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  • Michelle Smythe

My life as an 11 year old in Saudi Arabia - Part 1


The most memorable and enjoyable time of my childhood was spent in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


I was eleven when we arrived in February 1982. We stayed for just under 2 years, leaving in December 1983.

In Riyadh my dad worked for BEI (British Electricity International), a company that operated and developed the electricity distribution network for SCECO (Saudi Consolidated Electric Company).

One of the first things I am often asked about Saudi is, ‘Was it not too hot for you?” and yes, it was very hot, often in the 40’s and 50’s, but everywhere you went there was air conditioning; in the car, our houses, the supermarkets, shopping centres and schools. It was the norm. There were swimming pools in all the compounds and most of our ‘playtime’ was in or around the pool.


School was completely different, for starters the school and working week was from Saturday to Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday as the weekend, although my dad only had Fridays off. The school day was 8am to 2pm and we all travelled to school, which was in the desert, in buses from our compounds. One bus was for the American school and one for the British school.

My parents started me at the American school, as it had excellent gymnastic facilities. I was a gymnast at the time and wanted to carry on with this when in Riyadh. The gymnasium was outside, and was basically an area with a roof to provide shade, but no walls! The school was called ‘RICS’ (Riyadh International Community School).

The American school was very much like you see on American TV shows, I still have my yearbook! I remember being there when the Falklands war broke out.

It wasn’t long before I moved to the British School due to not settling in well at the American school, their way of teaching was alien to me and I struggled to make friends. This was not the case at the British school! Totally different atmosphere, great teachers, and most important to me, loads of great friends from different countries. The gymnastic facilities were not as good as the American school, but the British school (SAIS at the time, which stood for Saudi Arabian International School - British Section), did have a pool though, swimming was a big part of the school’s PE lessons.


The British school had a great range of nationalities, American, Swedish, Dutch, German, Indian and Iraqi to name a few. One of my friends’ parents managed the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Riyadh. I remember his birthday party was a ‘Snoopy’ theme, and the invite came written in gold pen on a slab of marble with a little illustration of ‘Snoopy’!

In March 1983, the Duchess of Kent visited the Kingdom and came to visit the British school, everywhere that day was decorated in red, white and blue. The whole school took part in welcoming her, it was such a memorable day. I met her personally after performing my gymnastic routine for her, and presented her with a bunch of red, white and blue carnations that mum had dyed using food colouring!


All the expat families that were in Riyadh lived on compounds. A compound was a private, walled and gated community with villas, all the villas were virtually the same in each compound and there was always a swimming pool. Each villa had air-con in each room which was on constantly. The rooms were so much bigger than we were used to in the UK, windows were small to keep the heat from the sun out, and there were more than enough bathrooms - one downstairs, and one upstairs, plus an en-suite in my parents room. You could often visit the bathroom at night to find a lizard scuttling around when you turned the light on!

Our compound had 28 villas (hence the name, ‘28 Villas’) 14 down each side with a pool in the middle and plenty of grass areas and a playground. Other compounds were much, much bigger and had on-site shops. The BAE compound was one of the bigger ones, we went there for Brownies and Guides, Cubs and Scouts.


Part 2... coming soon :)



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