Postcards from Saudi Arabia

The Dammam Airport.

Before leaving the U.S., we checked the Saudi weather via the Internet. We knew it was going to be hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees during the day, cooling down to a balmy one hundred at night, accompanied by mild humidity drifting in from the Persian Gulf. As we flew over Iraq, I searched the terrain for landmarks and worried about stray missiles.

Upon our arrival, airport security promptly took my wife’s passport and left us sitting by a giant prayer rug. The well-intentioned cautions of friends and family rumbled through my head as we waited; “Be careful over there!” my dentist had warned. Why had they taken my wife’s passport? After all, I was the guy lying about my occupation. Was this the first step toward seeing the inside of a Saudi jail?

Thankfully, the customs agent returned after a half-hour with Janice’s passport, touched his heart, and welcomed us to his country.

The Expat Compounds.

Employee compounds are, in every sense, small cities unto themselves, typically surrounded by eight-foot concrete walls topped with razor wire. Armed guards at every gate lazily wave in every expat—the common name for employees from America and Europe—without hassle. Inside, the compounds look like any suburban townhouse development, dotted with tiny green lawns that are forever being watered. To keep Westerners from having to mingle with the native populace, they also have a commissary, a mosque, and often, a Christian church hidden in someone’s house; no religion other than Islam is openly welcome in the kingdom.

Every company, national or international, that hires Westerners tries to offer as many amenities as possible: soccer fields, pools, basketball courts—even, according to some rumors, horse stables and movie theaters. The last is an important diversion, considering that cinemas are banned in Saudi; but apparently, the presence of a theater isn’t as threatening as a church. Because there’s no such thing as rush hour (work and home are literally minutes away), and virtually no distractions, the expats have tremendous amounts of free time on their hands. As a result, most are hardbodies. Kids and adults belong to running and biking clubs or swim teams; they play soccer in the heat of summer and baseball throughout the relatively mild winter. For all intents and purposes, the compounds are a bit of suburban American utopia carved into the heart of the desert.

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