Dogs are not welcome in Saudi Arabia. Foreigners are not welcome in general, but dogs are particularly unwelcome. In many countries, an imported animal must be kept in quarantine to prevent spreading unwanted diseases to the native herds; that’s what it’s like to live in Saudi Arabia as a westerner. The Saudis are kind and friendly, but to protect their social structure, they must be protected from the rabid influence of the immigrant workers that keep the economic wheels turning. The liberal social customs of imported workers could infect the poorly inoculated locals, leading to chaos and destruction- at least that would be the conclusion of an outside observer visiting the “western” compounds that house the many workers from around the world.
The truth is, as always, more complex. Many expats live within Saudi neighborhoods, and culture, with minimal difficulty. This living arrangement involves a very clear and non-negotiable arrangement, however; you must abide by Saudi traditions and customs. Women must be covered in public (including the abaya and something to cover her hair, such as a niqab or hijab), and they cannot drive. Well, actually this woman from British Airways can drive, but only on the runway:
In fact, unmarried or unrelated men and women may not mix at all. This is supposed to include the workplace, although typically this just involves separate sections of the cafeteria or lecture hall. An interesting paradox is the “driver” culture; because women may not drive, there is a huge industry of professional drivers that chauffeur women and families to their destinations. The irony is that, of course, these men are not related nor married to the women they are spending time with. I guess we all rationalize away those things that might upset our worldview.
Life is different, however, on the compounds. Separated from Saudi culture by a bubble of reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire, inside you will find an oasis of progressive ideology, mixing of men and women, and even cinemas!
From the outside, you think you are entering a maximum security prison. Maybe you are.
Once inside, however, women can shed their abayas, men can wear shorts that go as far above the knees as they dare, and unrelated boys and girls can ride bikes, swim, and engage in whichever activities their home culture deems appropriate.
Bikes, typically off-limits to Saudi girls, are everywhere on the larger compounds. They transport kids, teachers, even burgers! Bikes can even be used to pick up refreshments that are definitely not allowed. Hypothetically speaking, so I’ve heard.
When you choose your Scotch-like beverage based on the number of months it has been aged, rather than years, you know you are living in an alternate universe. Another sign that there is a little home-brewing going on is the bulk purchasing of grape juice at the local supermarkets:
Another difference between the wealthy Gulf Coast Countries and the real world is the attitude toward laborers. In North America and Europe, a street sweeper is a machine. Here, it is typically a guy from Bangladesh who probably makes just enough money to pay off the agent that arranged his visa and (at best) send some home to feed his family.
Once you venture outside of the compound, everyone has to conform to the local customs. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or meet amazing people.
Camping and off-roading are one of the few activities that allow you to escape the gilded cage of compound life. Fortunately, there’s plenty of desert for everyone.
Sometimes, the desert comes to you. Our kids looked forward to the occasional sand storm, as this usually resulted in cancellation of school.
My favorite photos from Arabia are mostly sunsets, perhaps representative of how hard and barren life in Saudi Arabia can be, and how that focuses one’s appreciation on beauty and peace that can’t be repressed.
After a while, aspects of Saudi culture that I found shocking or hilarious became normal. It has been revealing to scroll back through those memories and relive the initial emotions upon arriving for the first time.
I appreciate that my family and I were able to explore this part of the world while having a comfortable home that felt like “home”, replete with Girl Scouts, soccer, and lemonade stands.
My prediction for the future is that Saudi culture will change radically in the next few years; combined with the departure of many of the western workers, it is likely that the compounds will become enclaves for western-minded Saudis. I hope they enjoy the lemonade and Thin Mints.