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Compound interest

I have mentioned before that we live on a western compound in Riyadh. This allows us to relax in a safe environment where we have a community that consists of like-minded people, and we can all sit around pools and sunbathe and swim as if we were at home. After putting on the factor 50 suncream of course.

Elaine has made the decision not to teach full-time next year, and anyway my contract has only 7 months to go, so if we finish, she would have had to leave the school mid-term. She is now advertising as a private English language tutor. So we have less income to spend on accommodation.

We have been in our current compound since 1st July last year, so in May we went to the compound’s sales & marketing director and asked to renew our contract but at a discounted rate. We were offered 5% off as we had been reliable tenants, but we did not feel this was enough. We spent some time looking at other compounds in the city, and found one that was cheaper, and whilst acceptable, was in a slightly less advantageous location and had fewer facilities. We then went back to the compound sales director and handed in a letter of termination of contract, but did mention in the letter that our monthly budget was X, and if the compound could meet that, we would be willing to talk further. The next day the compound phoned me and invited us back. After further negotiation, we agreed to remain on the compound, but move to a unit that was slightly smaller, but still a 2-bedroom one, and for the rate offered we would pay our utility bills as extras rather than being rolled into the deal. But overall, we had agreed a 30% monthly fee reduction!

So why the willingness for the compound to move to retain us? Its all about demographics. Seven or so years ago, according to the longer serving members of the community in Riyadh, there were waiting lists for people to get into western compounds. Since then, many new compounds have been built, and after the ex-pat population peaked in about 2014, there has been a steady exodus of ex-pats from the country. This is directly linked to the oil prices having fallen, and the Saudi government reining back on projects and building. So at the moment we are in a buyers’ market for compound lets and that suits us just fine. On a slightly wistful note, the compound where we stayed for our first 15 months here, is nearly empty and all our friends there have moved out, or gone home. This is mostly due to the compound being unfavourably situated for many, being outwith the city and the city compounds having reduced their prices such that our old place has lost out. I suspect it is only a matter of time before it is either converted to an out-of-town Saudi weekend recreational residential area, or just left for the desert to reclaim. We keep in touch with those old friends who remain in Riyadh, indeed a couple have moved to our current compound anyway.

Not all westerners live in compounds anyway. For about half the price we are paying, we could rent a town house and live a life outside. Many people we know do just that, and it tends to be the people who have lived in KSA for a while and know the ropes. Life in a compound is certainly easier, all mod cons are on tap. Some of the ladies we know rarely set foot outside the compound and just pretend they are not really in Saudi at all. The furthest they get is on the daily shopping bus that some compounds run for the residents, taking the ladies to malls, or to organised coffee mornings in other compounds. One of my friends disparagingly refers to such ladies as “Compound Kates”. Certainly it is very interesting to meet real Saudis when out and about.

Having moved accommodation in July, our new, but slightly smaller unit did not have enough shelving and storage, so a trip to Al-Ikea was required, to buy some shelves and other home furnishings. One of the things we needed was a table-lamp, so as we went around the indoor maze we stopped in the lighting department to see if they had one that suited our needs. And, yes they did. It came in two models, one with a silver coloured base unit, and one with a gold coloured base (which we chose). Both were the same price. Under the display shelves were boxes of the lamps to take and put into the trolley, but we could only find silver ones there. We found a sales assistant and asked him if there were any gold ones available, but he said they were sold out. I then asked if we could have one of the gold ones on display, but he said no, they were not for sale. We pointed out that there were actually 11 of these gold lamps on display on the shelves. But, no they were not for sale. After a little further conversation it was clear that he was awaiting his turn to attend the customer service academy so we let him go. When he was away “helping” some other people we took a box containing a silver lamp and swapped it for one of the gold ones on the shelf and put it into the trolley.

Next up was buying a cupboard to add to the kitchen. And whilst there was a carcass and doors and shelves and handles on display, they were not available to buy. We had to sit down with a kitchen design consultant, and tell him exactly what we wanted, and he then drew it up on a CAD program on the store’s ordering system. This system could envisage what a full kitchen design would look like, so no doubt was useful for those who were buying more than a supplementary cupboard. Once our simple design was complete, it was announced that it could be ordered and sent from the regional base at Jeddah, taking about 7 days to be delivered. And the top of the 80cm wide cupboard would come as a 183cm slab for us to cut to our desired length. Alternatively, we could pay a 15% surcharge and Al-Ikea would come out and cut and install it themselves. We were now miles from buying a simple cupboard so we gave up and moved on.    

Even if we had bought such a cupboard, getting installation workers into our compound would have been another bureaucratic challenge, as there is strict security around the compound, and we have to submit a visitors list in advance should we wish to invite anyone in. We’ve been told that all visitors are cross-referenced to the compound’s and also to the Ministry of Interior’s blacklists. Visitors have to supply their ID card details (passport or iqama), and on arrival at the visitors’ sign-in point, surrender these for a visitors card and swap them back again on exit. Some compounds have slightly more relaxed visitor arrangements, and others have even more strict ones, but a common feature is registering the visitor and having them hand over their ID at the gate. This gives rise to the common ex-pat phrase in Riyadh, to be “on the gate”, ie on the visitors list for a compound.

Compound security cannot be overstated. Most compounds have specific emergency procedures in place in the eventuality of an attack on the premises, usually some sort of lock-down process. Whilst things in Riyadh are relatively calm just now (apart from the occasional inbound ballistic missile from Yemen), in the past it was not always so, with three compounds being attacked by AlQaeda in 2003 and multiple ex-pats killed. Ever since, the Saudi government has been working closely with the compound managers to promote as safe an environment as possible.

That said, there are risks to safe living everywhere, and for the threat of crime it’s statistically much safer than living in Riyadh than in the average USA city. If only driving and traffic casualties were on a par.

A definite advantage to living in a compound is that the wall keeps out a lot of the worst effects of the windy weather and sandstorms. During a storm there is no hiding from airborne sand particles which blow into the tiniest crevice, but the walls keep out the huge amount of detritus blown about in the streets which make the city very unsightly. Rubbish collection, recycling and general tidiness is a blog topic for another day, though. Our compound employs a small army of landscape gardeners who tend the flora that we have within. This includes palm trees, deciduous trees, hedges, bushes, grass and flowers. The water consumption must be horrendous to keep it all green, and I suppose that’s where a fair chunk of my residency fees go. After sundown a vast labyrinth of irrigation hosing, sprinklers and sprayers burst into action for a couple of hours. On a nice day it can look lovely and I almost forget I am in a dusty arid land, but on a windy day when the sand is blowing about all the leaves end up being covered with a fine film of dry brown stuff. So how do the gardeners get rid of it? – they go around all the hedges etc and hit them with sticks until the sand has dropped to the ground where it is then scooped away. I wonder if that’s where the term “bushwhacked” comes from?


PS. After seven weeks I have now seen my first lady driver on the roads.

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212