It’s Boxing Day morning and I’m sat in the upper lounge of my girlfriend’s parents’ home on a compound in Saudi Arabia. It is sunny but not hot. Through the window I watch palm trees shimmy in the breeze. Downstairs, Girlfriend’s Mum is putting away the remains of the Christmas crockery. The giant flatscreen television is tuned to the security channel, which is currently running a slideshow of names and faces of personnel in different compounds. Bizarrely, the Manic Street Preachers plays as accompaniment.
Knowing the current security level is vital to daily life, perhaps more so since a neighbouring compound was attacked a few years ago. It is discussed on noticeboards and in weekly compound newsletters. K and her mother have plans to head to one of Dammam’s giant shopping malls shortly, to exchange a Christmas present – a not-quite-right skirt. This is only possible if conditions allow. The current security level is Amber, which is considered good: it means there is a clear and present danger, but not a specific threat. Red is less cheery news but most dreaded is Lockdown. This means shutting yourself into your house, securing doors and windows, closing every curtain, then making for your designated “safe room” until the all-clear sounds.
Girlfriend’s Dad has already gone to work. It is, after all, Saturday, which is the first day of the working week here. We were lucky that Christmas fell on a Friday, which is the Saudi equivalent of a Sunday, though it meant revels could not continue too late. GD, who is a teacher, leaves for work before 6am: for much of the year, the desert heat is too stifling for work by early afternoon. The early start also compensates for time lost to the late morning prayer.
K and her mother have donned abayas and left, by taxi, for the mall. Women are not allowed to drive. Technically, they should not be seen in public without a male chaperone but this is one of many rules which is starting to be relaxed in Saudi, and especially in Dammam, with its large expat population.
Our Christmas day celebrations merit their own blog: suffice to say that I am not hungover, but have learnt a lot about homemade wine. Right now, a silence has settled. The only sound is the white noise of traffic on the highways just beyond the perimeter of the compound, and the occasional chirp of birds. Many compound residents are at work, I suppose, and others may have secured time off to spend Christmas with family back home. Still there is a striking quiet to this place.
There are perhaps a hundred houses here, identical two-storey blocks with flat roofs, short driveways and garages, arranged in a tidy grid like the suburbs of an American town. On Christmas Eve, our first full day here, Girlfriend’s Mum took us on a walking tour of the compound. K has lived in Saudi before, spending her early teens at a nearby international school, but her parents have recently moved to this new compound; the houses – open-plan rooms with sliding French windows – are considered a step up from normal expat accommodation. Like other compounds, ours has a pool and a gym. Both were deserted. So too the indoor tennis court, the aerobics room and the restaurant, which, with its series of pre-laid long tables, looks like a village hall decked out for a wedding party. In fact, apart from the occasional Indian-looking man in a light-brown jumpsuit tending one of the immaculate clusters of shrubs that punctuate the compound, there is a ghost town feel to our tour.
Until we meet S–. A small, energetic Brit of around 50, he had bounced out of his car, a vintage Cadillac, and up the steps towards the recreation centre. He greeted GM as an old friend; we inferred he was visiting from a neighbouring compound. Within seconds, he was telling us about an incident in a hotel in Cairo where he was drugged by a barman who wanted to rob his room. “I want to go back and kill him,” he says. “My dad was Special Forces. It’s in the blood.”
S—, like GD, is a teacher; his students are new recruits, training with the Royal Saudi Air Force. Elements of training are outsourced to BAe Systems. S– recounts a story about an environmentally-minded colleague: “He’s talking about saving the planet. We’re working for a company that makes things that kill people!” S– wavers between hating expat life then “getting happy again”. He has just filled his car with petrol for 35 Riyals – less than 6 pounds. As we leave, he refers once more to the Cairo barman. “I want to kill him,” he calls after us. “I want to kill some Muslims!”
Then, as we look back with nervous smiles: “I’m only joking!”