Tony worked across Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, Al-Khobar and Jeddah, where he met his wife who has worked there for twelve years.
What Is Expat Housing?
Most expats find themselves living in Western compounds in Saudi Arabia (KSA). This expat housing is like living in a small self-contained holiday village (or prison, depending on your point of view). The better ones have multiple pools, restaurants, markets, and so on. Within the compounds, the dress is Western, some going as far as banning any form of Saudi dress, and Saudis certainly are not allowed on at all socially!
Generally, accommodation on Western compounds in KSA is of reasonable quality and quite spacious. Compound living is quite expensive compared to living off-compound (anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000SAR for a 3-bed villa or even more), but most westerners choose this way of life due to freedom and security as well as the facilities. I would not recommend living off-compound if you have a wife and children; at least within the compound, they have relative freedom.
Most expats have their accommodation costs paid directly by their employer who will also normally arrange housing. However, there is a shortage of good housing in the better compounds in the main cities, so it may take some time to get somewhere suitable for yourself and your family.
Personally, I lived in one of the medium sized compounds in Riyadh, known as Seder Compound, which was at the time expanding its number of villas considerably to add many more guests. I also visited many other expat compounds in Riyadh and also Jeddah and Al-Khobar. When I moved to Jeddah however, I elected to live off compound and experience more about the local life here.
The compounds are very secure. They have high concrete walls generally topped with an additional metal or net extension to prevent things being thrown over. Concrete blocks are placed all the way around the compounds preventing anyone getting close. To get to the entrance you normally have to drive through a concrete slalom course before getting to at least two security gates. The outer one will check your car and open the trunk. (Mine is often full of boxes, which could contain anything, but they don’t check inside!) The inner will check your ID, which, if you are a visitor, they will retain—a copy of which will then be sent to one of the ministries along with the name of the person you are visiting (big brother is watching you here!). They will also look after your moral wellbeing so don't expect them to let single girls through to see you if you are a single man!
In addition to the compound security you have the national guard, fully armed with automatic weapons, machine gun placements strategically placed to cover the entrance, and even a tank at one compound (at least one lighter vehicle at most compounds). The perimeter is often patrolled and cameras are placed around the perimeter to make further checks. It can be quite unnerving driving into one of the compounds if you are not used to this: hotels, embassies, and government buildings are similarly protected.
Living off-compound is not recommended for westerners, and is discouraged, as places that house Westerners are required to use and pay for the National Guard protection. I only know one Westerner living off-compound. I'm not sure if it's strictly legal under Saudi law, but he does it anyway as most people are not sure about the law!
Saudi Compound Video
Villas and Apartments
The quality and size of the accommodation can vary quite a lot between different Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, so it is best to go and have a good look around. However, when it comes to finding a place, it can be hard work. Most of the compounds are full and have a long waiting list for vacant space. However, waiting lists can be worked around if you know the right people and have the right tools (tools required are usually found in your wallet).
The best situation you can be in is if the company has already secured your accommodation; otherwise you could be in for a long wait.
Most accommodation on compounds aimed at Westerners is quite spacious and well maintained, normally around 150 – 200 sqm for a 3 bed type villa or apartment. A Saudi would consider this tiny! This will come with all of the usual rooms; kitchen, living area, bedrooms, and often multiple bathrooms—Saudis love bathrooms! If you are lucky you will also have a small garden, which is great for evenings.
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Compound Life in Saudi Arabia
If your compound is aimed at Westerners then it will generally have a good range of facilities: swimming pools, gyms, tennis courts, shops, restaurants, and so on. They are self-contained villages and you can survive without ever leaving them.
Some have social clubs and clubhouses in which various events happen: parties, discos, meals, films, etc. The management and relations with local authorities will determine on how “Western” some of these events can become. Some have “bars” although these are run by residents on an unofficial basis and entry strictly controlled to residents and a few lucky guests. The drinks, however, are usually home brewed and the quality can vary considerably.
Guests are strictly controlled, lists having to be provided and approved before guests arrive. You cannot bring the Saudis onto the compound in the evenings as guests. You may be able to during the day for work purposes, but they will be expected to be going to your accommodation only!
As a single man you cannot bring in women! All guests onto the compound have to have their ID checked and their names will be passed to the “ministry” along with whom they are visiting. You will have to get her to visit a friend’s wife! There are always ways around these rules as long as you have a few friends.
Life can be very boring on compound after a while: same location, same people, same small places, etc. Many of the guys I know end up in “holiday” mode, congregating around the pool or friends' places every evening to have a drink and complain about work.
For the women who do not work, there are organized events, coffee mornings, trips to the malls, and so on. The restrictive rules applied outside are not relevant inside, and residents are able to dress normally, drive around, and mix however they wish.
Some of the compounds in Saudi Arabia have schools/nurseries for the younger children. However, you will want to send your children to an “international” school where they will be picked up and dropped off. The school generally starts early morning and ends mid-afternoon.
I do not have children here, but friends are on the whole happy with the education that their children receive. The more expensive the school the better the level of education on the whole.
Small update: the international school that my friend's children attend in Jeddah has just been closed as the books that were used were not "Muslim enough" and they were teaching "Christian Values." All of the staff at the school have also been deported!
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Housing Off-Compound in Saudi Arabia
Living in housing off-compound is generally much cheaper in Saudi Arabia. You can find a good quality apartment for 40,000SAR or cheaper in the center of the cities and find something much bigger or a place with a private pool on the edges of the cities for a similar price.
I have an apartment that has two bedrooms, each about 4.5M by 4.5M and each have a large bathroom with both bath and shower. The living area is very large, around 100sqm in size in which I have my sitting area with sofas and TV, a dining area (sound system and lights set up as a disco area for parties), and a large space for my pool table! It's very spacious, and there is a kitchen and an additional bathroom. This is a small apartment and costs me 33,000SAR per year ($8,800).
My only additional costs are my electricity (around 100SAR), water (again about 100SAR: some buildings are on main supply which is free but unreliable, since buildings top-up from tankers that have to be paid for), and 100SAR that I give to the building guard to wash my car every morning (you have to do this daily since the sand and dust settles on the car every night).
Finding Expatriate Accommodation Off-Compound
Finding expat housing in Saudi Arabia off-compound can be quite difficult, especially if you want to avoid getting ripped off! Most Saudis will just drive around looking for notices in buildings, written in Arabic, or go to local real estate offices and ask. The real estate offices are easy to spot as they will be with the other small shops but they will look like a plush office with seating for a few extra people. You will almost certainly be ripped off as they will try to increase their commission at your expense. Finding empty apartments can be quite simple: just drive around the area you fancy and look for gaps where air-conditioning units should be as most people have to supply their own. Gaps mean vacancies. Ask the guard on the building and he will be far more honest about the price (but this should still be bartered), plus the guard will be able to give you a tour of the building.
Most rent is paid six months in advance, but you may be able to negotiate quarterly if you are lucky. They actually prefer expats as tenants as most Saudis are terrible payers. One of my Saudi friends rents out his family's apartments and is in court regularly to get money from defaulters or to get them to move on.
The Advantages of Living Off-Compound
Living in housing off-compound in Saudi Arabia gives you the freedom of movement, including for guests, that you don’t have on a Saudi Arabian compounds, but it does become quite lonely if you are alone. If you are not easily able to mix and find your own “fun,” don’t do it!
If you are a single guy living on compound and you want to invite single ladies back to your villa or apartment, it can be very difficult here in Saudi Arabia. However if you are living off compound in KSA, there is no security to get through, just very nosey neighbors keeping an eye on you! They do watch, and they complain if they see anything they don't like!
I far prefer this option: if I want compound facilities and parties I just get myself invited!
A Final Word
For Westerners, living on an "expensive" compound really is the best and most secure choice to make, especially if you have a family.
Most others live off-compound as it is much cheaper to live and they have large communities of their fellow country people to rely on. So be very careful if you choose to live off compound.
The best of luck in finding a compound or an apartment and I hope that you enjoy living and working in Saudi Arabia as much as I have.