment."

Sachin Kelkar, who works in a publishing firm in Oman and is an activemember of the Indian Social Club, speaks with a smile about how theGanapathi festival was celebrated last year -- in full form, with a specialpuja and a host of cultural celebrations in the Krishna Temple complex.

Kelkar suggests that the leniency towards Hindus in Oman is largely due tothe Khimjis -- a powerful business family that has great say in the variousministries of the country. Also, Oman's currentruler, Sultan Qaboos binSaid, is openly appreciative of the Indians' contribution to his country'sgrowth and he has personally granted support to the two temples in thecountry. Jayant Vyas, the second priest at the Krishna Temple, Muscat,is all praise for the Sultan: "During the Babri Masjid riots in India, theSultan personally ordered his guard to protect the temple. He told us notto fear any attacks and to continue with our pujas."

Vyas also notes that he is treated with respect at the airport as soon as itis known that he is a priest.

Vyas claims that Bahrain, Dubai and Oman are the only three places in theGulf that have temples. Bahrain's temple, however, is very small and mainlycaters to a certain community from Rajasthan. In Dubai and Oman, most Hindus are left in peace.

An important point that many Hindus here stress is the fact that peopleof various communities meet at one place.The argument is that in India the temples are huge, and there are so many ofthem. In this part of the world, there is basically one small set ofbuildings with all the gods together. In Dubai, the Sikh is in the samecomplex and so there is a feeling of oneness between all communities andeven with the Sikhs.

Regarding his priestly duties, Vyas is much happier in Oman than he was inIndia. One of the great advantages, according to him, is that there is noproblem with money in Oman. He is able to get the monetary backing toconduct just about any puja he wants from local devotees.

However, it is interesting to note the reaction of Adri Saha, also a devoutHindu, who spent two months in Oman: "I was pleasantly surprised that therewas an actual brick-and-mortar temple in Oman. But I was very uncomfortableabout the fact that there was the crude reflection of money throughout. Allthat gold and silver ornamentation for example -- and the indulgent fountainswith colored lighting, in front of the idols."

Considering that money is the driving force behind immigration to theregion, that is hardly surprising.

In spite of this, people seem to get by. Says Hazra, "I actually enjoy it more here than in India. The camaraderie is greater because people gettogether and celebrate even the small festivals which normally pass byunnoticed in India." While jobs and wealth may bring Hindus tothe Middle East, it is culture and spirit, often unseen, that continue tosustain them.