Thursday, April 26, 2012

Our Top Ten Tips for Non-Compound Dwellers in Saudi Arabia

This is a whole different kind of sandbox.

I know I've written about non-compound dwelling already, but with our move just over a month away it's been on my mind a lot lately. I've gotten a lot of time for self-reflection since moving to the Kingdom; not being able to drive gives you that luxury, I guess. As I've been reflecting on my time in Saudi Arabia, I've realized that the experience the Mister and I have had these two years has been very unique, even among most expats that are living here. Every time we talk to any other expats that we meet, they assume we live on a compound. It's the default housing situation for Western immigrant workers in this country. And the shocked expression we always get when we say we're living out "in the wild" cracks me up. Yes, Virginia, there is a life beyond the walls of Aramco.

...It's tough to come by, but it is possible to have a social life if you work at it.

That said, I should confess that the Mister and I have largely failed at the challenge of finding a vibrant social life for ourselves. So this list is a little ironic, I suppose. I still want to put it out there in case there are any other community-starved expats in the Kingdom that stumble across this blog. So here it is:

Our Top Ten Tips for Surviving Without Living on a Compound in Saudi Arabia:

#10: Books. And movies. And iTunes downloads. Never read War and Peace because you never had the time? Well guess what!? You're in luck! Not living on a compound allows you a lot of time to sit around, especially during the work week. So pick up a book, download some movies, or get an iTunes season pass to the TV show everyone is watching at home. You've got to find your own entertainment, and a lot of times that will involve just you and some form of media.

#9: Don't be afraid to explore your neighborhood. It's Saudi Arabia. There's not going to be a welcome wagon pulling up to your door as soon as the moving vans leave. No one is coming over with pie to tell you all about the neighborhood. You need to get out and explore. Don't go knocking on strangers' doors; that's a good way to get branded as the local creeper. But do explore the shops and restaurants nearby. Get to know the local shop owners. Most of them are also not Saudi and will be thrilled to have an American as a regular customer. They might just pass along helpful tips and possibly invite you over for a truly cultural experience in their own homes.

#8. Be willing to drop some cash for the luxury of having something to do. There are plenty of gatherings for expats in Saudi Arabia, but most of them come with a cover charge. Until you're able to build a base of friends that you'll visit with a lot, be prepared to get invited to parties and pay at the door.

#7. Accept every invitation, or at least the majority of them. This is something the Mister and I did not do. I don't know why we thought we had the freedom to be snobby with our free time, but it is definitely one of our big regrets. We should have been more willing to do things we didn't particularly want to do if only for the sake of being around other people. You don't have the luxury of being picky with your social engagements. And in Saudi Arabia, if you snub the first one or two invitations, they're going to stop coming and you'll be forever alone.
Yeah. Like this guy.

#7. Get a smart phone. This sounds so lame, and if me-from-two-years-ago were reading this, she would totally roll her eyes. But since the Mister created the monster and bought me my first ever smart phone in December, I have felt so much more connected. I've been able to download an app that allows me to SMS with friends and family back home. I downloaded the Skype app for a little while and was able to make phone calls to the States on my phone (the app took up too much space on my phone's tiny internal memory, so I had to delete choose your smart phone wisely). The other day when we were completely lost on a compound trying to meet up with someone, I was able to pull up her email that contained her phone number and the directions to where we were trying to go. There are currency conversion apps, language dictionary apps, so many things that help an expat without a community feel like she can actually belong somewhere: connected to the old home, adjusting to the new home.

I'm sure current smart phoners are saying, "Duh. We know all this," but I just wanted to make sure we were all aware of the wonders of technology.

Warning to iPhoners: If you bought your iPhone from one of the service providers at home (like AT&T), you won't be able to use your phone outside of the US without jail breaking it. I guess the good news is that there is no shortage of people in the Kingdom who have no moral issue with doing just that for you. But if you don't want to jail break (and possibly permanently break) your expensive iPhone, consider trading your current one in for the more expensive, unlocked, bought-it-from-an-independent-shop-or-possibly-from-an-online-dealer iPhone. It'll be worth your investment because you'll be able to put a SIM card into it where ever you go in the world.

#6. Don't be a wet blanket. We're all homesick. We're all jarred by the sudden lack of Western conveniences. We all hate the driving. There is no point in belaboring the fact that Saudi Arabia is not the USA. So stop talking about it. Yes. All expats have that initial catharsis of "Dang, it's really hard to live here" when they first meet. But you should just briefly acknowledge the misery and move on. Talk about what you do for a living (without bitching about how not-like-your-old-job-at-home it is). Discuss travel plans or dreams. Ask for tips on the best shawarma place. Even if the other people around you are stuck in the funk, you'll find that most people are attracted to a ray of sunshine, and that ray should be you. Shine, my friend. Shine.

#5. Be prepared to not find your ideal social group. Let's face it. You can't be picky. And expats are a weird bunch of people. Especially if they're weird enough to not live on a compound. You'll find that most of the expats you meet at the typical gatherings that are off-compound are the other weirdos like you who didn't get recruited by one of the big oil or military consultant companies. You got suckered into coming to Saudi Arabia for the "cultural experience" and now you don't have any friends, Saudi or otherwise.

Sure, perhaps at home you wouldn't be particularly interested in befriending a guy who only talks about his RC model planes, but here you are. Maybe video games from the 1970s aren't exactly your bag, but there's not much else on the conversational table, so dig in. You'll be surprised how quickly you discover that you actually do have something in common with these weirdos and they are quite tolerable if not enjoyable. Being a non-compound expat expands your horizons in several ways, so relish the fact that you're meeting all these new people and get over yourself.

#4. Find a Guy. No, I don't mean you need to start dating (most of our single friends will tell you that is EXTREMELY hard for non-compounders). I mean you need to adopt the Arab habit of having a guy for everything. You need to find a social-scene Guy. And fast. A lot of the parties or gatherings I have mentioned are invitation-only. You can't get an invitation unless you know the host or someone who knows the host. Saudi Arabia isn't like college where you can wander around campus and follow the sound of a party and let yourself in. In fact, party crashing is a big no-no here. You need to know a Guy. This is one of the most difficult parts of getting connected to the non-compound expat social scene in Saudi Arabia. But if you have followed our advice in this list, the Guy will find you. Be prepared for this to take a few weeks or even a month or two (longer if you're a wet blanket), but be patient. Enjoy your books, movies and iTunes downloads in the meantime.

#3. Have parties, or gatherings of some sort. Start with your new colleagues, especially the other international recruits. Chances are someone in your office has started his or her own quest for a Guy and will invite their new weirdo expat friends to your invitation-only gathering. Welcome people into your home, cook for them, entertain them, and they'll usually return the favor. This is something the Mister and I should have done a lot more of here. We learned this lesson too late. I've tried to have more gatherings this year, but I missed my chance. Trust me, there is nothing more lonely or disheartening than to get yourself all excited and motivated to jump start your social life with a rousing game night, only to find that everyone else has found more interesting things to do and it's just you and the snacks. ...and your husband. So have parties. And have them early in your Saudi Arabian career.

#2. Develop a hobby. Ultimate frisbee needs to become your new sport of choice. Taking afternoon jogs through the desert should suddenly have a new appeal to you, trust me. You are Saudi Arabia's newest animal activist. All of these new hobbies have groups full of people that like to organize events in Saudi Arabia, and you need to become a part of them. Even if you have the world's worst hand-eye coordination, can't run to save your life, and are slightly allergic to cats, you need to get out there and pick up a hobby of some sort anyway. Again, finding a Guy (#4) and trying things you wouldn't otherwise try at home (#7) will help you to discover these new interests so don't be shy (#1).

If you're more of a loner, pick up an at-home hobby. I've been scrapbooking and it's helped to keep me from going crazy on those failed-game-night nights.

#1. Become extroverted. This is, by far, the most important rule of living off a compound in Saudi Arabia. You're not really the type to just strike up a conversation with strangers, you say? Get over it. Or get used to having yourself as your only company. I recommend you have a series of unique, non-invasive, conversation-starting questions. Full disclosure: the Mister and I have only just discovered this trick (ok, maybe only I have discovered this trick and I'm still a little timid about trying it out), but each time we've tried it, we've had success.

The more you stray from the "So where are you from" question that starts every expat conversation in this country, the more interesting you are. That means people will be more likely to want to hang out with you again. That means you'll find your Guy sooner. That means you'll get introduced to your new hobby sooner.

Hopefully this post will help some overwhelmed new recruit. If it does, give us a shout out in the comments. Otherwise, I hope it was slightly entertaining, even for those of you who have no desire to leave the comforts of the States.

Vicariously yours,


  1. i'm inferring that you don't like it in saudi. if i were a foreigner that have never been to saudi, i wouldn't think of visiting saudi after all these negative vibes from reading your posts on this blog. i don't think it's as bad or boring as you describe it. i'm an expact who moved to alkhobar long time ago and i genuinely love this place and the people here. i don't know why your neighbors haven't approached you or invited you. But when i first moved in to my house - which is not in a compound- i felt very welcomed. anyways, i've got a question for you: Do you regret moving to Saudi? and does the idea of moving to Kuwait very soon makes you feel better?

    1. No, my husband and I don't regret moving to Saudi Arabia at all! We've found this country to be extremely interesting, but I won't say that "welcoming" is a word I would use to describe our over all feeling from the locals. Our time here has been a major professional challenge, and that's a large part of the reason why we're leaving. But we've also been able to strengthen our marriage and get to know each other a lot better--despite having dated for 10 years before getting married! Moving to Kuwait will offer us a chance to grow as teachers and get the development we need to stay competent in our field, and that makes me feel a lot better. We'll also be able to plug in with a community right away because of the way our new employer has organized their teacher population. I think Saudi Arabia is as fun as you make it. But in our experience, it takes a lot of time and effort to find that fun. I met one expat who also doesn't live on a compound and she talked about how much she loves living here, but it took her a while to feel like she took almost 10 years. I'm glad she finally feels welcomed, but I'm not willing to hang around for 10 years in the hopes of finally getting to know my Saudi neighbors.

      Here's a question for you: where is your home country? We've found that, unfortunately, the American expats can be a little snobby toward non-compounders and that has made us feel even more isolated. It seemed like expat groups from other countries (especially from other Arab countries) were usually also off-compound and had a stronger tendency to form a support network around new arrivals. I was very jealous of that.

  2. I came from france with my husband 20 years ago (we're both french). Since my husband doesn't work in an oil company, we didn't have the choice to live in Aramco, so we choose to live in a normal, saudi neighborhood. When i first moved in to my new house our closest neighbor has invited my husband along with the neighborhood to a feast he had arranged to introduce us to the neighborhood, and his wife has invited me along with the lovely ladies of the neighborhood and she has explained to me that in Islam it's their duty as neighbors to welcome us. Most of them spoke english, so there wasn't really a language barrier. She also gave her number and told me not to hesitate to call if we needed any help. So my first experience with Saudis was amazing! And my first impression was that they were very sophisticated people with high morals. I was really shocked when you said you didn't feel welcomed from your neighbors, maybe an explanation would be that this generation has changed, i don't know but i hope not. Did you also feel "unwelcomed" from you teen students or from your colleagues? If you know anyone from the europe ville compound, or Aramco, let them get you in, and start socialising there, if it helps.

  3. Just a brilliant article! I'm leaving for Riyadh in a few weeks and your 10 tips seem to be speaking directly to me. Wow! THANK YOU!