Expats admit 'there was a growing divide between us and the local people'

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The Independent Online

Ask the 60,000 British and American expatriates why they want to live in Saudi Arabia, with all its dangers and restrictions, and the answer is simple enough: the lure of tax-free dollars.

Ask the 60,000 British and American expatriates why they want to live in Saudi Arabia, with all its dangers and restrictions, and the answer is simple enough: the lure of tax-free dollars.

In fairness, life in the tightly guarded compounds where they live is sweetened by swimming pools, shopping centres and cafeterias that enable residents to spend most of their lives inside. But the threat of the world outside the walls is ever-present.

Since the shooting of a British expatriate in Riyadh three months ago, security has been strengthened around most compounds but Westerners living in the country claim it is still far too easy for outsiders to get in. "It was inevitable this would happen," said one British worker in Riyadh, "If somebody wanted to get into a compound they wouldn't have too much trouble, despite the increase in security."

In the past year, several notices have been issued by foreign consulates in the Kingdom, warning expatriates to keep away from certain areas of the two main cities and check their cars for suspect devices. In addition, foreigners have been advised not to travel out of the cities on weekends.

There are reports of increasing tension between the local population and the foreign expatriates and it has caused some people to leave the Kingdom. "It was obvious that there was a growing divide between expats and the local people," said Steph Burroughs, who recently returned to live in Britain. "By the time I left the country, we were spending most of our time inside the compounds." Saxon Gilbert, another expatriate who now lives in Somerset, said "We felt as though we were not welcome there, it just wasn't worth staying there to find out the hard way."

Most of the expatriates in Saudi Arabia are men whose families have returned to their home countries to escape the frustrating local laws but recent events have caused many more to leave in fear of their lives. Women are required to cover themselves in black ankle-length Abayahs; they are not allowed to drive and have to eat in separate "family" sections in restaurants.

Entertainment is limited. There are no concerts, clubs or public cinemas because they are considered "Harram" (against Islamic principles), and many Westerners prefer to stay inside their compounds. Although some drive out to the beach at weekends to swim or go scuba diving, security fears prevent many from going. A majority pass their time at home, or visit friends within their own compounds. Wild parties, where vast quantities of a home-made spirit called Sid were consumed into the small hours, used to be common but now they are few and far between because Westerners fear that they will become a target for an attack.

Many British and American expatriates have left the country in the past two years and, in some cases, local schools have had to close because of the lack of pupils.

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