Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why choose to live in a compound?

I am sure some of you are wondering why we would choose to live on a western compound. It's a good question. After all, I've held the opinion that you tend to do better if you live and work among the locals and try to learn their language. When we lived in Sweden, we lived among a really nice mix of foreign student families and local students. It really was ideal.

However, the culture and customs of Saudi Arabia are so vastly different that we felt that we would do better in a compound. Originally, compounds were built and approved by the Saudis as places where westerners could comfortably live their western lifestyles without censure or clashes with Saudi culture or religious beliefs. I think this trend has only strengthened as the years have gone by, especially as Riyadh has trended to the more conservative in recent years. One doesn't have to live on a compound, but there are certainly advantages.

For us, the biggest advantages of compound living directly affect me, my children to a lesser extent, and really don't apply to my husband at all. The rules relating to women are different and challenging.

First, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, I cannot drive (though I wouldn't want to--a post about the crazy driving to follow). This means I must hire transportation--either through a limo service or taxi service, for everything: grocery shopping, taking children to school, visiting friends, etc. There isn't a public transportation system in place, so my freedom will be pretty curtailed. However, on a compound, I can walk or bike within the area and thus will be able to visit friends. There are shopping buses two times a day. The compound usually has a taxi or limo service available so that hiring one is relatively easy. Finally, the compound usually provides school buses, so I won't have to get the kids to school myself.

Second, the wearing of the abaya, a long black robe, is also a tricky point. From what I understand, a woman cannot take off the abaya unless in her home or in the presence of family. But on a compound, western dress is encouraged and wearing of the abaya is discouraged. So I can walk around the compound at least, relatively unimpeded.

Third, being on a compound gives us opportunities to socialize and a safe place for my kids to play. Everything I've read suggests that Saudis are notoriously private about their families and aren't usually inclined to invited westerners to their homes to socialize. I would personally find it really difficult to live in a neighborhood where I didn't interact at all with my neighbors or where my kids aren't comfortable running out to play. The compound naturally invites social opportunities. While on the various compounds, I observed lots of children playing with friends and running around outside.

Finally, the variety of activities offered on a compound are enticing to me and my family. With pools, bowling alleys, game rooms, cafes, restaurants, libraries, etc. there is something for everyone. We won't be restricted to family days to use any of the facilities, which is another problem we would face off-compound.

What do you think? If you were in a similar situation, would you live outside of a compound, or on a compound?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

House Hunting

After months of anticipation and transition, I am finally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with my husband on a house-hunting trip. The journey itself was unremarkable, air travel without children is painless. And now that I have my Kindle. . . well, the entertainment was constant!

We arrived in the Kingdom rather late, so my first view of the city was rather enchanting with lots of lights, wide streets, and light traffic. In fact, the scene smacked of Las Vegas, minus the casinos, but with all the shopping. Our hotel is very nice, comfortable and quiet.

We started our house-hunting the next morning. I've read as much as I could about western-style compounds in Riyadh. The main idea behind the compound is to keep clashes between the Western and Saudi culture to a minimum. Westerners are able to live a western lifestyle without offending the Saudis. On the compound, women do not wear abayas or scarves, but are free to wear their regular clothes. Segregation of the sexes isn't enforced on the compound. There are a variety of activities and programs planned for children and usually several swimming pools to use.

Security on the compounds has become an issue since a few compounds were bombed in the early part of this century. Several compounds stepped up security and our visits reflected the increased/improved security. I was startled by this fact when we visited the first compound. I could hardly tell that we were approaching a compound as the area all around seemed to be in the midst of a construction project. There were fences with barbed wire and then a long corridor of barricades with speed bumps strategically placed so one must drive very slowly and carefully through the corridor to the first gate. At the first gate, you must stop your car and let them inspect it. Then they give you permission to drive through, again through a second corridor of barriers and speed bumps. At the second gate, you must present identification and usually confirm your appointment with a resident or staff member. Sometimes this process is easy, other times, it can be tense.

Once you've made it through the second gate, you are inside the compound. Usually the manager's office is connected or close to the recreation facilities. The facilities can include: restaurants, coffee shops, exercise gym, rooms for exercise and activity classes, game room, bowling alley, meeting rooms, a nursery school, lending library, mini-market, tailoring shop, dry cleaner, gift shop, squash courts, indoor tennis courts, etc. The main pool is usually outside the recreation center with satellite pools dotting the compound. One pool we looked at had a wonderful water slide and then featured a wave pool every 30 minutes. Most places also had a covered kiddy pool, which will be a very good thing, if I can convince my toddler to play in the water. Outside, there are tennis courts, basketball courts, and soccer pitches.

The homes in the various compounds run the gamut of styles. Some are strictly functional and very utilitaritan, while others are elaborate and almost seem like echo chambers. Most houses were furnished (which is a bonus). There were only a couple of places which struck a good balance between cozy and cavernous. We want a decent amount of space, but functionality and form are also important!

We liked the following places:

The challenge we are facing now is availability and price. Right now the demand for housing exceeds the actual availability. As a result, the prices are skyrocketing. At one compound, the manager named prices that had doubled since he listed prices in April. There were a few available units, but we have to speak for them right now and then pay a deposit (refundable).

So today we've spent a lot of time emailing and phoning people to arrange for a deposit.