From expat ghetto to prison cell

Andy Beckett reports on the claustrophobic world of the nurses who seek big money in Saudi Arabia
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The Independent Online
Phone calls can be tricky in Saudi Arabia. When Susan Hills worked there, as an intensive-care nurse in Riyadh until a few weeks ago, she had to leave her flat, book a line in the local telephone office, then go home and wait for a Saudi operator to connect her. When she hung up, she always knew there had been an extra listener: "The operator would ring back and say, 'Was that your boyfriend?'"

Susan prefers not to use her real name when talking about "Saudi". For three years, though, such anxieties seemed worthwhile. Before Riyadh, she had earned pounds 11,000 before tax in a hospital in Barnsley, south Yorkshire. In Saudi Arabia, she made pounds 19,000, untaxed, with rent and electricity thrown in. She went on holidays to Istanbul and Australia. She covered herself with jewellery.

Every year, up to 10,000 British nurses leave their home country for work and wealth abroad. But Britain and Saudi Arabia are very different nations, and there can be frictions. In 1979 a nurse from Leeds called Helen Smith fell to her death from a Jeddah balcony during a party. The Saudi authorities insisted the incident was an accident, while a British inquest returned an open verdict; Smith's father still talks of murder. In 1980 a British television film, Death of a Princess, about an execution for adultery, led to four months of diplomatic crisis.

On Tuesday, with the Saudi announcement that two British nurses, Lucy McLauchlan and Deborah Parry, had been charged with the murder of an Australian colleague, these mutual suspicions returned in a different guise. Yet less remarked-upon - and perhaps central to this case - has been the strangeness of a nurse's life in Saudi Arabia. In a country where local women are forbidden to drink, drive or take off their headscarves in public, a young visitor from Barnsley needs to do rather a lot of adjusting.

Since the 1940s, Westerners' employers and the Saudi government have sought to temper this clash of cultures by building compounds - private residential enclaves for foreigners. Here, behind electric fences and gatehouses and security guards, Western behaviour can be tolerated, or repressed.

Compound life is a slippery mix of restriction and excess. Facilities and accommodation vary. Susan Hills lived in a flat in a single-sex enclosure with three other nurses, cracked walls and dirty curtains. Mike Brown, who was running a department in her hospital (also under a different name), remembers his own compound's marble and its water sprinklers, clicking on at dusk to rescue the tropical flowers.

There are common features, however. Tennis courts are screened, not from the hard Saudi sun but from the gaze of local men. There are curfews: Hills, as a single woman, had to be in her flat from 11pm until 6am. And there are parties.

"You laze by the pool, talk to women, find out where the parties are," says Brown. He "dated" several nurses in Riyadh. Most of the time, residents can do what they like inside their houses; mostly, they choose to make and drink alcohol.

"All the nurses I knew had a favourite recipe for 'Bailey's'," says Brown. Clear spirits can be disguised in water bottles, then flavoured: a stick of oak for imitation scotch, orange essence for homemade "Cointreau". Consuming them is a serious business. "Going to parties is the only thing to do," says Hills. "I didn't used to go out much before Riyadh..."

There is a liberation in this: "People become very close very quickly." Senior doctors come to nurses' parties that they would never deign to attend in Britain. Gays and lesbians can act more freely. "You're given more of a chance to be who you want to be," says Brown.

Inside the compounds, gossip swells as in a boarding school. Occasionally, someone overdoses in the toilets. In the workplace, where hours are long, relationships can become a little strained. "Hospital politics are more intense," says Brown. "You have to live with these people too."

More serious is the unpredictable reaction of the Saudis. Compound rules are enforced and punishments applied according to a complex, shifting calculus of the rule-breaker's status, the security guards' attitudes, the local political situation, the national political situation, and the protection or otherwise offered by the offender's employer.

"The week that I arrived, girls could walk to a party in togas," says Brown. "By the end of my time, they were being arrested for running round the compound in knee-length jogging shorts."

Outside the gates, the risk of seeming disrespectful is greater still. The Saudi religious police, or mutawa, patrol the streets for indiscretions. Susan Hills took taxis and stayed overnight at parties whenever she could to avoid being caught travelling after dark. Once, she was caught without her headscarf: "It was prayer time - eight in the evening, when the mutawa are always out. They followed us to our taxi. I got in, but they grabbed at me and got my bag. It was like a tug-of-war over the taxi seat. I was swearing; I wouldn't give it up - it had my work permit in it. Then I pulled it away, and we ran off."

In the end, Hills got tired of her life in Saudi Arabia. Western women, and nurses in particular, with their professional concern for the physical, were a matter of obsession for some local men. Rules barring Saudis from the compound were waived for anyone with the right connections. Hills had to hide in a hospital cupboard when a local major-general, furious at the death of his mother in her care, demanded Hills be dismissed.

Less dramatically, she didn't save much money. A tin of imported soup cost her pounds 1, a bottle of vodka for Christmas pounds 80. Other nurses were left unpaid for months at a time; in 1994 staff at a hospital in Dhahran were forced to sell their blood to survive.

Then again, Riyadh had its excitements. Two years ago, some nurses Brown knew were arrested on their way back from a fancy dress party. The mutawa thought their cat costumes made them look like prostitutes. They spent a month in prison, he remembers: "One of them came out looking absolutely emaciated ... But they all stayed in Saudi."