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?