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.
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.