Saudi Arabia's traditional and conservative culture are a favorite trope in international media. But something less discussed, is the parallel societies that exist in tandem.

The kingdom has depended on expats for decades in order to maintain its massive oil industry and other economic sectors. For generations, Arab expats and others from around the world have found opportunities in the kingdom, making a life for themselves and their families, despite traditions that aren't the norm back home. 

But, many of these expats live inside walled compounds, little cities that function free of many of the kingdom's strict regulations. What is it like living and growing up in this parallel society? A society within a kingdom? 

We were curious ... so we asked millennials what it was like growing up in Saudi compounds. While the media often shares the worst about Saudi Arabia, many of those we spoke to actually talked of fond memories from their childhood. At the same time, some referred to their compound homes as a "luxury prison." 


It was like living 'in the movies'

"It was the closest thing to living the way I saw in the movies. Freshly mown green grass, trees, a big, beautiful house. I grew up with dogs and cats. I spent the afternoons riding bikes with my buddies, climbing trees, swimming in one of three swimming pools. Outside the compound was just dust, sand, skyscrapers and malls. Inside the compound some semblance of 'real life' could take place. It was only after moving back to Sydney as a young adult that I realized just how artificial my childhood was."

– Udhara de Silva, Australian

It made some 'more open minded'

"We were surrounded by neighbors from literally all over the world. I grew up with friends that came from very different cultural backgrounds and that was great for my education in some ways because it really helped me become a much more open minded person as they call it. Also, I cannot miss the fact that the playgrounds in the compounds were 'the shit', haha. I used to spend most of my time there with my friends. The only thing I disliked was the contrast between the inside of a compound and the outside world. They are so different, you wouldn't even believe it's the same country you're in."

– Tania Bizri, Lebanese-American

Compounds are an 'oasis'

"I always use the 'an oasis in the desert' metaphor. Guess we were the oasis."

– Anonymous

It was always 'safe'

"I lived in a protective bubble. People who don't know anything about the region would probably assume that we didn't live in comfort but it was the opposite. I always felt safe living in Saudi. However, our 'bubble' did sometimes feel like we were too sheltered from the outside world."

– Suzy Bader, Lebanese-American

'Like a little village'

"I remember the security, like a little village protected from a completely unknown world. I had my friends just next door: Egyptians, Jordanians, Americans and Canadians. It was an opening to new cultures, religions and traditions. I also liked having the pool one minute from my house."

– Daliah Karanouh, Lebanese-French

'A luxury prison'

"Compounds were both a curse and a blessing. Living inside a luxury prison came with a lot of perks. We had access to a very rich and vast cultural melting pot. I learned to understand various cultures and mostly other religions. Some of the teachings of growing up in compounds are still part of my everyday life, mainly accepting others. Nevertheless, as I said these compounds were luxury prisons with temporary rights of leave. So, as much as we had access to a large number of activities we were always safe behind closed walls."

– Farid Rizkallah, Lebanese


No camel rides to school

"I think there are so many things that people don't understand about Saudi. Western media throws out inaccurate stereotypes and audiences tend to use that as evidence to define the country as a whole, from the misrepresentation of Arabs to labeling the religion as repressive and backwards. People always assume it's a hot, wasteland that is still living in pre-historic times. I do not take a camel to school. Yes, we do have electricity. Freezing temperatures were recorded this year in Saudi Arabia, where it actually snows in the country's northern mountains."

– Suzy Bader, Lebanese-American

Beautiful memories

"You can have very beautiful memories in this country and a wonderful childhood. Of course, the country is what it is ... but when you're a child you don't see beyond the beauty and you leave the country with some very beautiful memories. For my part, that's the case."

– Daliah Karanouh, Lebanese-French

But there are compromises

"The biggest misconception people have of Saudi is that it's a totally foreign place where you have to completely give up the lifestyle and values you had back home in return for a tax-free income. The reality is that if you're a foreigner (a privileged foreigner, an 'expat', not an 'immigrant', who have very different experiences as laborers or other professions) you live in a bubble where you get to live about 80 percent of the life you'd live back home. With this in mind, it is quite possible to have enriching relationships and an authentic experience as long as you are fully aware that the other 20 percent is full of compromise, superficiality, and culture shock."

– Udhara de Silva, Australian


Not as an adult woman

"Honestly, I wouldn't voluntarily live there again if it were up to me. But only because as a woman it would be hard for me to cope with their restrictions outside of compounds."

– Tania Bizri, Lebanese-American

Everything changed

"I visited Saudi as an adult a couple of years ago. I couldn't recognize the place after being away for so long because of the incredible pace of development and construction. None of my friends live there anymore. It was at that point that I realized that my 'home' wasn't really a home. The people made it my home. And they no longer lived there."

– Udhara de Silva, Australian