My Life As An Expat In The Face Of Terrorism

Do you remember May 2000? For me it is a time I will always remember as it is a time of notable change in my life. For it was the time when I became an expatriate (expat). (For American readers that is an overseas placement.)

Around a month earlier I received a call from our London office who asked if I’d be willing to work abroad. Soon enough it was clear that not only would I go abroad but also to a unique place with a culture completely different to that of my own. It was a placement to Saudi Arabia.

 

Photo by creativedoxfoto from on www.freedigitalphotos.net

Photo by creativedoxfoto from on www.freedigitalphotos.net

Initially I said I would go for 3 months, since it really was going into the unknown for me however I was persuaded to initially go for 5 months. Over time this developed into 17 months in total as the benefits, along with the flaws took hold.

A placement overseas by your company can be very lucrative especially if the lifestyle is viewed as constrained to your own.

My benefits were numerous. As an expat I received accommodation in one of the nicest compounds in Riyadh. It was shared accommodation but compound living is very pleasant.

I received an inflated salary compared to my income at home. I received periodic bonuses plus a daily allowance (per diem) for each day I was in the country. Times were so good that I was able to clear my mortgage within 8 years of taking it out. It has also taken me 12 years since then for my take home pay to return to those levels. With the inflationary increase in the cost of living over this time I certainly don’t have the same purchasing power I used to have.

My life as an expat soon became clouded with a growing threat of terrorism from within the country and indeed the Middle East. With primarily American troops still based in Saudi Arabia following on from the first war with Iraq many Muslims resented their presence. As a Brit in their country I was guilty by association and the actions and values of my country.

At first I felt safe yet this soon changed by August 2000. On returning to Riyadh after a week’s trip home I learnt of the first disturbing event. A colleague asked if I’d heard of the car bombing in the centre of the city. It turns out a British citizen was targeted and died when the bomb under his car exploded in the street.

At first this was played down then rumours spread of security warnings. As a British citizen who had registered with the British Embassy in the city I was far from impressed with the lack of communications which reached me directly. Yes you guessed it, none. I heard of other people receiving security updates from either the British or Irish Embassy. (My parents are Irish yet up until now I’ve never applied for an Irish passport.)

I phoned the Embassy and was just told to be cautious and not panic. Yet I never received a clear explanation as to why the communications never included myself on the distribution list even though it reached others.

Soon further tales were reported in the media of thwarted attacks. Then in a northern city a Brit suffered severe injuries from another bomb. An orange juice box which contained a bomb was placed on the bonnet of his parked car. His action to move the box off his car triggered the explosion.

Expatriates then saw drama unfold on Saudi TV in December 2000. State controlled TV broadcast a series of expats making a recorded confession of attacks on fellow foreigners in the country.

For me the TV recordings look very staged and for me I thought the foreigners were drugged up. Saudi authorities claimed their motives were linked to an illegal alcohol smuggling ring rather than admit a terrorist problem within the country.

Over time these guys were charged with the terror attacks and faced prison at best.

Numerous diplomatic pressures were applied, although sensitively as the British Government and others protested strongly against these charges. Saudi Arabia is not well-respected for its justice system. A few years later those charged all claimed to suffer from torture whilst in custody and forced into the confessions which they now deny. Thankfully these people were released a couple of years later under a Royal pardon rather than clearing of the charges.

For me the fears did not subside. Stories continued to rise of attacks on Westerners. Whilst this shameful public display sought to pacify the locals, we foreigners continued to be alert. A daily routine for me was to check for bombs under the wheel arches of my hire car. Mirrors were placed under my car and the boot checked each and every time I entered my or another compound. Bollards were placed on the roads leading into compounds to slow down traffic.

Over 2001 things developed further with more scary stories. Then there was the attack on the US Naval ship in the port of Aden in Yemen (a country bordering Saudi Arabia). Then a few weeks later we saw a day that none of us will forget, it was 11th September 2001.

I remember arriving back at my compound apartment, switching on the TV to see the 6 o’clock showing of Friends. Yet somehow every single channel, out of many were focused on New York and I soon found out why. Such a horrifying event was something I witnessed in the country of many of the perpetrators.

I was due to leave the project I was working on at the end of September so it was of little surprise that my boss suggested that I left a few days early. The shock of these events took all of us expats by surprise. This was further compounded when I heard Saudi colleagues claim the attacks were either from the Jews or a Mexican drugs baron who had a vendetta against the US.

Leaving Saudi Arabia was very timely for me and the it just seemed right. Even in December 2000 I was contemplating my stay and considered asking to leave. Yet somehow I never did.

The reality of terrorism in Saudi Arabia came more and more to light. Various police shoot outs with terrorists took place, some BBC reporters were gunned down in the street. Also, in May 2003 that very compound I lived in was attacked by Al Qaeda with many casualties. As well as the horror it was very surreal to see my former home broadcast around the world as Colin Powell from the US inspected the devastation.

 

Overall I enjoyed my time as an expat and learnt so much about Arabian culture. I don’t miss being in the face of so much terror or at least the fear of it. I’m so grateful that I was not in my compound in May 2003.

 

Why keep it a secret, if you liked this then why not click one of these buttons?

Related posts:

Did you sign up for my free newsletter?

Are you an Expat / Living Abroad?

Comments

  1. Wow. What a profound experience. Sharing this on FB now!

    • Many thanks for the share Lane, I appreciate that. I’m glad you liked the post. Have you ever been caught up in world events and feared for the consequences?

  2. Sounds like you have lived quite an adventure, yet a very stressful one. There is so much unrest in that part of the world it is sad to say I will never visit there. I’d rather play it safe than sorry. Sounds like you experienced so much and got out just in time.

    • Hi Phil,

      Yes it was an amazing experience. I’m glad I went and it was life changing for me. The memories are in many respects still fresh. I have a better understanding of the issues and since it used to be my home it will always take my interest when I see it on the news.

      • “I have a better understanding of the issues and since it used to be my home it will always take my interest when I see it on the news.” I think this is one of the key aspects of being an expat and winds up being such a ‘bonus’ at the end of the day. While living through difficult/interesting/stressful times in another country has its ups and downs and – possibly – harrowing times (I lived in Egypt from 2009 – 2013), many of these “life-changing impacts” are well earned and serve to create more well-rounded people (I hope). Additionally, the ability to process current events against a certain socio-political context/backdrop and having a more nuanced understanding of a country/culture is utterly priceless. Thanks for sharing your story.

        • Hi JoAnna,

          Thanks for a great comment. I’m fascinated to hear that you were living in Egypt over the last four years, you must have some fascinating tales to tell. Whereabouts in Egypt were you?

          • My stories are probably as fascinating as your own! I always wanted to make a trip to Saudi, but refrained from doing so as there was enough to deal with in terms of being a woman in Egypt. Also the treatment of domestic staff and other “foreigners” (*note: information was from articles I read in the mainstream media) put me off from making a visit for a long while.

            I was based in Cairo, but fortunate enough to uncover the whole country during my time there. Have you had the chance to visit EG? If so, what were your impressions?

            • Hi JoAnna,

              Yes Saudi is very restrictive especially towards women. They were in shock during the first Gulf War when all these women from Kuwait were driving into Saudi for a safe haven. Women were not allowed to drive in Saudi.

              I’ve only been to Egypt once. I visited Giza and Cairo and also took a dinner cruise on the Nile.

              I’ll be honest with you as to my impressions. I thought the tourist sites were as stunning as expected. I did feel for the standard of living of the people there as they are not wealthy by any means.

              As a tourist, I hated it. Every time I got out of the tour bus we were mobbed by people trying to sell us tat. They were very persistent too and it really ruined the experience for me. I know these people are poor but I found their high pressured sales tactics very unpleasant. Maybe I should have gone to a less touristy part?

              • And it’s that restrictive nature towards women that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, not only when it comes to Saudi, but many other MENA states.

                It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy Egypt, though I’ve heard that too many times to count. I don’t blame you as I think if I had not lived there and just stopped in as a tourist I would have despised it as well, though you might have had a bit better luck in Luxor/Aswan, Siwa or Hurghada. I agree though that in spite of all the beautiful sites/artefacts/natural wonders, it’s not the easiest place to travel since many of the sites/artefacts are not well maintained and the crushing poverty/different cultural norms can make it tricky for both citizens and tourists. Sadly, the situation has only declined further since 2011 (it’s been on the decline for decades) and it isn’t looking to get better any time soon. There needs to be a government in power that’s willing to push through economic reforms (some unpopular ones included), create jobs and overhaul the administration from the top down. In conjunction, the elites and upper middle class need to be open to the prospect of levelling out the playing field by catering to the most impoverished 50-60% via education, job opportunities + security, etc….essentially giving them a chance to have a piece of the pie.

                Let’s see how history unfolds.

                • That is another very good summation JoAnna. I heard on the radio yesterday that is something like c. 40% literacy in Egypt. The education system needs development and the country needs a lot of investment.

                  All the recent and current troubles are bad for the country. It damages tourism which is a massive influx of money for the country.

                  When you visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo you can really appreciate how great this country once was. Sadly it has not moved with the times and needs to catch up.

                  Many thanks again for your fabulous input to my posts through your comments.

  3. Wow, scary and fascinating reading. How did the locals react to all the bombings going on at that time and about 9/11, did you have much contact with them? I can’t imagine how it must have felt seeing the place you’d lived in be attacked like that.

    • Many thanks Amy.

      The locals were a real mix yet you always felt they were a little restrained in opening up with their views. You could tell some were sympathetic whilst others just towed the Government line of it being an expat as opposed to a terrorist issue.

      I’m thankful for being in an expat community for support as it was at times a lonely experience.

  4. I agree with Lane. That was a profound experience. Scary and fascinating at the same time. How did your family react on this situation? You were so far away from home!

    • I must admit that I hid a lot of it from them, I didn’t want them worrying. Once the attacks on New York happened then the level of concern from home (friends and family) was en masses and they were all asking if I was safe and okay.

      Thankfully I was able to confirm this and returned home soon after.

  5. Interesting experience you had there. It is hard to put ourselves in another life without such vivid explanations and tales. Thanks for sharing your first-hand account.

    • I appreciate your comments Andy, it sure was a different experience. No doubt you are having a much more pleasant experience in Spain at the moment with some interesting info on your blog. Is it working out as you hoped it would do?

  6. That is truly miraculous that you weren’t at your compound in 2003. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be in the midst of all of this around September 11th. Very frightening indeed.

    • Hi Suzy,

      Yes the “what if” scenario often goes through my mind. I was told that the apartment I stayed in (no 342) was unharmed during the blast, yet who is to say where I would have been at the time if I was still there.

  7. Living as an expat is a life-changing experience no matter where one is (I did so in the Czech Republic), but living in a very different culture and at such a time must have been an especially interesting life experience.

    • Hi Jenna,

      Many thanks for your comment. You are correct in that living abroad is a real life experience. I certainly don’t regret going and learnt a lot about the culture and indeed Islam. The fact I was there during such a significant moment of recent history is also a poignant thing for me.

      I’d be interest to learn more about your time in the Czech Republic. I adore Prague. I did also once go on a day trip away from Prague (I can’t remember where) but it was to a UNESCO site which was also stunning.

  8. Todd Wilson says:

    Moving reading. Very glad you experienced the culture and got out okay.

    • Many thanks for reading Todd. Yes, I guess I managed to leave at the right time as things became a lot worse after then. Experiencing the culture was a definite plus. I made a lot of friends with the locals and had an insight which you can never really experience when watching on TV. I understand that things have changed a lot since I left and there is more perceived freedom for the locals. It would be interesting to go back.

Trackbacks

  1. […] spent a long time living in Saudi Arabia and the Arabs have little to no concept of how to form a queue when shopping or in public places. […]

Speak Your Mind

*

Current day month ye@r *

COPYRIGHT © 2014