Saudi Arabia: The Western Compound


Life on a western compound in Saudi Arabia reminds me in many ways of life on a large embassy compound when posted outside of ones home (western) country.  There is housing.  There is security.  There are amenities.  There are rules and restrictions.

Like a large embassy compound, housing on a western compound can be varied in that there might be a mix of villas, townhomes and apartments.  Yet because the concept of a western compound is to provide a feeling of “home” the housing is also more oriented to what a westerner is accustomed.  There will not be walls separating the houses from one another.  The interiors will likely have an “open” theme where one can see from one room into another without doors to close off rooms such as in many Saudi homes for easy segregation.  Most of the housing on the compound will have a western style kitchen complete with a dishwasher.  The kitchen counters and cabinets are unlikely to be easily transportable on rollers.  Kitchens in western compounds are made to stay and last unlike in some Saudi homes or apartments where prefabricated moveable kitchen units are preferred.  The western kitchen on a compound –will- come equipped with a stove and refrigerator.

Like an embassy compound, western compounds are equipped with physical and perimeter security.  The compound will have high walls surrounding the compound property.  There may be heavy twisted barbed wire atop the walls.  There will likely be surveillance cameras outside and inside compound property.  The compound will have physical security and generally require multiple security check points before one comes to a final security checkpoint at the entry/exit point of the compound itself.  Security will be provided by both Saudi Arabian National Guard and private security employees who work directly for the compound management.

Then there are the amenities.  While amenities can vary from compound to compound it is safe to say that typical amenities of a compound will include swimming pool, restaurant(s), laundry services, tailor, hair salon, playground, tennis courts, community room, fitness center, library and shuttle bus services. In addition some compounds will have a golf course, bar(s), basketball courts, bowling alley, (small) grocery store, nursery/daycare services, Arabic classes, horseback riding and theatre.

For many expatriates who have come from a western country to Saudi Arabia the compound is a feeling of home and more.  Depending on the size of the compound and the number of amenities offered, compound life can be similar to living an “international country club lifestyle within a gated community.”

Is compound life an isolated bubble or oasis among the shifting sands of Saudi Arabia?  Yes, it can be; if the expatriate allows it to be so.  Some expatriates after working day after day look forward to returning to their exclusive oasis where once they enter through the gate of their compound have that relief of tension knowing they are home and back in an environment of familiarity and tranquility.  Some dependents of expatriate workers are quite happy within the secure walls of the compound where they find the compound lifestyle less stressful and with more activity options available and to their liking than the community in which they lived back in their home country.

There are Muslims from western countries who have chosen to accept employment opportunities which bring them to Saudi Arabia. Some of these western Muslims may have lived in gated communities back in their home country. However a western compound may not be a suitable accommodation for a western born Muslim in Saudi Arabia.  Some of the western compounds prohibit Muslim women from covering their faces inside the compound’s public area.  A western Muslim is not prohibited from wearing a hijjab but western Muslim families who elect to live in a western compound may be required to sign a contract that they understand and will abide by the regulations of head cover and appropriate dress.  Some compounds also prohibit residents or guests of residents to appear in public areas of the compound wearing either an abaya or thobe.

70 Responses

  1. I think most westerners living on compounds live in bubbles. Although a compound can feel like a haven, it can also become a prison.

    The utopia that westerners try to create inside produces an even bigger gap between cultures.
    Occupants rarely venture out much let alone mix with locals.Most western compounds don’t allow Saudis inside at all.

    These rules imposed on everyone inside the compunds are just ridiculous in my opinion.
    Actually its thame oppression of dress but the other way around! Abayas are forbidden, headscarves are forbidden! There is no freedom of dress in Saudi Arabia even inside the compounds of the “free” westerners.
    What is this based on?
    Is it some sort of revenge toward the rules in saudi?
    “we hate wearing abayas so much we’ll ban them inside”
    I also dont understand the logic of banning thobes and headscarves..
    I think its sad that they would want to be so narrow-minded and backward about it.
    Just like the saudis they complain about?

  2. sorry for my spelling i meant “the same oppression”

    guess its bedtime for me!

  3. Hell…if I lived like this in Bahrain maybe I wouldnt have hated it so much.



  4. I do understand the rules and why they don’t allow arab/muslim dress for the most part. Most westerners who work there want to feel at home and those who are not muslim would not wear any of that garb. It is a sanctuary of sorts for the westerners.

    But in the broader view of things I think that it is crazy that the compounds are even required because of Saudi’s insistence on segregation, abayas and the like. A westerner can’t wear what they like and find comfortable so they have to have this elaborate system. To me that is the silly part of the whole thing. If there was freedom of dress (maybe with some modifications…like no bikinis or whatever) and no discrimination about how people dress then these compounds would not be necessary.

  5. While the concept of the western compounds may seem foreign or interpreted due to the particular customs of Saudi Arabia, I purposely compared the western compound to an embassy compound because of the many similarities. Even in countries where there is no segregation, an embassy compound is reflective of the nationality and culture of its inhabitants. At some embassy compounds there can be restrictions on the admission of individuals for various reasons.

    An exception to Saudi is that some of the compounds do have their own regulations pertaining to dress.

    I agree with the comment that a western compound, like an embassy compound, can be seen as a sanctuary by its residents who -choose- to live a compound lifestyle.

  6. An interesting post for me. I’d like to think I’d see beyond the compound – I always visit out of way places in order to mix with the locals, but I can also see why people might stay put and not explore. I think doing either would mean two very different experiences of living abroad.

  7. I think it is both a bubble and a sanctuary. For those that are working and spending long hours at work- especially a sanctuary. For others that never leave- usually the wives- a bubble. I’ve met people who live here for years and years and won’t go out of the compound. I mean the cities are full of hairdressers and stores etc. Why stay in? Some of them spend years and go back to their countries and tell people what it’s “really like” in Saudi and they manage to know nothing! I can understand wanting the more relaxed environment away from Mutawas etc. In fact, I think the whole country deserves that.

    I think the clothing regulations -except face covering- are ridiculous. Who cares if someone is wearing a Taub or Abaya? I see that in the west often enough.

  8. As a Western woman living in a compound in the Eastern Province, I take offence to Laylah’s statements.

    First, our compound is mixed, both westerners, western muslims, and Saudis. Yes, our compound is probably 60% Saudi. They are free to wear what they wish, including the niquab, and they do. Thobes and abeyas are a common site here. In fact, there are more restrictions involving dress codes for the westerners than the Saudis! Only one piece bathing suits are allowed for females. In public areas, modest dress must be worn, i.e. no short shorts or strappy tank tops. People will be asked to leave if they are wearing such attire.

    As far as living in a bubble, of course there is some of this. By their very nature, compounds in Saudi Arabia are bubbles. They are built to attract western expats and so there are a variety of activities available for entertainment. If one does not wish to leave the compound, one never has to. That being said, I and my friends go into the surrounding towns at least twice a week if possible. We shop, we explore, we talk to as many Saudis as will have conversations with us, we dine out.

    I came to Saudi with the idea of exposing myself and my family to another culture, and I do as much as possible to see this. We have traveled within the Eastern Province as much as we can, and hope to expore the Western side of Saudi at some point in our stay here. My children have played with Arab children on the beaches, in the malls, and inside the compound they are daily playmates.

    While there are some people who never leave the compound I assure you that here there are far more that do.

    Shame on you Laylah for posting your misconcieved stereotypes! Your ending statement just shows your bias towards westerners. We’re not all alike and neither are you. And if you don’t really know what goes on inside a compound perhaps you shouldn’t comment as if you do.

  9. One of the reasons I love the Aramco compound is that both Saudi’s and non-Saudi’s can reside. Its not completely isolated from the outside. Which I believe is a much more healthier environment for everyone.

    People are free to wear what they chose, whether abaya and niqab, like myself, or a bikini on the beach if you chose. Although technically ladies are required to wear a one-piece swimsuite at the pools or beach, but no one says anything if they don’t. I was always taught growing up if you don’t like what I’m wearing then don’t look:)

    I myself (Canadian Muslim convert) was uneasy going outside by myself or without a friend when I first moved to Saudi, but now I feel very comfortable to leave the compound by myself to go shopping or what ever else I wish to do. Saudi has become my home…and I do enjoy living here both inside the compound and out.

  10. I think that some compunds whether in Jeddah, or Riyadh don’t allow saudis, especially those wearing traditional attire. Can you imagine a residential compund in the States where American are not allowed. I think ACLU, and other organizations will have a field day.

  11. I meant to say…”I think it’s sad….”

  12. I think, unfortunately, the restrictions came about when more conservative Muslims (not just Saudis, but Pakistanis) moved into compounds and began demanding changes like restricting women and men swimming in the same pool, as well as women wearing two piece bathing suits, shorts, or sleeveless blouses…Muslim women began swimming in their abayas. Soon, westerners began moving out of those compounds in order to seek out compounds which restricted hijabs, etc. At least, this is what happened on my compound and a few others.

  13. hmmmm…. Looks good. I never had live in a compund in the ME as I was posted in more liberal countries, but I must add that I had some nice places that Icould never aford in the US.
    If anyone is complaining about circumstances anywhere in ME then listen to this: Here in SE Asia, homes unfurnished mean UNFURNISHED. An empty house without cabinets, light fixtures, a/c, fixtures and facets in the bathroom, washing machine, e.t.c. Thankfully, I got a villa funrished, all I had to do is get a washing machine, but Imight say, after laywers fees, e.t.c exceeded my move in allowance. I sitll need to get a oven and stove, so take out for now.

  14. This made me laugh: “The interiors will likely have an “open” theme where one can see from one room into another without doors to close off rooms such as in many Saudi homes for easy segregation” Segregation” has such a negative connotation to westerners and “openess” is good! Some might describe modern “western style” openness as lacking in privacy.

  15. I don’t live in a Western compound and it is one of the reasons why my stay in Saudi Arabia is almost over.

    Do I feel safe? Not really. Especially when I live alone in an apartment building that has words like “I will kill you” and “You are going to hell” graffitied on it.
    Do I feel accepted by the community I live with? Not at all.
    Do I get stared at and laughed at when I go outside because I am the one foreigner in the place? All the time.

    I spend as much time as possible on a Western compound because its the one place where I can go and stand outside without having to completely cover myself up. I can walk around without being stared at like I’m a circus animal.

    If I could speak Arabic well or had a Saudi husband I’m certain that it would be very different living outside a compound, but otherwise, my only entertainment is shopping or TV, which gets pretty old after 18 months. I don’t think people should insulate themselves from the outside world but if you live in a tiny apartment in the city with no family then its not all its cracked up to be.

  16. Stacy,
    Did you get to meet anybody socially in your apartment building? did anybody invite you in for tea or welcome you?
    it seems that the people in your apartment building are insulating themselves as much as the people who live in a compound. Worse, considering the slogans they write on your wall.

    I like your blog.

  17. I’ve lived in a villa amonst saudi’s, in a western compund and also inthe DQ, i would rate my DQ experienc ethe best, closely followed by the compund and last in a regular villa. I think my kids loved the compound. had the most fun there.

    Like someone mentioned, it’s not easy livingin a regular villa amidst saudi’s either, one may be open and accepting and following all rules etc., but your neighbours may not exactly want to mingle with an outsider:-)

    I didn’tlike our villa much, not v friendly place nad v isloating for me and the kids, much much porefereed the diplomatic quarters, it was fantastic, cannot say enough good things about living there.

  18. Salaam all. I found both this post and the comments interesting. You have described the compound well, with some pictures, and mention was made about open plan rather than segregation. To complete this point, why not describe a typical saudi home with pictures/floor plans (just a “normal persons” type of home not a palace!)

  19. Interesting! Thanks for sharing about these compounds.

  20. Julie I can assure you I know what its like inside western compounds. I lived in one for two years. I’m also a westerner, just to clear that up:)

    Your compound sounds nice, it allows freedom of dress and has a good mix of people in it, even Saudis, wow! Is it Aramco?

    Unfortunately not many are like that in Riyadh though, most are like I described, with their ridiculous (even racist) regulations! I’m just against any kind of discrimination especially when it comes to choice of dress.

    It doesn’t seem you are living the bubble type of life, good for you and especially your kids to learn about another culture!

    Anonymous Saudi- exactly! I dont think they could get away with a compound like that in the States, especially if they tried to ban people from entering in western attire?

  21. We don’t have ‘compounds’ in the States. We have ‘neighborhoods’, ‘subdivisions’ and ‘communities’ some have restrictions on who can live there (age). Some are gated some are not. people can choose what kind of place they want to live. To me, ‘Compound’ sounds like something that really needs security. Oh yeah, isn’t there a history there? Well, whatever it takes to get people over there to do the work, eh? Too bad they don’t just educate their own people to do the work so they wouldn’t have to have ‘communities’ full of foreigners.

  22. @laylah – ‘Anonymous Saudi- exactly! I dont think they could get away with a compound like that in the States, especially if they tried to ban people from entering in western attire’

    That sounds kinda funny considering we are talking about a whole country, besides these ‘western compounds’, that bans women from entering wearing ‘western attire’ (sans abaya)

  23. That sounds kinda funny considering we are talking about a whole country, besides these ‘western compounds’, that bans women from entering wearing ‘western attire’

    Nice Lynn…

    And before somebody cones up with ”respecting culture and tradition”: It wasn’t culture nor tradition in Saudi Arabia, this is only since a few decades. On old photos you see Arab women less covered, and western women wearing western dress in KSA. And in the hijaz it is only since late last century that the men from Riyad forced the women to cover and veil.
    There is no culture and tradition here, it is a horrible experiment in social engineering.

  24. Well, if we want to talk about ‘respecting culture and tradition’ well, then, that is what those that are living in that type of ‘compound’ chose. If that is what they need to do in order to make their lives bearable while they are on temporary assignment in another country then that is fine.

    However, if they intend to make KSA their permanent residence then I think they should live with the people of that culture and show respect to the culture and abide by their laws just as I expect those who want permanent residence in MY country to speak the language and interact fully with society on OUR level with respect for our culture and consitution rather than confine themselves in Little Italys, Greektowns, Chinatowns, Little Beiruts etc. I’m just sayin’…

  25. I find it strange that women inside the compound are asked NOT to cover up. I would understand that laws requiring women to cover up outside the compound are not enforced within, but to go the other way is bizarre.

  26. Why is not covering in the compound bizarre? If the compounds are supposed to be places of comfort and respite and you are not from that culture that covers, it makes sense to me that they would try to duplicate the circumstances of the home culture. And I don’t think it any more racist then people not being allowed to be free outside the compounds to wear what they like. If the cultures were not so diametrically opposed one could have a better experience living outside amongst the people. If you want to talk about racism… it would not be necessary to have the compounds if people had a better experience outside the compound walls that they might not have due to the racism of the “natives”, then there would not be the need to replicate the home environment so acutely. It is giving people a place to go where they can take a deep breath and feel like they are relaxed.

  27. ‘but to go the other way is bizarre’

    Why is that? Each area is trying to ‘maintain’ a certain atmosphere. Those who believe in ‘covering excessively’ also believe in other things (segregation etc) that this community does not want to be a part of it.

  28. There were a few comments about what are the Saudi villas like in regards to rooms with doors for segregation…if you do look at the hyperlinks with this original post it will take you to earlier posts I wrote which describe the distinctions in Saudi homes vs western style homes and the challenges or differences between choosing either an apartment, villa or compound life.

    During my time in Saudi we lived in 3 different places in Riyadh. On our arrival we stayed first with some family members who lived (rented) half of a large (huge) 3 level villa in a private neighborhood. Then we moved into a temporary fully furnished apartment located at Imam University (that was quite an experience!) and last of all, we had our own villa in an exclusive Saudi-only compound. It made for an interesting and good life experience.

    Of all three places the one where locals wished to socialize most was at the Imam apartment. I’d run into Saudi women at the elevator or little local store whereas at our villa the high walls surrounding each individual villa within the compound made it more difficult to meet anyone.

  29. Carol, on either of those locations, did you really get to know a lot of Saudi women? Did you do a lot of visiting? And were you invited to parties, weddings, etc?
    Did you become close friends with the Saudi women in your neighborhood/compound?

    There’s a Dutch documentary about women in Saudi Arabia, in one of the scenes a female reporter is showing her home. I will look for it.

  30. Got it:
    You can hear the filmmaker has a Dutch accent! She got the invitation to make this documentary because she made a really good documentary about the four presenters from a famous Arab show. Forgot the name for the moment.

  31. Carol, on either of those locations, did you really get to know a lot of Saudi women?

    No; Saudi families tend to stick among themselves and very careful/selective on whom they allow in. The Saudi women whom I did get to know and were not part of my own extended Saudi family I met through the places I worked or through activities and organizations in which I participated.

    Did you do a lot of visiting?

    I did but not among neighbors as is the custom in many Western countries. I knew I could always visit extended Saudi family anytime and vice-versa, they would come to visit me. Other Saudis whom I visited or had visited were again those whom I met through work or social/professional networking.

    And were you invited to parties, weddings, etc?

    Oh yes! During the wedding season there were so many parties and functions to attend and it was expected a different (new) dress would be worn each time!

    Did you become close friends with the Saudi women in your neighborhood/compound?

    No, I did not. I became close friends with Saudi women I met through work or activities/groups of mutual interest.

    I saw that Dutch documentary!

  32. For those who watch the video for the first time, note that when the Saudi woman gets into the car with her young child there is no car seat. That remains one of my big pet peeves is the number of babies and young children not in car seats among the jumble of aggressive drivers.

  33. Aafke,

    No I never see the other women who live in my apartment building. I’ve seen children running around (they live in the apartment directly above me and my gosh they tear that place up until well after midnight some nights!) but only bumped into 2 women. They were pleasant, saying hello, asking where I was from and moving on. To me it seems it is the men who do the inviting. I also live with medical professionals so that means they often work unusual hours.

    I’ve met a number of women who are non-working spouses who do not confine themselves to the compound. I think that’s a generalisation made of a few people in every compound who don’t actually enjoy living here. It’s not fair to say all people who live in compounds are like that as many are not. The people I know have Saudi friends and go to dinners and weddings and social events with them. But these people are all married and it is always the husband who has the connections.

    Its easy to have polite and friendly conversations with Saudi women but I find they often aren’t the ones who do the inviting.

  34. if only Saudi Neighborhoods should be modeled after the compound’s style.

    Seriously, when I drive into Aramco facilities I just feel like I am in a different country.. even the damn weather changes! All that brick & sand labyrinth gone after you pass a security gate.

  35. Carol, thank you for answering my questions.
    So even if expats live smack in the middle of Saudi families they will not be able to make contact, let alone friends. Not even if they are married to a Saudi man.
    So they will live a very lonely isolated existence neighborly wise.

    I have good contact with my neighbors, it is really important for a pleasant living experience. We have tea and dinners together. We also help each other out.

    So how can anybody blame expats to want to live in compounds where they can have real neighbors and normal social contacts?
    And if it’s not possible to become friends with you saudi neighbors, then how are you supposed to make friends if you do not work in an office or have no opening to go to social meetings?

    The more I learn about this the more I am starting to feel it is not the expats who are to blame here.
    I still don’t like the dress restrictions, especially when loose wandering muttawa wannabees are not allowed in compounds anymore, only guests.

    About the woman in the car, in this clip they cut it out, but while she was talking in her house, before the driver came, she was complaining about the in-ability for women to get about on their own steam,(she doesn’t have her own driver) And that she was going to be too late to her meeting because again the driver she hired did not turn up on time. She went on to say that Saudi women are not always late for work because they cannot keep on time, but because they are dependent on drivers who let them down all the time.

  36. Aafke-Sure it’s possible to make frineds with Saudis in other ways!
    I never made friends with our neighbors during the time we’ve lived in a villa though. I don’t think thats very common here. The villas tend to be surrounded by high walls and people come and go in cars and you never even see them.
    In that way living in a compund gives the chance to have that kind of neighborhood feeling we are used to from the west.

    Naturally the easiest way to make friends would be at work, but not all female expats have this option.

    I’ve met and made friends with Saudi women (outside the hospital work environment) for example at the hair salon, the horse stables, at women only cafeterias and in the female only exhibitions.
    Maybe I’ve been more active and I have a more open-minded approach who knows?
    I still think saying its impossible to make friends or meet Saudi women (for female expats) is just an excuse:)

  37. @ Aafke-Art

    I know you don’t live in Saudi and have never been there but I’ll give some insights about the matter regarding an expats knowing Saudi their neighbors. So any expats who plan in moving to a high to middle class Saudi neighborhood can have some Idea.
    First I second Laylah’s comment and I will add to it.
    When a Saudi family move to a new house, the father tries to invite all neighbors to a house dinner, typical Saudi style, so men can meet each other, women can meet each other, and kids if there is any. The most common way is that the man will got the neighborhood mosque and introduce himself and invite the neighbors ( even if he doesn’t pray in the mosque everyday). By this way they establish a channel of knowing each other, even if they don’t become friends or anything but they will often exchange invitation to weddings and dinners and sometimes trips, depending on the type of relationship.
    Taking all that into consideration, when A non-Saudi move into the neighborhood, and doesn’t introduce himself/herself it will be taken , sometimes, as that this person is not very social. People for Gulf countries understand this tradition, also people from Libya and other Arab countries. However, many Arabs don’t do that when they move and are satisfied with the relationship at the front door and some Ramadan exchanged food plates.
    For a western, ( most likely don’t speak the language, and big chance not a Muslim), it is a bit difficult to know the people around you if you don’t speak Arabic, or they don’t speak English. However, my cousin’s friend is a Canadian who worked for Aramco who used to live in the most Saudi compound in the Kingdom, Aramco compound. Anyhow, he wanted to experience more of Khobar city, he moved to a neighborhood that I would say is 90% higher-middle class Saudis. He relied on my cousin and my cousin’s wife to help him and his family integrate into the neighborhood. So my cousin had to do the role of going to the Mosque and invite people to a dinner at the new neighbor house, he even went to a neighbor to ask him personally as he didn’t meet him in the mosque. My cousin’s wife did a similar, yet different in the approach, process by inviting the women of the neighborhood. As it was described by my cousin, a thing you only see once in your life, a white western guy in thob welcoming his Saudi neighbors to a traditional Saudi dinner! As I was told, he did make good relations with some of the neighbors who spoke English. I have to give credit to he guy and his family and to my cousin and his wife lol! I think its tough to move into new place, our of compound, without knowing the language. Imagine a Chinese person moving to Casablanca without knowing any Arabic or French. unless there is some Chinese speaking people or it will be difficult to meet his/her neighbor. It is always difficult for people with limited knowledge of the country’s language to meet the natives all the time. Remember, not everybody specks English. and if you go, say, Morocco and does your work in English but don’t know Arabic or French in some cases, i you will not be able to talk to people and know them all the time.
    The information above is useful for people who really want to experience a different culture in the country they work in, not challenging the culture. And want to meet regular people in the city .

  38. That’s interesting Saud. I wonder why no one ever mentioned that cultural aspect of Arab neighborliness? I wonder where a tradition like that started? Do you know?

    We pretty much do the opposite in my country. When someone new moves into the neighborhood we go to them and welcome them to the neighborhood with perhaps some baked goods or something. The opposite just feels like it falls under bribery somehow.?

  39. @ Lynn

    I don’t think it falls under bribery if you get an understanding of the culture of the city and the people’s heritage and the way of interacting differs in each culture.
    I can look into the origin of this tradition , although not all Saudis do it the same way but this is practiced in Dammam/ kohbar/ cities and other cities in Saudi to. Mainly in upper-middle class Saudi neighborhoods.
    Before life got too busy, people used to know everybody in the neighborhood in the 80s and 90s. Even way before that a new comer or guest, not invader, was welcome and supported financially and emotionally by the hosts with respect to the region/tribe/village traditions.
    Anyhow, this first dinner invitation is to celebrate the new house with new neighbors and family . Its some sort like the new house party. But what differs, that after this dinner, the new neighbor will get many dinner invitations and exchanged dishes, sometimes gifts for the house and the kids. And relationships got established during these events.
    This comment just to explain little bit about the tradition, and people with real cultural experience can understand it as costumes differ in each country and region.

  40. Saud, I would be very interested in the origin of this tradition that you said ‘People for Gulf countries understand this tradition, also people from Libya and other Arab countries’ Sounded like a pretty wide spread and well rooted tradition for Arabs.

    ‘Even way before that a new comer or guest, not invader, was welcome and supported financially and emotionally by the hosts with respect to the region/tribe/village traditions’

    I’m not sure I understand that sentence when I understood you to be saying that it was the newcomer’s responsibility to initiate the friendhip with a party invitation.

  41. Nowadays, the new comer , in some cities i mentioned in certain areas, have to invite the new neighbors to dinner ( or lunch) and they will accept it and then the the new comer will get dinner invitations ( or coffee based on people’s time) from most of neighbors and can know them better. This happen in the first month as welcoming and get to know process.
    Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and Libya don’t make up 20% of Arab countries population. So it is limited in these countries, and not all parts too.

    In Saudi countryside nowadays, the whole neighborhood will have a dinner for the new neighbor like the old generations. Eastern cultures are high context culture and I think the tradition I talked about developed in cities because people are not sure about weather the new neighbor want to socialize or not or maybe too busy.

  42. *Carol, thank you for answering my questions. So even if expats live smack in the middle of Saudi families they will not be able to make contact, let alone friends. Not even if they are married to a Saudi man. So they will live a very lonely isolated existence neighborly wise.

    I have good contact with my neighbors, it is really important for a pleasant living experience. We have tea and dinners together. We also help each other out.*


    There has been a little bit of liberty taken with assumptions on what I had answered. For most Saudis the life revolves around the extended families and not the neighbors. Many (not all) Saudis live next to Saudi family (such as the woman on the youtube video) or near to Saudi family in the same neighborhood or town. An expat married to a Saudi man in the Kingdom usually has a lot of contact and exposure to the Saudi women in the family. There are many tea and dinner parties among family members. While westerners place emphasis and importance on knowing and circulating with neighbors to whom there is no relation via blood that is not the case among Saudis in Saudi Arabia. However, (contrasts and contradictions here) during Ramadan appetizing dishes may appear at your door from a neighbor’s home even without the personal interaction or visits and if hearing of a need, Saudis not known to one another, may respond.

    Much boils down to the cultural norms of the individuals and the place.

    Speaking for myself, I had an active and engaged life in Saudi with both Saudis and expats.

  43. Yes, but you were married to a Saudi man. It is clear from women’s personal experiences that an expat non-muslim woman married to an expat husband would have a very difficult time trying to make friends. And a single expat woman would have even more difficulties, look at Stacies experience, She was treated outright badly.
    And for wome reasons I think everybody here is talking about white Christian women. What about an expat hindu Indian woman? Or an African woman?
    no I am sorry, the more I lear about facts of life in Saudi the more I can understand the compound structure. And the less I can put blame on expats having little interaction with Saudies.
    It has to come from both sides, and the majority of saudies don’t seem all too keen on interaction either.

    I still think that forbidding hijabs, abayas and thobes in a compound is stupid.

  44. What is it like being an American who works for Aramco in Saudi Arabia?…

    I’m in Qatar, I’ve never worked for an oil company, nor have I worked in Saudi. I’m going to make some assumptions here. The employee is male and in an executive or management position. Work Workdays generally run 7:30-8 to 3-3:30 for office jobs. T…

  45. As an American who built and operated compounds in the 90’s I found the life very restrictive. the Saudi company thought I was crazy for not living on the best compound. I personally lived outside on the local economy meeting and making friends with a lot of Saudi’s. We enjoyed tea and coffee in their homes and our families became friends. We were invited to marriages, honored new borns and wives swapped cooking tips, complained about the lack of items in the local grocery stores. We have now returned to Saudi and have picked up right where we left off in friendships and meeting new friends. When we moved in our neighbor came across the street to welcome us and brought us coffee and tea. Needless to say we have met all our neighbors and we all look out for each others homes when one takes a vacation. It does not matter than one does not speak fluent Arabic either as we all laugh with each other as we learn new words.

  46. Gene,

    It is wonderful to hear of your beautiful experiences. I would welcome an opportunity, if you are amenable, to interview you as an expatriate on the “Then and Now” of life in Saudi. My email address is [email protected]

    You can provide a perspective and voice as an expat which is not often enough heard.

  47. Oh, my goodness! Do all the compounds look like that?

  48. […] March I wrote about compound life. Housing is a hot topic among expatriates who are locating or have located to the Kingdom.  […]

  49. I like Laylah’s comments the best….something beautiful can become a prison. I could never forget the time with a company I worked for that had operations in Nigeria. In Vancouver, we were told there was lovely compound living with swimming pool, etc. Forget it, after I heard about their corrupt tax system.

    Why would I want to live in a situation like that…? Remember here in North America, some big cities have gated communities. They are more common in the U.S. big city areas not in Canada.

    Strange about these compounds not allowing observing Muslims or Saudis. That is discriminatory. This alone is a reason I have no interest in that type of living nor fostering that type of attitude.

  50. A western compound is probably one of the best places for a family with children. The environment allows kids to truly be kids and play together freely. They can ride their bikes, have softball or volleyball games regardless of gender and enjoy swimming in the pool.

    I can see the benefits of a compound for individuals who do want that feeling of home, as in where they came from, at the end of a tiring work day or on the weekends.

    While Saudis are prohibited from living on Western compounds, I knew of many many Muslims who did live on Western compounds. I’m not aware of any compound which has a no-Muslim residents rule.

  51. Umm, Why do saudi’s needs to live in their houses? cant they live in like in compounds we need freedom to and iam a saudi 14 years and we are girls we like to show our bodies wearing bikinis, have boyfrriends and live like americans and even though iam muslim i act christian soo anybody jealous? wanna fight with meh?

  52. Hi,
    Can anyone please provide a list of good western compounds to live in Riyadh. We just moved from the U.S. this week.
    We are looking for a 3 BR Villa with the maximum of SR 160K – 190K / yr.

    Kind Regards

  53. Hi my name is Ray, im an American & currectly living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Im actually looking for american compound/community or club to hang out without gender restrictions, could you please refer me a place where i can bring my female&male friends…Thx alot fellow American.

  54. I know I’m late to the party, but have to chime in with my thoughts. I’ve lived abroad before, in Sweden and Israel. Both times, we lived among the locals. In Sweden, I learned the language and had many Swedish friends. In Israel, I didn’t have time to learn or study Hebrew, but I spent a lot of time interacting with locals and doing my best about learning the culture.

    I think Saudi Arabia is just a different ball of wax. When my husband was offered this assignment, we realized that while we like learning and interacting with different cultures, we also needed to live in a place that allowed us some measure of freedom and comfort. For us, a compound fits the bill nicely. My kids have a tremendous amount of freedom on our compound and love being independent. I’ve met women from all over the world, which I love. I also like being able to have the services of the shopping bus and a limo on call so that I can get around when my husband is at work.

    I do have a beef with Saudi culture in that I feel like it is remarkably difficult to really interact with Saudi women. I disagree with Laylah when she said that ex-pats don’t try to mix with the locals. In talking with women on my compound, many of us are looking for ways to interact more with Saudi women. We don’t want our foreign experience to absent real, meaningful interaction with the Saudi culture. But I believe Saudi culture DOES make it very difficult for Saudis and westerners to interact in ways that don’t threaten Saudi sensibilities.

  55. I totally agree with Tiffany W that it is the culture here that does not make interaction between westerners and saudis possible or even easy. I think the likes of Laylah are just jealous and feel somewhat left out if not deprived lol The reality is that to be able to live in a western compound nowadays is somewhat of a privelage to enjoy and not all are able to afford now being so expensive to live in one apart from the long waiting lists! Most compounds have slots alloted to various companies so to try to secure a slot privately can be quite a wait. The other reality is that to come to a place like Saudi Arabia is like telling someone to live in Guamtanimo Bay or Afghanistan. To attract people to come here requires premiums and a place to live to feel normal, secure and comfortable with your surroundings is a must and hence the western compounds. So if you are an expatriate muslim and do not feel comfortable uncovered then western compounds are obviously not for you. You have many options elsewhere. Same goes for westerners who want that liberty to dress as normal and to be able to mingle freely and enjoy a sense of community etc. Should defintely opt for a western compound. Simple as that.

  56. Hi All

    I lived in Saudi for a year and had to return to the UK for a while. The compounds I visited had lack of activities and some I found were male dominated (who would stare through me even when covered!).

    Il be moving back to Riyadh in 3-5 months and wondering which is the best compound to move to in terms of it being multicultural, fun and somewhere I can make friends. Somewhere green- if that is at all possible in Riyadh!?

  57. There is another side to this story – those of us who have no choice but to live in a compound. My company, who in a contract stated there was the option to have an accommodation allowance rather than stay in a compound, decided to no longer allow any of us to do so. However given the prices, I doubt i’d be able to afford to live off a compound regardless. Ours is extremely basic so we spend a lot of time outside of it.
    Unfortunately one aspect of it being a female only compound is that it attracts a lot of negative male attention. Flashers are common, as are men hanging round outside for a gawp, not to mention the ‘drifting’ that happens till all hours of the night, and teenage boys who have chased us up the street, even managing to grope those caught unaware.
    My point really is that compound living is not all rosy, and certainly not luxurious for all of us. I have visited these ultra luxurious compounds, and they offer, for a single, white, non muslim female in KSA a moment to relax without anxiety of muttawa, accidentally offending someone or unwanted attention brought to you by your gender and western status.

  58. I am planning to move to Riyadh , I would like to have some guide about the western compound , as I am looking for 2 bedrooms villa or apartment. Thanks , Carlos

  59. Good Morning all , any one need villa & apartment for rent in compound just contact Mr Mohammed 0562353239

  60. I am a western woman living in Riyadh on western compounds for 9 years, and I also take offense to Laylah’s post. Laylah is among a certain type of Saudi women (not men) who do not like western compounds and actively want to undermine them. These women not only hate the western woman’s life, but are paradoxically bitterly jealous at the same time.

    They critique our lifestyle by saying we live in a “prison” when really we live in a sanctuary of peace, of freedom and luxury. They say that we don’t like their culture and that this is the reason for us living behind the compound walls. The real reason however is that our government, embassies and companies have required us to do so for our safety due to western hating and terrorism. They also know that it is a hardship for us to have to live here, and that it is an incentive to offer us a pleasant lifestyle at the same time. Nonetheless, if we don’t want to live like a Saudi woman, then that’s our privilege. Why should we want to?

    I have noticed that now more than ever, a lot of these hating-and-jealous Laylahs are getting onto the compounds. I see them in their abayas, crowding in groups where they find western women, trying purposely to make them feel uncomfortable. Hypocrites that they are, they also exploit any privileges they can, playing loud Arabic music, or driving, though unlicensed and liable to get others or themselves killed. Their entire mentality concerning freedom consists of, as Laylah put it, getting “revenge on the rules”. As a longtime expat woman I’ve come to realize that the real freedom of just doing whatever it is you love is a foreign concept Saudi women cannot grasp, as they are bound to the premise that life is entirely a rules vs. disobedience proposition. Compounding this misconception is the belief I’ve heard voiced often by Saudi women that having loads of servants makes them “free”, but they never actually do or experience anything other than “being helped” whilst sitting idle. And that’s why there is a total disconnect from them about the real point of a western compound, why we’re happy here, or how to act when they are here, and why the best compounds understand the importance of truly being “western” only.

  61. This is post is really very interesting especially for woman like me living here in KSA. I am an Asian married to an American living in Saudi for 6 years now. My husband has been here since the 90’s.
    1) 2008 – lived in Al Ahsa in Women-only compound
    2) 2010 – met my husband and moved to Khobar in Western-only compound
    3) 2011 – we moved to Riyadh and lived in Saudi neighborhood
    4) 2013 – we moved to a Mixed compound (with Saudi & Arab families)
    All throughout this moving and settling in, these are my first hand experiences and what I learned:
    1) Women-Only Compound
    If you are single, it is really hard to meet and find somebody. But if you are single and a WOMAN, it is twice as hard. But as the saying goes, if there is a will there is a way. Met my husband here in KSA and we’ve been happily married for 3 years now.
    2) Western-only compound really gives you the “freedom” that the outside community strictly prohibits. My husband even told me that there were clubs before inside the compound. And when there is club, there are women and alcohol. But had been banned due to someone driving drunk outside the compound and had got into a fatal wreck. Also, you have the freedom to wear whatever you want in public places and in the pool. Saudis were not allowed inside because of the idea/impression that they might create problems for the residents imposing what they think how expats should “be” inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regardless of being outside or inside a compound. There are narrow-minded Saudis (and narrow-minded people all over the world) and narrow-mindedness, hatred, radicalism, cannot be checked thru the security so preventing all Saudis to come in was the best solution they thought at the time.
    3) Saudi Neighborhood
    We moved in with the hopes of learning more of the culture aside from the extra fund we get from the housing allowance. I did private tutoring so I was able to get out of the house even when my husband is not home and we don’t have a driver. Problem was, when I ran out of some kitchen items like milk or water, I had no way of getting it until my husband arrives home. The mini-grocery near us doesn’t do deliveries. And even if they did, my husband doesn’t really trust anybody esp. male to come to the house esp. when I am alone there. It’s so easy for an intruder to just push me in and nobody would notice because of the high walls of our house and the houses nearby. Women barely come out. When they do, they will go straight to the car waiting outside the gate. My husband and I put a little garden in our front yard for our dog. I had to wear Abaya & head cover when watering it, (even though we have the high fence) because teenage boys of our neighbor from the 2nd floor stares at me thru the small opening of their window. I was already wearing a very modest long sleeve blouse and loose black pants (with no hair cover) during that time. So much of my idea of wearing a comfortable shorts and a blouse to water the plants! During Ramadan and Eid’s celebration I will receive tons of food from the neighborhood delivered by their sons. I will bake sweets, cook pasta or Asian food and give it to them in response for their gesture. One of the wives invited me to have tea with her through a note she slipped underneath the food she gave together with her mobile number. I visited her house few times, with her making sure her husband and sons are not in the house. She became a friend of mine, but her husband was one of those narrow-minded Saudis I was talking about earlier. Needless to say, the friendship did not really flourish as she and I wanted it because of her restrictions. I really don’t want to get into complications like that, after all, the main reason we came here is to work. Our landlord was a complete arse which did not make things easy for me and my husband, which in turn, made us feel so unsafe. My husband is white and 6’4″. You can easily spot him from afar. And without any form of security guards, I had sleepless nights dead worried of what might happen. Watching the movie “The Kingdom” doesn’t help. My husband will calm me by saying most terrorism are done in big scale and not one random American at a time. It still didn’t sound so reassuring. But I do give credit to King Abdullah for toning down extremism here in the kingdom. My husband’s job demands him to travel often. And so during those times he is away, I am left all alone in the house with my dog. I couldn’t go out to shop or stroll around malls. There were no shuttle buses or limousines anymore (which most compounds provide). I don’t want to ride a taxi alone because I don’t trust taxi drivers. I’ve heard stories of rape, and I know how bad some of them drive. All of these inconveniences forced us to move back into a western compound, which I believe the best decision we made.
    4) Mixed-compound. Where we live presently, is a western compound with all the amenities you can think of, with Saudis, Arabs, and Western residents. We’ve just been here for few months but I can totally say that I’d prefer this than living in the local community. Maybe my husband and I aren’t as friendly as Laylah that’s why we did not enjoy living there. In this compound where we live, I don’t think they ban wearing abaya and thobe, because I’ve seen some women wearing it complete with hijjab and all. What I don’t like is them wearing those clothes (thobes or abaya) and then staring at you for wearing something that shows your legs. And for goodness sake, I am in the gym or going to gym to work out. This is why I think sometimes some compounds just generalize banning abayas and thobe to cut stupid things like this for happening. I think that if they (some Saudis) want to so-righteously live by their beliefs/traditions then they should not live in or even visit a western compound. Why, this is the only escape (not bubble) of those expats who works so hard in this very unforgiving place. I mean, give them a break. Especially after a long working hours of dealing with some unbelievable Saudi attitudes/habits. Being in a compound without seeing people in abayas or thobes, is sometimes a breath of fresh air, or worse your only sanity in this place. Don’t get me wrong. I have Saudi friends. Men and women. And I can honestly say that they are better individuals than some of the people in my own country. And I would love for them to visit me and my husband in our new compound. But I will tell them for sure to not wear their traditional clothing when visiting as respect to other residents in the compound. As open-minded as they are, I am sure it will not be a problem.

  62. hi all ,

    I am married and have an offer in el riyad, so my question :

    Are the egyptians treated as foreigners and can live in the western compound or any compound for foreigners


  63. Hi all,

    Can someone tell me a few names of ‘Mixed Compounds’ please, i.e. we tern and arab mixed compounds?

    In anticipation


  64. I have lived in a western compound while I was living in Jeddah and it was bliss! I remember taking walks outside, pools, hanging out with friends of both genders, and libraries with amazing variety of books. Ever since I’ve resided in Riyadh in an apartment, I’ve felt so trapped. I actually miss the sun! Life is really difficult for women here, and living in a compound is like an oasis.

  65. The best option for Westerners is in a Western compound. Sorry, but it’s true. If nothing else, it will make life easier for stay-at-hoe wives during the day. They can at least have some sort of active social life while their husbands are at work.

    If the culture was just a bit more open, ie, women could drive, go out without their husbands, etc, then you wouldn’t need these compounds to begin with. Stop blaming the expats and take a look at the local culture. There is a reason why you don’t have these types of compounds in Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman.

  66. I have new offers in compound in Riyadh 0562353239
    [email protected]

  67. What about Churches? Do these compounds have even freedom for that?

  68. What!? Prohibiting the niqab/abayah in a “western” compound in SAUDI ARABIA!? Am I reading this right?
    Muslims in the West face hardship and discrimination (even ban of niqab in some countries); meanwhile the non-Muslims are exempted from following the LAWS of our lands in “compounds” and even some prohibit some regular religious practices of the LAND? Just imagine the opposite being true in the western countries! They would protest and start killing Muslims like they always do when something arises. I don’t know if I should cry or scream and cry. This is heart breaking. Help us ya Rabb.

  69. Imagine western clothing being banned in a neighborhood in a western country (imposed by Muslims)! The world would start protesting and attacking us. This makes my heart ache. This is not fair…

  70. Hey Om, thank God your government has allowed “western” compounds and its rules in the “LAND”. Who are you to put that into question? You want to be more strict than your own rulers? You should go to prison for that, and get a bunch of lashes too.
    Muslim getting killed and being attacked in the West? When? Where? Do you realise how nuts you are by claiming that?! Your heart (and that of many other welcoming Saudis) must be aching from reading so much crap from you.
    And if you don’t like how the Saudi government rules the country, move out! Hey, go to North Korea: Maybe after a while there you’ll start to put things into perspective…
    PS: Yes there are many church related activities in the “LAND”, tolerated by the authorities, but only in certain places where people like Om don’t have access.

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