Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 March 2018

Growing up in Saudi Arabia was a dream for us

Samar Al-Sayed reflects on her childhood in Jeddah during the golden age of US-Saudi relations

A scene from a park in Jeddah at night. Photo by Samar AlSayed
A scene from a park in Jeddah at night. Photo by Samar AlSayed

As I travelled down the highway from Jeddah airport to my home of 30 years one last time, I came across a billboard that no eye could miss. It was an image of US president Donald Trump and King Salman with the slogan ‘together we prevail’ ahead of the US president’s landmark visit to Riyadh last month.

It felt a bit surreal. I’d never before seen a billboard with a US president on the streets of Jeddah, not even after 9/11.

It prompted my mind to wander back to the 1990s, the golden age of Saudi-US relations.

We lived in the compound belonging to Saudi Arabian Airlines, the largest in Jeddah and probably the second largest in the kingdom after Aramco. It was the sheer size of the complex – essentially, a city within a city with thousands of perfectly mowed lawns and back yards, green alleyways dotted with trees that were to become so familiar, white picket fences, free utilities and facilities by the dozen – that allowed it to flourish into a full-fledged mini-planet of its own.

It was a world where school children and bus monitors who were neighbours greeted each other as they crossed paths in big GMC buses in the early morning, one where much of Jeddah would roam our streets with us on Halloween and one where the winding roads and green alleyways made for wondrous havens of imagination for tree house lovers and American children playing hopscotch along the pavements.

We had nine swimming pools at the time, down to three now.

The socio-economic climate was reflective of thriving relations with the US, which only got stronger after the Gulf War.

The first national anthem I learned was the Saudi one in the late 1980s. Since only national channels existed at the time, I would marvel at Saudi adverts for detergent and cooking oil and know it was all over when the national anthem was played before the channel went off air for the night.

Soon enough though, we’d be watching Nabisco and ‘got milk’ commercials – and Full House after Ramadan iftar – thanks to the live broadcast of US channels.

The second national anthem I learnt was the American one. My music teacher, Mrs Molly Faulkner, taught the high-pitched bits well, as did the crowds at the mega-sized compound baseball field overlooked by houses, bleachers, hotdog stands, loudspeakers blasting the anthem and the hospital where my dad worked. “The bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there,” we sang lyrically with not a care in the world.

The American international school operated under the airlines, and so most of my neighbours were also my classmates.

We all lived the same reality from dawn until dusk. Rehearsals for renditions of Starlight Express by day at school, followed by swim team meetings on the compound by night. The school orchestra, band and basketball teams competed regionally.

As Arabs, we never learnt to read or write Arabic and so would be mesmerised when neighbours from national schools would tell us things like: draw a line at the necks of your stick characters to make them ‘halal’.

Then there was the compound of Raytheon – a US defence contractor and weapons manufacturer – near our recess area at school. I awaited swimming rotations there fervently.

The utopia, all of my old neighbours would agree, was unrivalled. Disposable income and perks were easy to come by in much of the Gulf, but here, everybody lived the same life, making us oblivious to class and race.

Arabs, Europeans, Argentines, Filipinos, Egyptians, African Americans, Brits and Pakistanis played on bicycles and skateboards on cul-de-sacs and lanes.

It was very much the millennial American dream depicted in films. In fact, the children of family friends living outside the compound – many of them far more affluent – yearned to come over.

That is why most never really get over the heartbreak of leaving or fully readjust to life in their ‘real’ homes (after expats’ contracts end, they get a ‘final exit’ visa, meaning they can’t come back unless as pilgrims, businessmen or upon the invite of a Saudi entity or family).

To give you an idea of just how real the heartbreak is, members of the Saudia City compound group on Facebook who lived on this compound as far back as the 1980s still eagerly request someone to take a picture of ‘their home’.

These homesick ex-residents still remember their addresses. NC (north central) 8-2, SW (south west) 4-11, NE (north east) 4-14. That was mine.

As I traveled through the streets of Jeddah to the airport one last time, I looked back to see if the billboard was still up. Alas, it was gone. Back to Vision 2030.

As the Uber driver consoled me with a box of tissues, I realised things would never be the same again for me or my home.