Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Compound Interest

There are many gated communities here in Saudi Arabia, which are called compounds. Some are large with many services provided and others are small. These compounds are not only gated, but most of them have security or even armed guards 24 hours a day. Compounds provide housing for foreigners who have come to the Kingdom to work, although more and more Saudi families are opting to enjoy the freedoms that come with compound living. Both family and singles housing are available for rent and are usually furnished. With singles housing, you might be assigned a roommate, sort of like college dorms except nicer accommodations. As an incentive, most work contracts include some type of housing allowance for the workers, which could cover all or at least most of the cost of renting in a compound.
 Not only does the compound provide a relatively safe environment for its residents, but the people residing in the compounds actually have a lot more freedom and activities than someone in my position. Inside the compounds, inhabitants can dress however they want - in other words, women don't have to cover their hair or wear the abaya. The larger compounds even have recreation centers, convenience stores, gyms, transportation, libraries, bowling alleys, restaurants, swimming pools, beauty parlors, etc. There are also many social events, clubs, classes, and sporting activities, plus many family oriented activities that go on within the confines of the compounds. Many larger compounds even employ a social events planner to keep residents involved and busy.
Within these walls, residents have learned how to make their own moonshine (alcohol is strictly prohibited) and others hold worship services in their homes, since Islam is the only religion allowed in Saudi Arabia. Some employers discourage workers from venturing outside the compound’s walls, citing safety issues. I have read that some 60% of the population here are foreigners. There are still many jobs here, like manual labor and service jobs, that are beneath the Saudis, and are filled by mostly Asian workers from the Philippines, India, or Pakistan. Higher paying professional positions in healthcare, communications, defense, and of course oil, are mostly held by Western workers from Europe or the USA.

Unfortunately as a result, one of the consequences of compound living is that many people who come here to work rarely get to experience what life is REALLY like outside the gates of their compound. The problem as I see it is that they are living in a foreign country yet not really experiencing what the country is really like since they are isolated from its society. I wonder how many foreign workers have actually made true friendships within the Arab community, or have been invited into an Arab home for dinner, or have attended a Saudi wedding. Unless required for their job, very few foreign workers learn the language and not many are able to assimilate into the society and culture. The ones who do generally don’t live in compounds and are married to Saudis or other Middle Easterners.
Despite their separation from Saudi society in general, most of the accounts that I have read that were written by those who have lived here under those conditions had overwhelmingly positive experiences.

In Saudi Arabia, compound living keeps the foreigners from socializing and interacting with the country’s citizens, a situation that succeeds at curbing the influences of the Western world from seeping into the society here. Score one for the Saudi government.


  1. I often wonder about expat wives living in these compounds. What sort of social programmes are in place that would allow these women, who can't work, to make friends w/ Saudi women? Even if their spouses worked w/ Saudi men, it would be considered inappropriate in most cases to inquire about one another's wives, thereby preventing a "couples" friendship from forming. I'm sure there are more progressive Saudi couples out there that might not be as bound to those societal norms as others. I'm just wondering if there are groups that women can join that would provide opportunities to meet and get to know Saudi women. Not having a family/friend connection can make this much more challenging experience-particularly for those who cannot work.

  2. Hi CairoGal -
    You raise some really interesting questions. By no means am I an expert in this area, having only been in the country now for 5 months, but my impression is that there are really no social programs whereby expat wives could get to know Saudi women. One of the reasons for isolating foreign workers to the compounds is to protect Saudi women from the influences of the outside world. I think that Saudi men who attended Western universities might be more open to possibly forming friendships with expats here, which could then spill over to include the wives.
    Expat women who work will likely only meet other expat women who work, since it is still quite rare for Saudi women to work outside the home, even though many of them have advanced degrees. Those expat wives who don't work can only bond with others in their compound, many of them forming lifelong friendships because of what they endure and experience together.

  3. After having lived in Saudi (and in Western compounds) on 3 separate occasions, I feel that I can speak on this subject very knowledgebly.

    I did enjoy, for the most part, living in Saudi in the Western compounds. I enjoyed going shopping and some of the other limited activities that we Western women were allowed to do.

    I think it would have been interesting to get to meet some of the Saudi people and to get to know more about their culture.

    However this is almost an impossiblity due to the fact that the Saudi government and the Saudi culture itself does not allow this tye of interaction very easily.

    You say that you wonder how many of the Westerners living in the compounds have gone to a Saudi wedding or made friends with the Saudis as though it is the fault of the Westerner for not doing so.

    On the other hand, how many of the Saudis have tried to make friends with the Westerners inside the compounds and invite them into their homes and into their activities? I would venture to say not many.

    I was fortunate to have been invited into 1 Saudi home, a Saudi co-worker of my husband, for a little get-together. The men and the women were separated into 2 different groups and did not mingle.

    Kristie Leigh Maguire

  4. Thanks for your input, Kristie!
    I was hoping someone who had experience with compound living in Arabia might chime in!
    I think it's a shame that interaction between the Westerners who live and work here and the Saudis themselves is discouraged and doesn't really happen. Unless you have an "in" like I do, it would be very difficult to get to know the people here and vice versa, which is just such a shame.
    My husband is constantly telling me I need to be careful, that I might get snatched or raped if I am alone or I get lost. I don't know how realistic this is, but I just don't feel afraid here. Is he just being overprotective? Is he a bit paranoid? Of course I have been wrong before and some may even call me naive.
    I was not placing any fault with those who live in the compounds for not being able to break through this wall of protection that the Saudis have built around themselves. By no means did I mean to imply that it was at all the fault of the expats who come here. The point I was trying to make is that it is just a shame that you can come and live here in this country and still not really get to know its people. It makes me sad. It's like you're on the outside looking in and not privy to what really goes on in their society. And that's a shame.

  5. I've lived in Egypt and the UAE. My first year in the UAE I was teaching young children. Forming close friendships w/ the parents of students was discouraged, mainly because some parents would use that familiarity to get a little extra "help" for their kids. With that said, about 10% of my students were Emirati. My colleagues: Lebanese, Indian, Jordanian, Egyptian...absolutely no Emiratis (male or female).

    So it was obviously hard to make friends w/ Emiratis like I did w/ other nationalities. Contrast that w/ working in Egypt in which many of my colleagues were Egyptians. They were very welcoming, and it was not uncommon at all to be invited over for dinner, out for coffee, etc. I did all of this as a single, western woman. Forming friendships w/ Egyptian families was much easier. Obviously men and women are less restricted, and it's perfectly normal to sit down to dinner w/ your friend, her husband, her BIL, and other family members.

    When I moved back to the UAE I taught university students. Some of my students in the evening were Emirati women in the workforce. This was the first time in 3 years in the UAE in which I was invited out for dinner (not over to their homes) by my adult students-women more or less my own age.

    There are a lot of variables to consider: the language skills of women in your age group (both of the foreigner and the local), the number of women you come in contact with (Emiratis are small in number), the openess of both parties, the relationship between the two parties.

    I'm 35 and it has been my experience that many Emirati women my age don't speak English well enough to carry a conversation. This may very well change for those 10 years younger, but where the country was when women like me were growing up seriously impacted this. Then take my Arabic: most of what I know was learned in Cairo and was done so out of necessity. The same necessity does not exist when the taxi drivers are Indian and Pakistani (and can thus communicate). Never mind that Egyptian Arabic differs greatly from the Arabic in the Gulf. And those classed I took? Classical Arabic only goes so far to help w/ day to day interaction. My students only went out to dinner w/ me because they felt comfortable speaking around me. I was a teacher willing to listen, interpret, etc. They were used to me.

    Susie, you're very fortunate to have the bond of family that encourages Saudi women, who might not otherwise make friendships w/ American women, to feel comfortable enough to do so. Perhaps it's the fact that your husband's reputation and relation to them "guaratees" you as a honourable member of the family. Indeed, many women married to men in the Arab world have a much different experience than those who are not.

    Now, with all of that said, there are certainly loads of foreigners in KSA and around the region who never want to know anything about the culture, the language, the people...for anyone who might be remotely intrigued, societal norms w/in KSA seem to create missed opportunity at every turn.

    Sorry for such a long comment!! I didn't mean to hijack the thread. It is an interesting topic. We're headed back to the Gulf this August, and I view this new experience very differently than the one I started 10 years ago.

  6. Hi CairoGal -
    It is really interesting how different these Middle Eastern countries can be from one another. Saudi Arabia definitely feels like such a closed society - the people are very private, the women are all covered up, men and women cannot socialize, etc. Egyptians are so much more relaxed and open.
    I do realize how fortunate I am indeed. I know other American women who married Saudis and were not welcomed into the family as I have been. I count my lucky stars every day - or should I say night?
    Thanks so much for your insight into how different these countries are.

  7. I did not get the impression you blamed it on the expats. I readjust that it is very difficult and discouraged to meet saudi's.

    So I'm glad you do not live there! Your blog would have been a lot less interesting if you had lived in a compound too Susie!

    I think you are very fortunate in having this wonderful loving family.

  8. Hi Susie,
    "compound living keeps the foreigners from socializing and interacting with the country’s citizens, a situation that succeeds at curbing the influences of the Western world from seeping into the society here"
    Excellent observation, never thought about this point before! :)

    Oh, and congrats, news is confirmed..You will be driving with other women on Saudi streets soon ;)

  9. To Arabilluminist -
    Wow! That is unbelievable news about the driving - such progress!!! Thanks for letting us know.

  10. To a certain extent I think some of this is a part of American culture, at least in some circles.

    I have never lived in Saudi, but I lived abroad working for the US Department of Defense and was born in Europe to parents in the US military.

    You'd be surprised how many American service members actually thought it a badge of honour to brag about never having been farther than 10 miles from their base.

    I heard that several times in my last station in England. You couldnt blame the language issue there. There were just many Americans, even though they were living abroad, that felt no need to go out and see anything or get to know anyone local.

    I saw that in Europe from England to Germany, Americans living for years in foreign countries with no interest in getting to know anything about their host country.

    I remember coming back to the US after living in England. I was working for a military contractor in Alaska. I shared an office with a young lady who proudly announced that she felt no need to travel abroad, there is nothing worth seeing outside of America.

    There are more than a few Americans working and living abroad who feel the same way. They make good money abroad, but are just interested in getting the money and keeping at arms length from locals.

    It is sad.

  11. From Cory,
    Very interesting stuff and a good series of comments on it.

  12. Wow, AbuSinan!
    I must say I am shocked! I can understand going to make money, but not to take advantage of the experience of living in a foreign land and learning about the culture is just inconceivable to me. I honestly never imagined there were people like that! And the woman who said that "there's nothing worth seeing outside America," that just strikes me as really ignorant. Thanks for enlightening me! My jaw is still on the floor!

  13. What Abu Sinan described seems to be really common among military, military contractors, etc. The oil industry also seems chock full of this type. When I lived in Cairo I had a conversation w/ a young military contractor. It started w/ his statement that, "These women (Egyptian women) would do anything to have an American passport. They'd love to marry an American guy." Anyone who has any insight into local culture would know this was wrong, and that the poor dude was the victim of a young woman having a bit of fun and a free meal at his expense. Still, I realised that as a teacher I had such a different experience from the wife of a Shell employee. I don't think it's all Americans, because the UAE is full of Britons who do the exact same thing. I really think it has to do with what takes them to this foreign nation. If money is your prime reason for expatriating you tend to be less invested in the cultural experience of it all.

  14. I was lucky to have lived six years in a compound and six years in the city, so I got a good taste of both systems.

    The compounds are indeed lovely, well furnished, and made very comfortable for Westerners. To this day, I miss the beautiful compound in which I lived, with its magnificent gardens surrounding its huge swimming pool.

    Moving to the city (with my new husband) was like moving to another country! By that time, however, I knew enough Arabic to blend in. Only our two closest neighbors knew I was American.

    In both locations, I was able to meet people of many nationalities. I did not meet as many Saudis as I would have liked, for the reasons mentioned above.

    Meeting Saudis in Saudi Arabia is a bit of a challenge. One must look for opportunities. I once sat next to a young Saudi man on an airplane who invited me to the first and most lavish wedding I ever saw.

  15. Hi CairoGal -
    I'm just so surprised to hear all this. There's nothing wrong with making money, but what a missed opportunity to not educate yourself from a priceless experience like living abroad! I do think educators like yourself might see the hidden value in working overseas because you value learning and realize the importance of education - and I can't think of a more valuable learning experience than being able to live in a foreign country. Thanks again for your informative comments.

  16. Hi Marahm -
    I think it is so cool that you were able to experience Arabia both in and out of the compound. Sometimes I wish I had the freedoms that compound living offers, but I am having such a great experience as it is. I just wish my Arabic was better than it is - then it would be just perfect! Thanks for sharing your insight.

  17. I think many expats that take contracts in Saudi (and this used to include all of the Gulf) are prepped to expect that making friends will be hard, that society will be closed to them and their values, etc. It's not a justification, but while I go abroad for a combination of reasons, many people do it because it's part of their job-point blank. It doesn't help that when you enter the country everything about your value and belief system is not only rejected but forbidden by law. I personally would not be too interested in living in Saudi simply because there just isn't enough there to make it worth my while. The societal restrictions limit so many things that I personally enjoy in life. Now... the Gulf is generally not the hotbed of culture, but it's getting better in Saudi's neighbouring states. I don't believe in having a "little America" when I'm abroad (though the Gulf does a great job of recreating this in the form of shopping malls) nor do I expect that same level of liberal allowances that I get back home. Though, I would say many expats do, tragically.

    I've been reading a lot of blogs of expats living in the Qatar and the UAE, and it seems that the expats are better able to make friends w/ Qataris and Emiratis. Perhaps there is hope yet for expats in Saudi.

  18. When I came to Kuwait, it was to work, and I was single and not Muslim. We don't have compounds like in Saudi, but there are areas where Westerners like to live, and I saw a lot of the attitudes that Abu Sinan mentioned. Americans but also Britons, working at the British schools, for example. For example, many of them - even people who live here for many years - have no interest in learning even one word of Arabic (and it's easy enough for them to get by without it), and they even complain that their chldren have to take an Arabic class in school.

    Which is all kind of funny when you hear the comments in the UK about foreigners (meaning Muslims usually) who don't blend into British culture enough, who still speak their native language, etc...

    As far as making friends with local women, I also found that when I became Muslim, suddenly Kuwaiti women became much closer to me and more likely to invite me into their homes. My co-workers had always been nice to me, but there was a huge difference when I was Muslim. In fact, one family pretty much adopted me and considered me like one of their sisters, and then I went to the family lunches every weekend, weddings, parties, etc.

  19. To CairoGal and Ann -
    You both have made some really interesting points!
    I'm sure that the fact that many expats are not Muslim plays an important role in how they are viewed and treated in this country.

  20. I've been reading the comments about the unwillingness of foreign/American workers in the compounds to associate/assimilate with the host culture. I thought it was interesting the parallel with the hispanic population we have here in the US. We often see them in the same light. Of course no matter how many people you meet with that mindset, there are a lot of people who want to assimilate. Still, it's just human nature to stick with what's familiar. The one difference is the people in the compounds go there to work. The Latins who come here, come to live.
    Still, the way I see it, they're all free to make the choice as to whether they want to experience the culture or not.
    I personally cannot imagine spending time in another country and not experiencing what it's like to live as they do.

  21. Hi Linda -
    I guess this happens more than we think in this world!
    Thanks - good point.

  22. Hello Susie!
    I lived in Jeddah for almost 8 years (1993-2001)and my children and I fondly remember it as 'home' - thus, reading your blog and seeing your photos makes me a bit homesick. Things I miss most are Al Baik, shawarma, roundabouts with the public art, the sculptures along the corniche...And most notably, I think Jeddah is the prettiest city in the world to fly into at night.
    You are so fortunate to experience the true culture that Saudi offers. I believe I have a few friends still there, so if you are looking for some contacts let me know.

  23. Hi Elise -
    I'm so glad my blog and photos have brought back some fond memories for you! You can tell that I too find Jeddah an incredible place. There are several photo links down on the left side column of the blog that you might like to see as well. One album is solely dedicated to just the Sculptures of Jeddah, which I keep adding to.
    That would be great if you have any old friends still here in Jeddah. You can email me at:
    Thanks so much!
    By the way, one of my very best friends is named Elise too!

  24. One has to be careful when speaking of western compounds as to the "parameters" of the compounds themselves. For example, some of the western compounds mean just that...westerners or expats only; Saudis are prohibited from entering such compounds. Others may say Westerners but allow Saudi guests -- but in western dress only (although a hijjab is allowed for women).

    However if one is a western/expat woman and wish to meet Saudi women, some good ways are to get involved in differing clubs, go to various lectures, benefits and charity activities. Alternatively if one has school age children, this is also an excellent venue in which to get acquainted through the children.

    Anyone living on a western compound will likely tell you there are a variety of activities from which to choose and keep busy! As Susie described, much of western compound life is made to simulate a typical western community and lifestyle.

    I live in an all-Saudi compound and although I have been in this particular location for a year, I have yet to meet another Saudi woman within my compound. All of the villas within the compound have high 10 - 12 foot walls around each villa so it is not easy to see or meet anyone. However I remain optimistic that at some point I'll get to know the neighbors! (inshallah)

    Best Regards,
    American Bedu

  25. Thanks, American Bedu -
    For clarifying that there are different types of compounds catering to different clientele. I do hope you will get to meet some of your neighbors eventually!

  26. Susie,
    What a good read, thank you.

  27. Hi Susie,
    I enjoyed your site. I am currently seeking employment with Alsalam Aircraft in Jeddah. I found your site seeking info on their accomadations. I lived in Kuwait for 16 years. The situation there is alot more relaxed than in Saudi. We had no compound and lived in Kuwaiti neighborhoods where we were treated very well. My wife and 3 sons lived there with me. We were quite assimilated as my wife taught school there and my sons had almost all kuwaiti or half kuwait friends. If I get hired at Alsalam my wife intends to persue a teaching job there next school year. I hope we have a similar social experience as we love arab culture and enjoy immersing ourselves in their culture. I do speak some arabic, mostly Kuwaiti Bedoui dialect. I was hoping you or some of your fellow bloggers could give me any info on the Alsalam compound. Shukran habibti. Say Salam to your guys from me.

  28. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  29. Interesting yet again Susie to find a world within a world LOL!

    I think often some foreign women esp Muslims live in compounds here in their homes. Since many of them also never leave the home and their cushy lives are worlds away from the reality of the country. Sad I think!