Compound Life: Expat Housing in Saudi Arabia

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always associated the word “compound” with religious fundamentalists, prison-type edifices surrounded by razor wire, and floor-length skirts. That and fly eyes. Ick. So when I learned that we’d be living in a compound in Saudi Arabia, I was a bit nervous.

It turned out that some of my preconceived notions were correct: the compound that I live on is heavily guarded, and its walls are rimmed with razor wire. Polygamists are occasionally seen here. And when women wear their floor-length overclothing, they make bonnet-wearing Christians look like brazen hussies.

Living on a compound in Saudi Arabia is rather like living in a cultural bubble. But not the kind of cultural bubble that ultra-right-wingers would favor: instead of guarding against the evils of worldliness, our compound guards the freedom to be worldly. The most visible evidence of this is that women here dress however they please. So, for example, I don’t have to bother donning an abaya to fetch my kids from school. I can walk from my front door to the school without leaving the compound. The convenience store is an easy walk from home, as are several playgrounds and outdoor pools.

Thanks to a small army of foreign workers from the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh, our compound is clean and beautiful. It’s an expanded embodiment of the traditional Arab garden: crusty on the outside and lush on the inside. The pools sparkle. Flowering shrubs and trees line sidewalks that are constantly swept of pebbles and fallen leaves. The workers do their darndest to keep tropical plants alive in weather that’s miserably hot and humid for most of the year.

Although the surroundings are pleasant, driving is still off limits to me as a woman. Even if the compound were large enough to bother jumping in the car to go from one edge of it to the other, I would risk losing the privilege to park our vehicle inside the compound if I were caught driving. Only men are allowed that privilege in this kingdom, even on a Western compound.

When first I pictured myself living here more than a year ago, I was sure it would be a “make the most of it” kind of experience. To be sure, for many women, that’s exactly what it is—they feel repressed, restricted, and often resentful. But for a variety of reasons, I find it pretty much ideal. My kids have loads of friends from numerous countries. Between the pools, playgrounds, and recreation center, they have plenty to keep them occupied (as long as the weather’s not sweltering). And I do too: lots of diverse people to meet, a good gym, great workout classes, tennis, occasional live bands, holiday celebrations, a good restaurant, a childcare center, internet access. I honestly don’t know how you could get bored here.

But that’s a downside in its own way. This cultural bubble is so efficient that it reduces my incentive to explore the country and work to get to know the locals (and it really does take work to get to know them if you don’t happen to be related). This bubble is a barrier between me and a more authentic Saudi Arabia experience. I tell myself that’s okay, because we all have to specialize in life, and right now this little compound-bubble is in line with my needs and my priorities—the greatest of which is my family. Deeper cultural experiences will have to wait until I have a little more time and flexibility.

But that’s not to say my family doesn’t have cultural experiences. On the contrary, most days are a cultural experience—just not an Arab one. Our neighbors are from Spain, France, Lebanon, Morocco, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, and dozens of other countries.

At first I was really excited for my kids to associate with peers from so many other countries. I’ve been a little surprised that although they’ve built a lot of bridges, they’ve also formulated some racial stereotyping on their own. It turns out that diversity can actually increase stereotyping because cultural differences are so evident and impossible to overlook. The kids’ conclusions about other cultures aren’t always bad, but they’re something to keep on the rotation of dinner conversations.

Aside from the social aspects, there are other downsides to living in a compound. Infectious disease is one of them. In the last month, almost everyone I know has contracted a wicked, energy-sapping cold. I’m still getting over mine.

And then there are the threats of terrorism here in the lion’s maw of Islam—or maybe it would be more sensitive to say the crescent’s cradle of Islam. On one hand, living behind razor wire and having guards posted at the compound’s entrance are reassuring. On the other hand, all the security is a reminder that Westerners are at risk in Saudi Arabia. Compounds such as this make a lovely target for a terrorist. I try to keep my faith in statistical probability, reassuring myself that death by a traffic accident is vastly more likely than death by terrorism.

No matter where we live in the world, whether inside a compound or outside one, we find dangers . . . and protections. We find beauty, ugliness, advantages, and disadvantages. We find cultural bubbles, diversity, and stereotyping. So really, living on a compound isn’t really that much different from living in any other community. Its just a new spin—one that I really like!