Expat compound lives compared to luxury prison with perks

Published:  13 Mar at 6 PM
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Expats living and working in Saudi Arabia mostly live in walled compounds where the kingdom’s strict regulations are eased, but what’s it like for families existing in a parallel society?

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been a popular destination for expat professionals working in the oil and gas industry as well as in other economic sectors. Many on long-stay contracts bring their families with them and live in walled compounds isolating them from local traditions and contacts with everyday Saudi life. The compounds give safety and security as well as many freedoms those outside don’t have, but act as a parallel society within the kingdom itself.

For many expats, compound life gives the positive opportunity to mix with a multicultural group of professionals from across the world, but wives and children may have different views on their lifestyles. In a recent article, millennials who’d grown up in the compounds described their feelings as ‘being in a luxury prison’, growing up in a bubble’ and even ‘living in the movies’.

Several said their immediate surroundings seemed like real life, comparing them to the endless outside vistas of dust, sand, high-rise skyscrapers and endless malls. When they moved back to their home countries, they began to realise they’d been living an artificial lifestyle. Others valued the opportunity to make friends with young people from many different cultures, saying it gave them an open-minded attitude which persisted after they’d moved away from Saudi Arabia.

One disturbing factor for many was the total contrast between compound life and the outside world which seemed like another country to youngsters growing up within the walls. One used the ‘oasis in the desert’ metaphor to describe how he felt, comparing his compound to an oasis. Security and safety mattered a great deal to young people growing up in the walled compounds, with most feeling they were sheltered from the totally unfamiliar outside world of Arab life.

However, others felt they’d been too sheltered and would maybe have preferred more contact with local people, even if culture shock was the result. Trailing spouses appreciated the protection compound life gave, but several weren’t sorry when the time came to leave and said they would not wish to go back.
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