saudi mosque

Living Within the Walls of a Saudi Arabian Compound

saudi mosque jubail

By Kala Barba-Court

The decision to move to Saudi Arabia from Paris was, surprisingly, not a very difficult one. My husband, a construction engineer in the oil and gas industry, is often expatriated to work on projects abroad. Our last expatriation stint before we returned to Paris (which is where we were based until we are once again sent on a new project) was a two-year stay in Qatar, so I was already familiar with the restrictions on pork and alcohol, on dress codes and acceptable public behavior. I’d already been exposed to the bizarre concept of “Family Days” at the malls (where only families can roam the malls on Fridays, while single men are prohibited entry), and had gotten used to people bagging my groceries for me. But The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a different story altogether. It’s one thing to read about it, and another to actually live it.

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is a man’s territory. You feel it immediately upon arriving at the airport, from the segregated lines for women, to the immigration officers who call you “sister” and refuse to meet your eyes. There are professional expat women in Saudi Arabia, but their job descriptions are limited to the schools and hospitals. Most female expats are trailing spouses; those who choose to follow their husbands who are sent to Saudi and who dare to embark on an adventure into a culture often misunderstood.

As women, we acquiesce to their rules. We do not drive, we cover our bodies, we sit in the “Family Section” of restaurants (single or groups of men stay in the “Men Only” sections). We become “dependents”, hereon “sponsored” by our husbands, who are in turn sponsored by their companies, and we cannot leave the country without an exit visa.

Jubail compoundOn the contrary, the abaya, the item that I detested the most, allowed me to blend in and provided a sense of security. Standing out in a crowd is not a good idea for a woman in Saudi. “I envy your black hair,” a Polish woman in my compound told me as we hung out at the children’s park one evening, the only time it was cool enough to actually venture beyond our air-conditioned houses. “Children are always touching my hair, and the women won’t stop staring at me. I put the veil on to avoid this.”

We lived in Jubail, which was a former sleepy fishing village in Saudi’s Eastern province until 1975, when it boomed into the largest industrial city in the Middle East. The views of the city leave much to be desired: a myriad of pipes, buildings, and red-and-white striped flares dominate the horizon, a reddish cloud forming a halo over this large civil engineering project. Views aside, the Eastern area is a relatively relaxed place to live. Women aren’t obliged to cover their heads, although at the advice of long-time expats, I adopted the habit of carrying a shawl in my bag, in case I happened to run into a muttawa (religious police), who would most likely admonish my husband for my “haraam” (sinful) uncovered hair. It never happened, thankfully. One muttawa, who caught a friend of mine without a headcover, didn’t dare touch her, so he poked her with a stick instead.

Jubail compound

Life, as it happens, revolves around the compound. It is a world of its own, an expats-only territory, where you walk around freely in shorts or lounge by the pool in a bikini. They are usually well-facilitated, with Olympic-sized pools, playgrounds, tennis courts, gyms, grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, and rooms converted into movie houses. A veritable tower of Babel, there is an endless slew of multi-cultural activities : “FRENCH LESSONS, THURSDAYS, VILLA 12-B”, “TURKISH FOOD COOKING WORKSHOP CANCELLED TIL MONDAY”, read the signs on the compound’s bulletin board. The compounds have bus services that follow a daily specific route: usually to the grocery, the mall, the fish market, a McDonald’s, and then back again after several hours. The buses are safe for women to take, and all the windows have thick curtains, shut closed.

The irony, of course, is that for all the freedom these compounds offer to expats, they are surrounded by tall walls and gnarls of barbed wire, along with machine gun posts at the two entrance checkpoints. While relatively laid-back compared to the capital Riyadh, a terrorist bombing of an expat compound in the neighboring province of Khobar in May 2004, which killed 19 foreigners, prompted compound owners to take drastic security measures.

As difficult as it is in the beginning, one gets used to Saudi living. Thursdays and Fridays are the official weekends. The stifling heat and lack of cultural activities drive people into malls, encouraging endless shopping for clothes that would go under an abaya anyway. Fitting rooms in boutiques are nonexistent, so taking the same item in different sizes and returning the ill-fitting ones is the shopping norm. There is also a glaring lack of saleswomen – making you chuckle at the paradox of a man helping you select sexy underwear in Saudi. The prayer times were the hardest to get used to. Shops close five times a day during prayer times, sometimes 25 minutes or longer. Grocery shopping can be a very stressful chore because of this. I can’t even count the number of times I’d stood in the darkened supermarket (they close the lights during prayer time), cursing myself for my bad time management.

Jubail compound ocean viewThese details may all seem unbearable, but it’s the price we pay for the tax-free earnings and for the experience gained. Saudi is very family-oriented, thankfully, and it was amusing to see severe-looking Saudi men dressed in dishdashas stoop down to engage my one-year old daughter in baby talk.

My closest friend in my compound, a lovely Malaysian woman, has lived in Jubail for 7 years. “You get used to it,” she told me. “It’s not easy, but eventually this becomes your world.” She gestured her hand towards the swimming pool where children were splashing around, as an Indian waiter served us chilled glasses of lemon-mint tea. I thought back to the conversation I had with a fifteen-year old Russian girl in our compound, who was born in Jubail and has never left except for yearly holidays back to St. Petersburg. “I don’t like Russia,” she confided. “There are too many people, too many cars, and they are all scary. It’s not safe out there, you know?” She then excused herself to go to meet a friend, running down the street of this picturesque village, an ersatz version of safety, a mirage of the real world.


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Kala CourtAbout Kala Barba-Court
Kala is a web designer & writer who moved to Paris from Manila, Philippines in 2003. She has since lived in the South of France, Qatar, Rome & Saudi Arabia, but always returns to Paris, her home-base. With a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines, she is drawn to anything related to art, the internet, writing, photography, and the holy trinity of Goodness: Good Music, Good Movies & Good Books. She contributes to Untapped Cities, maintains an art and writing portfolio and a personal blog.

  1. Interesting story. I lived as an expat in Jubail under similar circumstances in the mid-1980s. It sounds like not much has changed…although I expect it is a lot bigger and more sophisticated than the city I knew! And of course, in those days there was no internet. We didn’t even have a TV!

  2. Hi Lee, nice to see a fellow Jubail-er. I can only imagine how it looked like during the time you were there. Yes, I think a lot of things have changed since then but the core is still pretty much the same. Jubail is still a bit sleepy but there is a mall now along the Corniche, and Khobar has grown in leaps and bounds it seems — lots of malls and restaurants now. And of course, there’s the easy access to Bahrain via the Causeway, so Jubail doesn’t seem like too bad a place to live in when in Saudi Arabia.

    I can’t imagine how life must have been in Jubail without internet. The internet was the only thing that kept me sane and made me feel connected somehow, even though most of the sites were blocked, of course!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this! My friend posted this on my facebook page a few days ago and her timing was most opportune. My family and I are about to move to Bahrain next week cos of my dad’s foreign posting and I truly didn’t know what to expect. I am a bit nervous about the completely different culture as I was raised in the States and in the Philippines. And I am also a varsity swimmer (this is what scares me the most– are we supposed to swim in rash guards to cover up our bodies??)

    Your writing is very promising and touching. It made me at least a bit more prepared and conscious about the do’s and don’t’s. One last thing though, you say there’s easy access from Saudi to Bahrain via the Causeway?

    1. Hi Louise, I’m glad this article was able to help you. You’ll be fine in Bahrain – Bahrain is very open, and the entire place is less strict than Saudi (they have alcohol and pork, and cinemas, so already that’s a huge difference). You won’t need the abaya, and you can swim in the pools of hotels – in a bathing suit! I’ve never tried swimming in a hotel in Jubail, but I was told that there are special “women only” schedules, or you have to book in advance (something like that). You’ll just have to respect the culture as much as you can, cover your shoulders and knees as respect, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay there.

      People from Saudi take the Causeway to get to Bahrain (a long bridge between the two countries). They have border guards who check your exit visas then you’re free to cross. A lot of people from the eastern province spend their weekends in Bahrain to let their hair down (and to put the abaya away for a few days).

      Good luck on your move!

  4. Thanks Kala! This article made me feel less lonely here in Oman. I arrived last week and I’m facing a cultural shock. I’m Italian and I’m currently travelling and living around Asia. I had been in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia for many months, then decided to live in Oman for a while at a friend’s house. I don’t feel much comfortable here: men stare at me (tall, blond, blue eyes etc etc), propose, honk; there are no women walking in my neighbourhood and I feel shy to grab my camera and my notebook and walk on the street. Oman is a free country compared to Saudi Arabia, but still I don’t feel at ease. The lack of freedom makes men fervently desire what they can’t have and secretly break Islam rules. I feel like something is not going well under the surface.

  5. I was wondering whether, in order to live in this country, I have to totally change my “Italian attitude”, such as looking at men on their eyes while speaking or being very friendly. It’s changelling: being able to live here in Oman, without losing my own personality.

    1. I think moving to Oman is a very courageous and adventurous move so I admire that. The Middle East countries do take some time to get used to. A friend once told me that it usually take a couple of months to get acclimatised, but it does happen eventually. I understand what you said about being yourself without losing your personality. In Qatar, what worked for me was keeping my distance, not being too overly friendly (as Asians, we have this habit of smiling a lot which usually gets misinterpreted by men) and keeping an open mind and abiding by the rules. I do hope you continue to write and take photos to document your stay there. You picked a great country … I find Oman beautiful, still a bit raw and untouched compared to the other emerging Middle East countries (UAE, Qatar). Best of luck!

      1. I do agree with you. I believe men here are misinterpreting my smiling and welcoming face. Yes, Oman is still untouched, thanks also to their Sultan policy. I hope tourism won’t spoil this beautiful country. I’ll visit Iran next week, let’s see if things are different out there 🙂

  6. “There is also a glaring lack of saleswomen – making you chuckle at the paradox of a man helping you select sexy underwear in Saudi”
    Right. Because a man had no idea what looks good on a woman…

    1. You obviously have no clue about the country culture. In Saudi in it not acceptable for a men to interact with a women, at all. Furthermore, there is no way in hell that you would get advice from a Saudi Men concerning your looks. He can go to jail for that. And just imagine for a second – there are no saleswomen: NONE. Every single shop has salesmen. And let’s be sensible, it’s like having only saleswomen at car shops – it’s actually quite ridiculous.

  7. Hello i am from Grece and we are planning to move to Jubail as my husband is already working at Khamis myshat of Saudi and he will be tranfered there. So can somebody tell me about the life style there as i have two kids 12 (girl) and 15 (boy ) years old…can you teell me about the international schools and about the athletic activities….and i dont know………anything will be helpful to me !!!
    And one more thing between Jubail and Riand ??? Where is better living ???
    Thank you in advance

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