Thursday, April 16, 2009

Compound Living

Right now I'm in the middle of a two-week stint in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, covering a staffing shortage at our consulate in the Eastern Province. I'm right across the causeway from Bahrain - it's about a thirty-minute drive to downtown Manama. It's been an interesting experience - I'm the only person doing visa interviews, so a lot of the work I'm doing is self-directed, and I'm enjoying the relative freedoms that come when one is outside of Riyadh. I'm also enjoying being around many more Americans, as the vast majority of the American expat population in Saudi Arabia is here, where the oil wealth and jobs are. I'm living in the recently vacated apartment of the person I'm temporarily replacing, as will my colleagues from Riyadh who will be cycling through here every two weeks until the person who is permanently assigned to Dhahran arrives. It's my first time living in "normal" embassy housing: that is to say, this is the first time I've lived in a privately owned home that the US mission leases for its personnel, not on the grounds of the chancery itself like my home in Riyadh (I can see the embassy from my front door). This is the norm in most of the world, I understand - in Riyadh all of my neighbors are embassy personnel, but here there are just four of us in my building.

I often refer to the Diplomatic Quarter, where I live in Riyadh, as a compound, but in the strictest sense it's not - outsiders can get inside without knowing someone who lives inside (for a visa appointment, for example), and Saudis are not actively prevented from going inside. In Saudi Arabia, most Western expats live in their own compounds, usually affiliated with their employer. The word "compound" brings to mind the Waco siege or breakaway Mormon fundamentalists, and if you take the concept to mean a group of heavily armed people living together in an attempt to ignore the outside world, it's not too far off. Of course, I doubt that David Koresh's followers had stills running in their bathtubs to produce the Saudi expat nectar of life, homebrew alcohol, or that the homes of Mormon splinter groups are guarded by an array of Saudi military checkpoints and mercenaries from South Asia. (Nepal is the preferred source of hired guards here, for whatever reason. Maybe it goes back to the gurkha tradition?)

The larger compounds in Saudi Arabia are designed for and wholly owned by the HR department of a large firm that needs to bring in Europeans or Americans to work in the Kingdom. The biggest compound by far belongs to Aramco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia that brings thousands of Americans here every year to run its plants and to train its employees. (Aramco used to be known as the Saudi ARabian AMerican Oil COmpany, hence the name and the historical ties to the US, even after the American shares were all bought out.) Other big compounds are run by BAE, Lockheed Martin, Shell, and Exxon Mobil - the usual suspects in Saudi Arabia. Smaller compounds cater to the expats who work for other Western firms but who aren't here in enough strength to justify having their own walled-off city. Inside these compounds, anything goes - western attire is allowed, women can drive, people drink the PGA that they brew in their spare bathrooms, and they generally try to forget that they live in Saudi Arabia. Saudis cannot live in these compounds, and people from countries other than those in the EU and North America have difficulty moving in. Everyone knows what goes on inside the compounds, but the Saudi government appears to be happy to keep the Westerners locked away and apart from the locals. Wealthy Saudis have their own semi-compounds, neighborhoods with guards to keep out the riffraff, but theirs aren't quite as licentious as ours are.

Styles that are considered normal in Saudi Arabia would be called ostentatious or even gaudy in most people's eyes back home, and housing is no exception. I had never used the word "villa" outside of a discussion of medieval Italian architecture until I came to Saudi Arabia, yet here it's the term that's used for large single-family homes. (And yes, I have had such discussions about Italian architecture. You probably already knew, or suspected, that of me anyway.) A villa in Saudi Arabia means a large home, two or three stories, in a nice neighborhood and with its own perimeter wall. Ideally, it will have ornate flourishes on the exterior in an attempt to set it off from the other homes around it, even if they were all built by the same developer at the same time. The interior of these homes is also given the star treatment: high ceilings, ornate moldings, expensive tile floors, and gold hardware - lots of gold. Oh my God, Saudis love the color gold.

However, like much else that I've noticed in the Gulf, a lot of attention is paid to the external appearance at the expense of true quality. The ornate "gold" doorknob on my front door? The gold lacquer has worn off in parts. The lovely wooden floor? Cheap laminate that is peeling up in heavily trafficked areas. The fancy carved glass screen on the shower in the master bathroom? It doesn't disguise the poor design of the shower that funnels water into the floor if a shower takes more than thirty seconds. There are two thermostats in the apartment, one by my bedroom door and one in the living room. Neither one is connected to anything. (I completely disassembled both in failed attempts to turn my air conditioning on when I first arrived.) Instead, the actual thermostat is on the compressor, hiding in a dark, cool closet in the back of the house, and it resets itself to 80 degrees every three days. Sound insulation is a fiction - I can tell what TV program my neighbor watches every night. The apparently granite countertop in my kitchen has split along the edge of the sink - and better yet, it's been "fixed" with a rubber sealant, so there's now a flexible hinge of faux stone in front of the sink. This is in a building that's fewer than ten years old, in a compound that is considered one of the most lavish ones in town! So many things that could have been fixed relatively cheaply, especially in comparison to the price of the apartment itself, but the attention to detail just isn't there.

Of course, no gated community would be complete without its own set of rules. I was idly flipping through the welcome book in my apartment when I discovered the residents' code. Strictly "international" attire is to be work on the grounds - which I take to mean no abayas and no niqabs, since I've seen some women in my building wearing the veil over their hair. While visiting the compound's private beach 30 miles away (because of course, why wouldn't it have its own stretch of beach?), only Western clothing may be worn - anyone not adhering to this rule will be asked to leave. While we aren't explicitly told not to bring Saudis onto the grounds, the strong implication is that locals have no reason to come inside, nor should we have any reason to want them to be inside. The very name of my compound, Oasis, implies that we are separate and isolated from our environment.

Of course, the notion that living in a compound keeps you separate from reality only lasts as long as everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief, and not everyone is thrilled about these anomalies. In 2004, there was a series of coordinated attacks in and around Dhahran, and one of the worst sieges was in the building next to mine, inside the same compound. I found this out when I was googling the site trying to find a map to give to a friend coming to visit me last week - instead of the compound website, all i found were news reports and photos. Whoops. On the plus side, US consulate personnel have been moved back in to this facility in the last year, according to what I assume is the barn door principle: once a place is attacked, it's going to be safer than everywhere else for several years thereafter, as the authorities give it extra security patrols and attention.

All in all, I have no real complaints about my accommodations here. I miss my cat, and I don't like living out of a suitcase, but I'm still in housing that's far bigger and plusher - even with the warts - than any housing I've ever had in the States. However, I will be glad to get back to the States, where my home will be smaller but more livable, less ostentatious.


  1. I've missed your fabulous style of writing, though I'm sure not as much as you miss your cat. And I certainly hope that you have a lavish marble bathtub with gold shower curtains. That was my favorite in a fabulously-ornate place I visited in Tunisia. Hot.

  2. I forgot that part - evidently "fully furnished" apartments have beds, couches, tables, lamps, sheets, plates, coffee cups, and wine glasses, but no shower curtains or regular drinking glasses. I felt classy drinking Diet Coke out of a red wine glass, you know. And showering... yeah. Exciting.

  3. FYI - About 1/3 of the population inside the Aramco compounds in the EP are Saudi nationals.