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Compound life

One of the biggest questions before moving out here was where to live. My wife and I spent a lot of time on the internet researching options open to a temporary immigrant - or an expat as us foreigners are known.

Some expats live in hotels, and that is a simple choice, just pay your money and you have meals on tap and your room cleaned and bed made daily.  Or you can rent a room in an apartment block with or without service options. There are many such apartments across Riyadh. Houses/villas can be rented too, with or without maid. This sounds awfully colonial, doesn't it!

But there are different classes of expat. I am one of the fortunate white collar ones, people paid a good salary and able to enjoy the freedoms – such as they are – of Saudi life. I am able to hire a car, choose my own accommodation, and come and go using my own passport as I wish. As long as I do what my contract holder expects of me, that’s fine. There are the less fortunate people who are very restricted in what they do. Typically these are site construction workers or manual labourers (native Saudis don’t do that sort of work). These are people shipped in from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh or the Philippines, who live in camps and work seven days a week, from dawn until dusk. They are bussed daily from their camps – typically tin hut shanty towns outside the city – to their worksites. These workers are (I am told) hired by the 1000 and paid enough to send some money home, and when here they receive food and shelter. They have no access to their passports so are captive workers. It makes me realise how fortunate I am, and we in Europe are in general.

My wife and I spent most of my pre-contract time looking at western expat compounds. You can get a flavour of what they are like from a desktop survey, but that is no substitute to actually visiting them and seeing things first hand. So in my first two weeks here I spent a lot of time booking appointments and visiting compounds. As my office is to the north of Riyadh city centre, it made sense only to look at those which are in the same quadrant of the city. We are close to the financial district, some hospitals and some universities so there is a strong demand for accommodation, and fortunately there is plentiful supply. Some compounds were non-starters for me on grounds of cost, and those were the largest ones where there were fantastic facilities including international schools within the walls. I was looking for one with modest cost, reasonable facilities and within 30 minutes drive from the office. Once I got out here I was able to refine the list by speaking to colleagues and other expats I met. I'll save you the long story, but I was able to choose and reserve a two room apartment in a compound about 20 minutes to the north of the office. It is outside the built up area of the city and the traffic is very easy compared with city driving. There is still plenty of motoring muppetry to be seen on my commute (see blogs passim) but at least out here the traffic flows freely.

Like all compounds in the Kingdom there is serious security around it. I don't think I should go into details, but there is no chance that you could walk in unintentionally. Back in 2003 there were AlQaeda attacks on three compounds in Riyadh, and since then security and intelligence has been stepped up. I am not going to try to explain the complexities of middle eastern tensions, you can read about that elsewhere.  

Some companies in KSA which have a lot of staff on the ground here (banks, petrochemicals, construction etc) have their own compounds, but to be honest I wouldn't fancy living with people I work with. This is no slight to my colleagues, I just want to switch off after work.

Once inside the compound one is effectively in a western enclave. The rules of society outside are out of sight and mind, and you can relax. My compound has open air swimming pools, a restaurant, coffee bar, sports facilities including a well-appointed gym, covered tennis courts, sports hall, squash courts, running track and other facilities too. Leisure includes a cinema, a 10 pin bowling alley, saunas and spas. There's a wee shop which sells essentials. But when choosing this compound the thing that I liked best about it was the atmosphere, which was a lot more relaxed than the other places I looked at. In the compound we have an eclectic mix of nationalities and professions, and folk realise we are all in it together and make an effort to get along. There is a compound residents' social media network which lets us know what is going on. 

Thursday night is party night in the compound. It's the start of the weekend. Residents can - and do - invite guests in. The restaurant sets up an open air buffet/grill/spit roast and you can eat all you want for a flat fee. They get the large screens out and project films or sports live on them. (Should be good with a summer of sport coming up). It is a lot quieter on other nights. During the days on Fridays and Saturdays residents gather around the pools and chill. As a confirmed sun-dodger I have identified a couple of shady spots where I can sit and read, drink mocktails, write blogs etc. Residents run a communal library with all books once read by their owner, put in for general use. A popular pastime for some is smoking from those arabian charcoal and water bongs. Not for me though.

The first few weeks here have been taken up with purchasing and setting up all the household stuff I need to survive. The apartment has all the furniture and kitchen white goods I need, so I have had to write lists of things to buy and then go and get them. I started with essentials for the first night - soap and towels, cereal, milk, bread, tea, coffee, mugs, glasses, crockery and cutlery etc, and over the next week or so this expanded into minor kitchen utensils, clothes washing accoutrements etc. I have got to know the layout of several of the city supermarkets very well. 

This has involved a lot of cost up front. The company I am working for has helped me by providing a six-month loan for the compound fees, and I pay this back in instalments off my income. So, there you are, an introduction to compound life.

Next weekend, I shall have to leave and re-enter KSA in order to keep my business visa valid (max 30 days stay before it expires). So where shall I go?  I'll let you know later! 

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