Tag Archives: Arabia

Living in the ‘Pound: A Glimpse of Life on a Western Compound in Saudi Arabia

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mada’in Salah, the Cursed Tombs of the Nabateans

Around Halloween, you can’t beat a haunted house for a little spooky fun. If you are fortunate enough to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, the ultimate taboo is Mada’in Salah. The dark history of this place extends back to the period of the Nabateans, the architects of Petra; their civilization extended into the Arabian peninsula, and their trademark sandstone tombs can be found there as well. According to our local guides, the Quran describes this area and its inhabitants as cursed. Something about killing a sacred camel; thereafter, Muslims have avoided this area. Our flight to the neighboring airport even flew a longer path to avoid the obviously dangerous airspace above the tombs; ironically, it took us closer to Iraq, but I guess you choose your risks in life.

Next to the World Heritage Site around the tombs, there is a restored portion of the Hijaz railway; not the exact section blown up by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, but close enough.

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There are two unique qualities of this tourist attraction; the first is that, being declared cursed, you won’t find many local Saudis there. Secondly, being under the protection of the tourism board, you also won’t find any Muttawa (religious police), so the few tourists there tend to be western women in yoga pants enjoying the freedom to hike without an abaya!

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Look! Her ankles are almost showing! Scandalous.

Once you arrive at the tombs, the differences with Petra are astounding. No gypsies, no swarms of tourists, not even a gift shop! Also, no marked trails, no tour guides (bring your own), no place to buy water (bring your own), no snack shops (you get the point…).

It is just you and the work of the Nabateans:

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You can wander around freely, as long as you pack plenty of water and have a four wheel drive to navigate the “road” on site.

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The edifices are not as grand as Petra, so after an hour or two of exploring, you can shift gears and climb the bizarre rock formations that give the area a truly haunted feel.

 

 

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Nearby, at the end of an unmarked dirt trail, you can find Elephant Rock. Actually, you would never find it on your own, but hopefully your guide knows where it is!

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Like any travel adventure, there are a few nuances to traveling in this area. Because it is close to the Jordan/Iraq border, there are some people who are somewhat less friendly to Westerners. In fact, the local police Captain arranged an escort to and from the airport:

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We were almost late because our driver had evidently planned on driving at twice the legal limit, and had to maintain a slightly less insane pace. Of course, police escorts don’t eliminate the other hazards of crossing the desert T. E. Lawrence-style. Like waiting for road crews to move a sand dune off of the road:

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Or yielding to four-legged pedestrians:

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I’ll probably never set foot on Mars, but it would feel familiar there I think:

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There’s something appealing about venturing into that which is forbidden; I’m glad we were able to visit before the area is developed and is littered with chain hotels and tourist traps. Add in the vast desert landscape and achingly beautiful sunsets as a backdrop, and Mada’in Salah makes for a perfect Halloween weekend getaway.

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Open Doors

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Saudi Arabia has undergone a generational shift that would leave the Baby Boomers’ heads spinning. Thirty years ago, it was common to live in “muddy houses” made of an adobe-like brick.

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Those same Arabs are now driving Land Cruisers and helping me get up to speed on the latest apps for our smartphones. Most Saudis have visited more places in Europe and North America than I have. This rush to catch up with western culture has inevitably left traditional Arab culture behind in some ways; only the silly visitors from outside the kingdom want to visit the old places and see the old ways!

A colleague invited me to his family “farm”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so we brought sleeping bags and bug spray.

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Turns out that those were not necessary. This was the guest house we “camped out” in:

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Oh, it felt like roughing it in the wilderness- we only brought one iPad charger! The kids even had to share a room, and the air conditioning worked so well they were a little cold. Tragic. I was disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to milk a camel; maybe next time.

Our hosts took us on a tour of “Old” Saudi Arabia, which started with an open-air souq (market):

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I wanted to buy the ’63 T-bird and the black powder pistol from the Ottoman Empire era. Neither would make it through customs I suppose, so I was forced to leave them behind.

I don’t recall the name of the pastries we tried, but I will always remember the woman working over a gas-fired oven in the midst of the desert heat. Any North American would have been reduced to a puddle of sweat with a slick of sunscreen on top as the only remains.

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The old village, which was occupied only 30 years ago, is slowly melting back into the desert it was molded from. The occupants have all moved to modern housing in the small city nearby, or on to the glitzy lifestyle of Riyadh and Jeddah. The guard/guide at the entrance looked surprised to see us; I got the feeling he doesn’t typically receive many visitors when the temperature is over 110.

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An acquaintance of our acquaintance collects antiquities, and was more than happy to let us share his air conditioning and private collection. I liked the display of Arab media consumption through the past 6 decades:

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This gentleman farmer also collects birds, and led us through his garden aviary filled with birds of paradise.

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As a gift, he insisted we take two Love Birds; if only they could be fed the enormous box of dates we also couldn’t refuse, we would be in great shape for bird-caring. We accepted the birds, thinking they must have the life span of goldfish or Sea Monkeys, but it turns out they may live up to 15 years. If getting an antique Ottoman firearm through the airport would be difficult, I can’t imagine what trouble these birds will be.