Tag Archives: desert

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:


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.



The Edge of The World

Or “The Day I Learned That Camels Like Bananas”

Waking up the kids on a weekend takes tactical decision making. Any activity you have planned had better be well worth the drama and heartache of ruining an entire day of Xbox and compound-roaming with friends. To find the perfect weekend adventure, I cruised the internet until I found The Edge of the World. It sounds like an ominous apocalyptic prophecy, or maybe a cheesy Tom Cruise sic-fi movie, but it was near the top of TripAdvisor for Riyadh, so we made plans.
Early this morning, we harassed the munchkins and loaded them into The Beast (our rented Suburban) and headed for the rendezvous point. Fifteen minutes late, but that’s not bad for a Saturday.DSC_0263
Our amazing tour guide, Maz, advised us that the day would completely revolve around our every whim. With that new-found freedom, we voted for breakfast. This, you might guess, was not a drive-thru fast food joint:
After enough carb-loading for a marathon, we jumped back in the truck for the 80 mile drive into the desert. I was glad we had hired Maz, as the directions I found on the internet included references to GPS coordinates and bringing extra supplies. As it turns out, once we were in the vicinity, we could’ve just followed the herd of SUVs:
Along the way, we crossed paths with the other indigenous species of Saudi Arabia, the camel. Our guide expertly paralleled the nearest group, and lured them over with a banana:
He was then rewarded with a kiss. I think he had mixed feelings about the camel’s amorous overtures.
The other camels soon figured out the scam, and wanted in on the action…
and wouldn’t take “I have no more bananas” for an answer..

Before the kids could really amp up the “are we there yet” chorus, we reached the end of the trail. No signs, no ranger stations, and certainly no guard rails or amenities. The hiking and views were, however, world-class.
We discovered an invasive species of mountain goat that is notorious for leaving granola-bar wrappers strewn throughout their habitat:
Most importantly, we had quality family time without losing anyone to a long free-fall.


Maz gave us a bucket list of places to visit in the Arabian peninsula, and we can’t wait to take everyone along via the blog. Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue visitor visas, so we are looking forward to unspoiled wilderness and many opportunities to ruin our kids’ weekend social lives.