Dear Mom (and P.S. Abdullah): Life in a Saudi Arabian Compound

Being back in the U.S. in December and January, among American friends and family, highlighted how far beyond a Westerner’s comprehension the idea of living in Saudi Arabia really is. A monarchy? Islamic law? Separate treatment for men and women? Living in a walled compound? To someone who hasn’t been here, there’s no frame of reference for any of it. Not a lot of sitcoms or movies set in Middle Eastern neighborhoods. So I thought I had some ‘splaining to do when I got back. A letter home from camp, so to speak. You know, Dear Mom, here’s what compound life is like.

But while I’ve been living here I’ve also wondered what the Arabs around us think. Wouldn’t you? This is what my compound looks like from the outside, right smack in the middle of a community of homes and apartments and shops and streets:

Foreboding, eh? How would you feel if that was your neighbor? Would you look at yourself and wonder what made people feel as if they needed to separate themselves from you that way? I would.

And then I saw this, by Abdullah Sayel, in the Arab News, which is a major English-language daily in Saudi Arabia:

Dear expat, if you live in a compound with a main gate and a number of villas surrounded by a high fence, then you need to accept the fact that you represent a legend or a human myth. In the next few lines, I will try my best to explain how.

In Saudi society, there is a stereotype about expat compounds and their inhabitants. Many still think that a secret life is run behind these high walls. To many Saudis, you are seen as someone who runs loud parties (especially during Christmas and New Year), crazy entertainment and fancy recreational facilities. All of this, of course, is thought to be taking place behind your compound walls. Is this true or not? This is something that I cannot comfort my fellow citizens about.

Now, what you need to do as an expat living in a fancy compound is easy. If a young Saudi or an Arab colleague asks you about the myths and lives of Hollywood stars, which you might enjoy in real, what would you say? Could this be the truth? Who can deny that this is just a stereotype?

(The link to the original is here, if you want to check me or explore the reader comments.)

Okay, THAT had never crossed my mind. Champagne fountains! Flappers! Feathers! Heathen music! Everybody in the pool! He seems to be picturing something like this:

Oh, man, how I wanted to sit this guy down and say, “Look, I need to explain a few things to you.” (Including how puzzling that last paragraph was.) And although the subject would be the same as my letter home from camp, it would be a very different set of things than the ones I explain to my mom. But Abdullah threw down the challenge, didn’t he? And I do like a challenge. So, with a lot of brainstorming help from Mr. Wood’s English classes at Clearfield High School (hollah!), I’m going for it. My Abdullah-footnoted letter home from camp to Mom, which in a perfect world would help both sides understand each other a little better:

Dear Mom,

How are you? Compound life is fun. Living inside these walls isn’t as weird as you think. Turns out everything is behind walls here, so we’re not that different.* Every Saudi home is behind high walls and a gate so you can’t see the house itself, and the windows are small and covered up.

This is what a Saudi neighborhood street looks like:

Street-level view of a typical Riyadh neighborhood

*Dear Abdullah, I have to explain about the walls here because western homes don’t have them. In fact, we build our homes with the express intent of making them look welcoming to everyone who passes by. We landscape along the front walk or at the door to invite people in. We have big windows. Even in an apartment residents will put a mat that says “Welcome” at the front door. Fences might enclose property behind the house to contain pets or children, but anything in the front is ornamental, and is rarely more than waist high.

And this is what my street looks like:

A residential street inside the compound

A residential street inside the compound

Looks like an Arizona retirement community, don’t you think? Front doors and walks are visible, houses face each other, windows are open. We greet neighbors and rap on a door to borrow something or say hello. Kids ride around on bikes and scooters, people go for a walk. Most days, people go to work in the morning, come home, eat dinner, watch some TV, go to bed.*

*Dear Abdullah: Really, that’s it.Β Β 

We wear western dress inside the compound, so it’s very comfortable to be out and around, meeting new people. I’m making lots of new friends.*

*Dear Abdullah: Your families live comfortably in individually walled homes because you ARE at home, with lots of extended family that may not live in the same house, but are spread around nearby. We come here without family, and many foreigners would find it isolating to live in a walled home, without freedom of movement. Even with family nearby, Westerners are big on friends, including neighbors. We depend on them in times of need. We don’t have tribes. The network of family, friends and neighbors is the closest thing, and without any family with us here, friends and neighbors become extra important.

We have a restaurant; a gym; tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts; and a market here on the compound. There are also a couple of little hair salons, a playground, and a nice big pool and deck area. It’s nice to be able to have recreation and go about routine daily activities independently, without having to cover.*

Compound gym, looking one way. I’m in a committed relationship with the farthest spin bike

Compound gym, looking the other way, toward a bunch of weight equipment long abandoned by exercise professionals. Free weights, at least, don’t expire.

Compound market. Refrigerator cases run along the wall to my right, with dairy, meat, juices, and produce. You can get by pretty well on just what’s available at the market and the prices are good.

Compound pool, with the restaurant through the arches at the end. (Early March–just now getting back in the pool.)

*Dear Abdullah: In the West, men and women mingle freely and nobody thinks anything of it. Men and women are at ease around each other. Western women find no use in covering in black robes and are more comfortable without them.

Truth be told, I’m probably making more friends, and faster, because of the way we’re all packed in here together and can’t access the outside world on our own. (You know, with the way the women can’t drive.) The compound has a couple of buses that take children to their many different schools and then go out every day to take women shopping. There’s a monthly schedule, so you can look and see when the next trip is to IKEA, or a souk you like, or a store you need to go to. The nearest grocery store sends its own bus almost every day to pick us up, take us to the store, and bring us back. The driver drops us at our own doors and helps us carry in the groceries, which is great. However, you have to go right when the bus wants to, and check out according to the schedule, no matter what you have to leave off your list.

*Dear Abdullah: In Western countries women drive, and both men and women tend to errands whenever they need to. If you’re printing a document and run out of ink, you jump in the car, go to the office supply store, buy your ink, and come back. If one store doesn’t have what you need, you just go to another. If you think of something else while you’re out, you change your plans and add that errand to your itinerary. Arranging for drivers or adhering to a bus schedule is considered burdensome.

The silver lining is that the bus is the best place to get to know the other women. You talk about what you found, or give each other tips so that next time you can find what you didn’t this time. You can help each other look for things, or pitch in to help somebody who has a shopping emergency (birthday party, feeling unwell, new to Saudi Arabia). Those things wouldn’t happen anywhere else.

We also have socials and parties and activities*. The restaurant on our compound puts on a Thursday night buffet (Thursday night is Friday night here) where we make a habit of meeting up with our friends. Some of the women play board games in the afternoons. I like to play badminton, and sometimes women from the shopping bus decide to meet at the restaurant for lunch. We’ve also started having regular “princess parties” where we dress up in our latest finds from the Princess Souk (aka, the second-Hand souk–you can find the blog post from my first trip here). Here’s our gathering from this past week:

*Dear Abdullah: We ate dinner and went home about 10:00. No fountains, nobody in the pool, and if there were any feathers they were already on the Saudi dresses we bought here. Our “crazy entertainment” was conversation and picture taking. I had a Greek salad and some lentil soup. Oh–and a Diet Coke. Sorry to disappoint you.

Well, Mom, that’s about it for now. It’s Indian night tonight at the restaurant–my favorite. I hope everything is great at home. Write back soon! I’m having lots of great adventures that I’ll write about another time.

Love, Margo

38 thoughts on “Dear Mom (and P.S. Abdullah): Life in a Saudi Arabian Compound

    • margocatts says:

      Ask around! (Email me, if you still feel the need.) I have friends at a variety of compounds, and the price points and amenities are all over the map. They operate on the same basic premise, of a secured exterior and freedom of movement and dress inside. Usually a pool, common space, a small market. Mine has an unusually large and full-service restaurant, but a rather basic pool and poorly equipped gym, whereas others have more elaborate recreation facilities, larger homes, and more elaborate landscaping. Waiting lists are more hype than fact (my inner cynic suspects rent manipulation). Do make sure the compound is “Western living” or “Western dress.” As weird as it sounds to Western ears, if abayas and hijab are not expressly disallowed in the compound, the typical story is that locals moving in (to fill vacancies on that nonexistent “waiting list”) begin to demand that everyone wear them and the value of the compound is nullified. Good luck!

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  1. Heidi says:

    Brilliant post. Moving to Riyadh in December 14…and so happy to have found your blog. You write about things I have not found other places. You hide nothing, and have a great sense of humour. We are moving to Kingdom City compound, and hope it is similar to what you experience. (I do not know which compound you live in) Thank you so much!

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  2. Andrea says:

    Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for two hours now. I just can’t seem to put it down! πŸ™‚ II know this is an old post, so I’m not sure you’ll get this. But I will be coming to Saudi in the next year (sometime in 2015). Despite constant research, I still have so many questions. Does an American in Riyadh who doesn’t live on a compound have access to compound amenities? Or if not the amenities, maybe just the people? Compounds seem like great places to feel connected to people from home, which is something I’m worried about. I love to explore new places, make the best of things, etc…, but I’m concerned about meeting people and making friends. I guess I’d like to know just how “open” the compounds are. Thank you!

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    • margocatts says:

      Welcome, and thank you! To get onto most compounds you need to be a guest of a resident. Some compounds limit how many guests a resident can have, or require residents to accompany their guest so you can’t just go to the gym or the pool if they’re not going with you. Others are more relaxed. It’s easier to make spontaneous connections on a compound where you can run into people just walking around or participating in the same activities. But if you’re willing to put forth the effort, you can make lots of friends elsewhere! Find Facebook groups, where people will often suggest meet-up get-togethers. Go to coffee mornings and strike up conversations. Go on organized tours. It’ll take some work (and of course there will be slow days before you know people), but you will meet the MOST amazing people here!

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  3. ryann says:

    hello guys ,
    i am looking to come to work in riyadh
    i am not married to my girlfriend is any chance someone can tell me if i can bring her with me ?

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      • margocatts says:

        I can only hope your girlfriend doesn’t see this string. πŸ˜‰

        No, there is no way besides marriage, with a certificate from your country of origin. The only way you can bring people with you is if they’re immediate family–no friends, no girlfriends, no cousins/aunts/sister’s-best-friend. I know a number of couples who had been together for many years but married expressly to allow them to get into the country together. Good luck to you both!

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    • matt Benjamin says:

      J#%*@ C@%#!* what h*!! you guys talking about its a f$%#ing s@#**y place there is no f$%#ing peace at all in this h*!! Saudi arabia you guys should come back home I swear to G_d it’s something you guys doesn’t understand it its a f$%#ing evil place it’s full of f$%#ing C*$@ d%&@!+* bags people they don’t know what the life and what the freedom of every thing I live here and it’s really sh@#**y nation that’s all you guys have a good day (Edited, obviously, with keys don’t usually use this often.)

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      • margocatts says:

        Gosh! So sad I missed out on the chance for us to hang out. I have a friend who’s lived in Riyadh for a long time and often finds new people referred to him with their questions. The one he gets most often is “Will I like it there?” His answer: “How do you like where you are now?” The answers usually line up. Life in Saudi Arabia intensifies everything. If your marriage is in trouble, it’ll get worse. If you’re close to your spouse, you’ll get closer. If you’re unhappy, angry, judgmental…welcome to perfect misery. Yes, there’s a place for every adjective in Saudi Arabia. I can certainly use them more freely now that my feet are on American soil, but the choice about which to focus on is still mine. Yes, the country is a mess. And yes, the experience of living there is extraordinary. If I did nothing but wail about the mess I’d have missed out on the extraordinary. And that would be a loss indeed.

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  4. Christine says:

    Love reading your blog! I’ve been here in Saudi for 2 years & I’m still adjusting to my new found life style. Btw, I’m an RN from the northeast ☺️

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  5. Temo says:

    first of all we wear that black rope to cover ourselves from being rape we build the walls because fathers are scared for there wifes , datghers and sons , our nighbores like brothers for us , we celebrate with the family it’s like a girls night it’s sure not like the picture doing it in a crazy way !! but we are happy , and of course here is safer as u will know the crimes here is lesser and we protect or country to make it safer and what u hear in news is wrong they always ruin islam and arabs countrys image , we don’t have like your nighborhood but in the end we will because we do what god told us to do if we want to see him and enter his paradise , i’m sorry if i said too much i just let it all out πŸ™‚

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  6. Renee says:

    My husband is thinking of taking a job in Riyadh. Everyone is polite about life there but as a western woman in her late 50s who has lived in the Emirates for 15 years ..I am having a hard time wrapping my head around life in a compound and wearing an abaya would you do it again knowing all you know now

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    • margocatts says:

      I think a lot of people who come to KSA after living elsewhere in the Gulf find the constraints particularly grating. That said, there is no other way to flesh out your way of understanding the Arab world than to come to Saudi Arabia and experience it for yourself. The friendships you make inside that strange little compound village are–of necessity–more intense than others, and in time you learn the rhythms and expectations of the place as you would anywhere. You find drivers you like, things to do, and settle into the rhythm of a day segmented by prayer closures. What made it hardest was (unexpectedly) the traffic. Friends and activities might be an hour away, and getting around the city in the evening is so hard that most nights we just said never mind, we’ll stay in. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! But I know others who left saying it was more than they could bear. For my part, I will cherish my time there forever.

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      • Renee says:

        Thanks for your reply….I guess picking the right compound is pretty key…do you have advice on a good one for social and amenities…I don’t think expense is a problem …but having western only attire is key.
        Thankis again for your advice

        Liked by 1 person

      • margocatts says:

        “Western living” is the term you want to look for, and it’s understood the same way everywhere: western dress and free gender mixing inside the walls. There are too many for me to recommend any one in particular. Price varies widely and is usually the driver. Unexpectedly, in general, the higher the price, the greater the amenities (though not necessarily the sense of community, so don’t assume you need the most expensive place to be happy). Seek out Facebook groups to ask your questions to a broad group of people–Susie of Arabia is a good one. Be aware, though, that the western expat community is in flux. With falling oil prices KSA is cutting projects and lots of people are leaving. Look into your husband’s project thoroughly and ensure his won’t be one of them right after you get there!

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  7. Lluis Cantons says:

    I have a possible job offer in Dammam, within the compound premises can a women utilize with totally freedom such the gym premises without any worries to get in trouble with the religious police.
    thank you very much and good blog!!!

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! Yes, religious police are not allowed inside compounds, and western expectations are the norm. That said, the Aramco compounds are small cities, completely different from the one I’m writing about it Riyadh. Saudis do live in Aramco compounds, and you get a comfortable, mutually respectful lifestyle mix. Women in abayas, women in running shorts. That said, an Aramco friend of mine reports that there are separate men’s and ladies’ gyms where she lives, and that the ladies’ has shorter hours and poorer equipment.

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  8. Eve says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m so interested in the Arabic culture and would love to visit/work in KSA. I have heard that Asians are looked/treated differently than western people. I’m a Southeast Asian girl but grew up in the US (US citizen), so I’m not sure where I will be standing if I were to go there.
    Are there any Asians living in the compound??

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    • margocatts says:

      Yes, there are many Asians living on the compound, but yes, race factors largely in how people are seen and treated. Asian nations–such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines–have long supplied laborers and servants to Gulf countries. Saudis are very class-conscious, and do tend to rank anyone who appears to be of those nationalities as lower class. Being an American makes you eligible for more positions at higher pay, but after you get there you may also trip over surprising prejudices.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Anne Hulls says:

    I’m about to move to Riyadh from Melbourne, Australia to work as a house/ Palace manager. I will be living in. My salary is $4000USD per month. (am I being underpaid?) Can anyone give me some insight as to a/ can my employer confiscate my passport, b/ has anyone worked for a prince or princess before (I understand there are hundreds of them) and c/ is there any truth to the rumour that – as I am managing staff I am totally responsible for them- literally. If they steal something, then money will be taken from my wage to pay for it. It sound like folklore to me but I have been told it is very true.
    Please fill me in on this and anything else of importance. Thanks in advance

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    • margocatts says:

      I’m afraid I have no expertise to offer on this, except for b, which is that according to labor laws that are finally being observed, no, no one can take your passport. Not that they won’t make a demand for it, but if they sincerely stick with it, say thank you, get on the plane, and go home. If someone else knows anything about your other questions, speak up! I’ll recommend the Susie of Arabia Facebook group as a good place to pose questions like this. Good luck!

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