There are two options when it comes to choosing accommodation in Jeddah, you can opt to live on a walled compound or chose to live ‘In Arabia’.
The former is, naturally, more expensive than the latter, not least because the houses typically come unfurnished and when they say that they mean it. Friends living outside have to provide their own kitchen units and white goods and even AC units as well as meet the more typical furniture expectations. Houses in a compound cost more to rent but come furnished. As well as meaning that new arrivals do not need to find a budget for kitchen units the costs cover provision of security, corner shops and exercise/relaxation facilities as well as all utility charges. When we arrived we moved straight into Mr EE’s predecessor’s house to make things simple. It gives us a base for the first 6 months which will allow us to look at the different housing options available to us. We have since moved in to our own, larger, home complete with a bedroom for each child and a garden for the pets.
While I would normally prefer to live away from other expats in a private home in a more local district that choice is not really practical for our life here in KSA. As I cannot drive I would have to take a taxi to and from school every afternoon to collect the children, I would need to wear an abaya just to step out of the house, could not send the children to collect last minute essentials from the corner shop and not be able to swim to my heart's content in a public swimming pool. The latter issues are, of course, minor but the driving and transport was the deciding factor for us. Most of our friends who live off compounds have no or older children and so are not limited in the same way.
Our compound is attached to Mr EE and the children’s school. This makes for an easy 2 minute commute for Mr EE in the morning and means he can pop home for supper and to see the children before going back to work again in the evening. Given the proximity of the school and home we also allow Master and Miss EE to go to and from school by themselves and one can do after school clubs while the other comes home and vice versa, they are not stuck waiting for eachother. This independence is fantastic for them and it means that they are learning to be responsible for their own timekeeping. Mr EE drops Mini EE off at her crèche every morning and I pick her up just before the older children get home. The school run in our last posting took up a significant portion of my day, at one stage Master and Miss EE had different pick up times so I would spend 3 hours on collection duty just in the afternoon. If Mr EE was away and unable to do the morning drop off I had another hour. I find that I am so much more productive here because of this.
Our compound has a small shop, some exercise facilities, a library, recreation room and 2 pool complexes. It also provides a shopping bus twice a day so that it is easy to go and get groceries or run errands while private lift share cars such as Uber and Careem are allowed onto the compound to drop me at my door. Some of the other compounds have larger shops, restaurants, travel agents, beauty salons and hairdressers etc (some even have a bowling alley and one a vets). They are, to all intents and purposes, small villages in their own right. Each has their own character but while it might be nice to be able to pick and choose the reality is that almost all the good compounds have long waiting lists particularly for family sized homes so most people go where their employers put them.
Because there are heavy restrictions on mixed social activities in KSA the compounds, alongside the consulates, become the hub of expat activity. A quick google will make Jeddah seem like an activities and cultural desert simply because no one posts anything online. Once you arrive, however, and start to get to know where to look, there are things to do everywhere.
The greatest upside and the saddest downside of life on the compound is that we are massively insulated from real life in KSA. We live a life of luxury cocooned from the outside. I think it would be possible for someone to come to live in Jeddah (or any other Saudi city for that matter) and never really realise what life is like in the city. Of course many of our friends and contacts are other western expats and most of the organised social events are arranged with these interest groups in mind so we have had to make a particular effort to connect and become friends with locals and long term expats, to read the local news and try to stay in touch with what is going on outside the expat community. This means we catch glimpses and hear snippets of what life is really like at both ends of the spectrum, the grinding poverty of the sub continent expat labourers and the nonchalant opulence of life for the super rich. There are times we regret that circumstances force us into our bubble. Then pragmatic reality reasserts itself and I am thankful for the short commute and the swimming pool.