Living in a bubble
Thinking of moving to Doha? Find out if life on a compound is the right choice for you.
One of the most mind-boggling challenges facing anyone planning a move abroad is simply where to live. Many people want to transport their conventional idea of a comfortable home from their home country to the new country, only to find out that they can’t.
My husband was the first of our family to arrive in Doha and was charged with the daunting task of finding accommodation for us. Soon after arriving, he cornered colleagues and quizzed acquaintances about the best housing options in order to begin his hunt for a house. He had a month to find housing before the company stopped covering the cost of his hotel room.
During one of many heated Skype conversations that took place over the following weeks, he informed me that we should live in a compound. Cue the panic attacks!
The word had negative connotations for me. A prison came to mind, a place where battery hens are kept perhaps, a factory using highly toxic materials, or just somewhere you would go to hide away from the world. It certainly didn't sound like home.
After some research (which consisted of a couple of internet searches and a conversation with a friend whose friend's sister had lived on a compound in Abu Dhabi), I slowly began feeling less scared. And so, we took the plunge and opted for an apartment in a large compound.
What is a compound?
The reality is that in Qatar and other countries in the Middle East many expats, especially families, opt for compound life. The word "compound" is simply a noun used to describe an area containing a large number of villas (houses) and apartments built close together and owned by the same company.
What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Two years down the line and with two years of experience of living on a compound in Doha, I can safely say that my experience has been mostly a positive one. Having been brought up a village girl, but having lived in cities for all of my adult life, life in the compound reminds me more of village life than city life—in a good way. You get to know your neighbours well and feel part of a community.
"One reason we chose to live in a compound was the social benefits. The compound provides a social support network for all the family—for my wife and myself as well as for the kids," said Craig from the UK.
A close-knit community
When you arrive in a new country, far away from your friends and family, this close-knit community aspect can prove to be invaluable.
Having a support network on your doorstep to give advice, provide a helping hand or be a shoulder to cry on is a lifeline for many—especially for stay-at-home mothers with young children.
Lisa from the UK found comfort in having a group of friends so close to home. "My youngest was born here," she said. "It was so hard being far from family, especially my mother. Our friends on the compound were so incredibly helpful—they became our family."
Many compounds even have Facebook pages where residents can share information and arrange meet-ups to get to know each other.
For families considering a particular compound, Roxanne from the US recommends joining the compound Facebook group. "Join the Facebook group and start a conversation before you sign the lease if possible. Remember to ask questions. Does the maintenance team deal with requests quickly? What schools and nurseries are nearby? How many parking spaces does each villa have?"
Meanwhile, Rebecca from Canada suggested joining in on the compound community as soon as you can. "Once you have moved into your villa, join any groups or start your own coffee morning or playgroup, and head to the park—it’s a great way to meet people."
Whilst some love the safe, friendly bubble that is compound life, others hate the "goldfish bowl" existence and complain about everyone knowing their business and seeing the same people day in day out.
"The downside for me is that compound life is a bit of a bubble. Our compound is employer-specific and I’m fed up with being forced to socialize with some people just because of who they happen to be married to," explains Mariana* from Brasil.
"Beware of cliques," warns Robert* from the UK. "My recommendation is to stay out of those groups and let them get on with it. On the upside, at least these cliques mean that compound life comes complete with free entertainment!"
The key to your happiness is to make friends outside the compound too. Join a group, pursue a hobby or take a course so that you can escape when you need to.
Clash of cultures
The international community aspect is one of the positives that makes compound life interesting—you and your family can make friends with people from every part of the world.
However, sooner or later, you also come to realize that it can lead to a clash of cultures. For example, some families allow their children to stay out until fairly late at night, which might clash with families from cultures that tend to have early bedtimes for their children.
"I don’t like the bickering on our compound between people from different cultures," explains Anne* from France. "Some have a 'them and us' mentality with one group criticizing the other for the way they bring up their children. I keep out of it myself."
Roxanne, a city girl, also told me that she associated the word "compound" with "suburb" before moving to Doha and couldn’t stand the thought of moving to the suburbs—perhaps it was the gated community idea that put her off?
As it turns out, she loves compound life. "It’s so nice to be able to walk to a small shop for essentials, drop off my dry-cleaning, and have a rec room for parties."
Compounds often have a playground and a pool, with some of the bigger ones having restaurants, a gym, a shop, a mosque, a laundrette, a mini-theatre, an indoor play area and even a nursery or kindergarten. However, some compounds have better facilities than others and it is important to bear in mind that these facilities come at a price—the better the facilities the more expensive the rent.
"We have all the benefits of being on holiday—it’s just a shame that I have to go to work during the day! We even have a restaurant that delivers to our villa!" said Ian from the UK.
A common complaint amongst expats is that it’s a landlord’s market. "It’s usually impossible to challenge a hike in the rent and you don’t want to be known as the family that is always complaining," said Alan* from the UK.
He also states bureaucratic management as a cause of frustration. "The enforcement of the compound policies can be a little heavy handed, causing a conflict between the residents and management, or even between residents and other residents."
Every compound has a security guarded entrance, not only to ensure that only those paying compound rental fees get to take advantage of these facilities, but also for safety purposes.
While Doha is a relatively safe city with low crime rates, many still feel happier living in a gated community where they can leave their doors unlocked and let their children run free.
"The compound is a safe place for my kids to play. I feel comfortable allowing them to roam freely here," said Anti from Indonesia.
Roxanne also appreciates the safety of a gated community for her kids. "Our five-year-old son was outside all day playing with his friends. They swarmed from house to house, messing things up and having a snack, before moving as a tornado of stinky boys from one house to another—seeing them having that freedom was heavenly!"
A different way of life
Before coming to Doha, you need to get your head around the fact that things are different here.
In Doha you can’t step out of your front door and walk to your local park or high street—the design of the city and the way the roads have been laid out in addition to the heat makes this practically impossible. You can’t catch a bus to your nearest mall or park—public transport is nearly non-existent and taking the car is your only option.
"Living on a compound has provided me with somewhere to push a pram or let the kids ride their bikes safely, without always having to bundle them in a car and face the Doha traffic," said Ae Sook from Korea.
Being away from home always involves a trade-off wherever you go in the world and wherever you choose to live. Living on a compound in Doha means that yes, you will have to sacrifice having access to the ‘real world’ on your doorstep and yes, you will miss being walking distance from a public park or shops. But then again you will gain a swimming pool and plenty of people to lend you an ear, a helping hand or just a cup of sugar when you need them.
*The names of some sources have been changed to protect their privacy.