By Anushka Bose and Karin Avila

Teenage Evolution in Saudi Arabia

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Karin Avila, an Aramco Brat who moved to Saudi Arabia from California during her teenage years. Her family resided in Ras Tanura, where her father was a general physician at the Saudi Aramco hospital. Karin’s story brought back my own nostalgic memories of the Kingdom, a nostalgia that has become my solace during the harder days of this pandemic. Karin’s recounting of her days in the kingdom, finding “home” in the Austrian alps, and discovering herself through her journeys across the world, is filled with emotions of becoming—a journey that every young adult embarks on. Follow our conversation to learn more about Karin’s experience in the Kingdom, even through the trials of the Gulf War.

Moving from California to Saudi Arabia

How did your journey begin? Why did your family move to Saudi Arabia? Where were you before? When did you arrive? What were your first impressions? Were you hesitant to move?

I was living in a suburb of Salinas, California, a small farming town near the coast, when my father decided to accept a position with Saudi Aramco. He was a hard-working doctor who owned a practice in town. The position with Aramco offered manageable working hours, a better quality of life, and a new adventure. My parents always had that travel spirit within them, and this was an opportunity to meet their needs on a practical and personal level. We moved to Ras Tanura (RT), Saudi Arabia in February 1987. I was 14 years old at the time.

My father moved to Saudi ahead of my mother and me. My first memories of the experience are attending the orientation in Houston. Specifically, I remember sitting in a large auditorium with other soon-to-be Aramcons, a person walked from the back of the auditorium and down one of the aisles towards the stage dressed head to toe in a black, silky-looking gown. The face was completely covered, and I had no idea what to make of it or how to interpret what I was seeing. I would soon learn it was an abaya.

Were you resistant to the idea of moving as a teenager?

Moving to Saudi was tough for me at that age. I had grown up in California my whole life, and I had lived in Salinas for eight years. I was just starting high school and starting to come into my own. I had no desire to go, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. After the orientation, it was time to leave the States. We flew KLM, a big, sky-blue 747. I remember vividly, sitting in business class on the top level of the aircraft. We were surrounded by men in suits, and I was staring out the window missing my friends back home. Once we landed and I smelled the different air and felt the vast cultural difference from Salinas, I was intrigued.

Arrival at Ras Tanura

What are some of your earliest memories of moving there?

The first memory I have of RT is pulling up to the compound at the first of two gates, and the driver and my father having to show ID and proof of our purpose for being there. I was sitting in the back of the Suburban, and as I looked out the right side of the window, I saw a friendly face, a man in a thobe looking back at me and gently raising his can of Pepsi to say hello.

I was awake early the next morning and decided to go for a walk by myself to the beach. We lived just up the block, a stone’s throw. I was admittedly nervous. Looking back, I think the orientation did the job of instilling caution as I immediately threw on baggy clothes and a hat with my hair tucked under to conceal my gender. I even made a point of changing my strut. I sat on the beach, staring out at the Arabian Gulf and watching the sun rise from the east, drinking a lemon Pepsi.

Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura – Typical street in this mock suburban landscape, with friends waving farewell in the distance. This was taken on one of my last days before leaving the country.

While settling in, did you feel out of place? As a teenager in the 80s, what was the environment like in the camp, and the Kingdom at large?

When I was in Salinas, I had entered by “Mod” phase. We didn’t quite fit the mold of the well-known sub-culture of Mods from the 60s. We looked somewhere in between gothic and punk. We dressed in all black, wore Doc Martins, and listened to Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Soft Cell, and other 80s new wave/post-punk bands. I gravitated towards that style, made several friends who shared my affinity for the offbeat culture of Mods, and I felt a wonderful sense of belonging. That was turned on its head in Saudi.

At first, the social adjustment was difficult. Many of the families from the US that lived in RT were from all different parts of the country and, understanding the culture in the US varies widely, my California Mod look was a bit of an oddity. I quickly toned down my all-black, boot-donning days, not so much because of the desert heat, but to make an effort to fit in.

But amid my transformation, I was making great friends who I would spend many summers and winters with, exploring the compound and taking advantage of the freedoms we had to travel outside of the compound.

Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
North Swimming Pool, Ras Tanura – Many summer days were spent poolside with friends. Seen here in my “Mod” garb of black long sleeves and khaki pants and leaning in front of friend Brooke Powers.

Memories to Cherish

What were some hardships you faced while settling into life in the Kingdom?

I wouldn’t say I faced any hardships. In fact, compound life was very liberal, relatively speaking. Ironically, I experienced several firsts in RT – I learned how to drive at a time when women couldn’t, I had my first job at the local school, and I met my first boyfriend. All fairly unusual (or forbidden) activities for a woman in the kingdom at the time. The toughest part was adapting to the new culture of the compound. I had come from a small town, but the compound felt even smaller. Many of the residents were not only from different parts of the US, but also from the United Kingdom (UK), so there were other levels of culture nested within Saudi that I was getting to know.

What are some of your fondest memories of your time there? What do you miss?

One of the best memories I have was a trip that my mother and I took to Hofuf. We had to get permission from my father, which was then notarized, in order for us to travel alone by train to the desert oasis. I remember being at the train station and feeling somewhat out of place. For one, because we were not wearing the traditional abaya, and for another, we were traveling independently. It was very exciting, and I almost felt a little guilty, given what a privilege it was to travel as solo females. What struck me about Hofuf was the sea of palm trees in the middle of the desert. We meandered around town and visited the site of otherworldly rock formations, Jabal Al-Qarah, as well as a spectacular, ancient-looking historic fort, Qasr Ibrahim. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the camel market where I rode a camel – because one must when the opportunity presents itself. I knew this would be my last trip to Saudi, and I wanted to make sure it was spent absorbing as much of the culture as possible.

Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Hofuf Camel Market – Bracing, as the camel stood up, for my first and only camel ride.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Hofuf Camel Market – Profile of the gentleman leading my camel ride, as I sit atop my host.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Hofuf Camel Market – Two baby camels I followed as they made their way to the trough for a drink of water. They walked and sipped in unison, then both looked up at me at the same time when I snapped this photo. It was a windy day, seen by the water droplets falling at an angle from their lips.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Jabal Al-Qarah (Al-Qarah Mountain), Hofuf – Geologic monument consisting of cave systems and unique rock formations resulting from weathering.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Qasr Ibrahim (Ibrahim Palace), Hofuf – Historic castle and fort built in 1556.

There are so many other wonderful memories to savor, such as, eating shawarmas, enjoying a traditional khapsa meal with Saudi friends, shopping for pirated tapes. But the following are some of the most vivid and cherished:

  • Hanging out at the recreation center during the summers, then going to the beach or a house afterwards, or if we didn’t have a house party to crash, driving aimlessly around the compound. It actually brought a lot of joy. Eating pancakes and eggs in the compound diner at 6AM after staying up all night with friends.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura Beach, facing north
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura Beach – Compound landscapers posing for a photo.
  • Taking trips to Al Khobar to spend Riyals I had earned babysitting
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Eastern Saudi Arabia – A local farmer displaying his long-haired goat, from a trip to a local animal farm.
  • Modeling for my favorite Afghan store; the proprietor was a wonderful older gentleman. He brought his wife and children to my parents’ house, and my good friend and I helped model some of the exquisite clothing he sold.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura – Posing for our friend who owned the Afghan boutique store in Al-Khobar that sold clothes, rugs, jewelry and other knick-knacks from his home country. This was taken just outside of the backyard where I lived with my parents.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura – Posing for our friend who owned the Afghan boutique store in Al-Khobar that sold clothes, rugs, jewelry and other knick-knacks from his home country. This was taken with friend and co-model, Mairi Claire MacPherson.
  • Befriending Aramcons from Saudi and the Middle East who were living in the bachelor units. In particular, a good friend of mine, Zak, who was from Syria always hosted expat kids. One memorable time was when he showed me a traditional Syrian wedding dance for women.
Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura Beach – Zaki (“Zak”) was from the Middle East with family in Syria. He worked for Aramco and lived in the compound bachelor units. He was a good friend to many of us from expat families, seen here proudly displaying his hands after sculpting the figure in the sand.

Those sound like such eclectic experiences. I especially like the story about the Afghan store. Can you share a little more on that?

During the weekends, we would hop on the bus and go to Khobar, and there was this outlet-mall in Khobar, around the grocery store, that held amazing Afghani clothes. Since the man who owned the store had noticed our frequent visits, he asked my friend Mairi Claire and I if we would be willing to model his store apparel. We were so excited at the prospect and eagerly agreed to help him. So, one day, he and his family came over to our house in Ras Tanura, with several beautiful dresses, jewelry and accessories. We had a very informal photoshoot in our backyard while his kids played nearby. It was an endearing and unique experience.

Boarding School and University

I know most Aramcons end up attending boarding schools after 9th grade. Did you embark on the boarding school experience?

Yes! At the time, Saudi Arabia had schooled expats only up to the 9th grade, then generously and unceremoniously sent the Aramcon kids to boarding school. Initially, I wanted to go back to Salinas, and I was vocal about that with my parents. My father was generally very lenient and let his kids make their own decisions with loving guidance. In this case, going back to Salinas was not an option. He insisted that I take advantage of the opportunity laid before me. We sat down with a school counselor and reviewed various options in Europe. I settled on attended boarding school in Salzburg, Austria, which my father – in part because of his love of classical music and fondness for Mozart – was very happy about, and so was I; one of my good friends and neighbor was going to the same school.

That sounds amazing. I’ve always wanted to go to Austria. One day, I really hope to spend some time working in Vienna and touring the country. Where did you end up after boarding school?

After three glorious years in Salzburg, it was time to return to the US for college. I didn’t really think too much about it. It was the easier choice, as opposed to finding a school in Europe. I decided on San Diego since my sister lived there. Once I arrived in San Diego in 1990 to attend a college, I quickly turned around and went back to Europe to study. Surprisingly (and upon reflection now, not so surprisingly), I felt completely out of place back in my home state of California. I craved to be back in Europe. Why, I can’t really pinpoint it, but I felt a greater sense of belonging there on some level, and I loved the environment.

Throughout your youth, where did you feel most at “home?” Saudi, the US, or Austria?

I felt most at home in Europe. Austria especially was a wonderful environment filled with great memories. It still to this day feels like home away from home. As a third culture kid, “home” is a relative word. I am from California, but I do not consider it my home currently. NYC is home at the moment, but that can change at any time, once I decide to take up the next adventure.

Did your multicultural experience in Saudi influence your college major choice/career trajectory?

I am an indecisive person in general, and especially as a teenager. But once I was in college, I knew I wanted to study International Relations. In part for my love of studying languages, and also in hopes of landing an international job. It didn’t pan out. I quickly realized I had to get a job once I was out of college, and finding an international position was not easy. I ended up on a different career path all together.

Gulf War

Were there any key political events during your time that shaped your perception and experience?

My parents and I were in Saudi during the 1990-91 Gulf War. I was on my way back from boarding school in December 1990 to spend winter break in RT. Shortly after I arrived, my father mentioned that we would be hosting American soldiers, much to my delight. I immediately invited my friend Lily (former neighbor and boarding school chum), as I couldn’t possibly keep the experience to myself. We served the troops lunch, sat around and talked, and asked them all sort of questions.

I remember one of them, Jamie, being particularly nervous about the impending war. He had light hair, kind eyes, and a gentle face. He seemed shy and reserved compared to the others. I remember feeling for him and how scary it must have been facing the possibility of combat. These young men were paramilitary and were expected to be the first parachuted into the war zone once Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm.

Karin Avila’s Story: From Salina Valley to the Middle East
Ras Tanura – US soldiers we hosted in December 1990, less than three weeks from the start of the Gulf War. Pictured in the corner is the paratrooper patch that a solider from another group handed to me when we dropped them off, before they were bused back to their post. Jamie is the first one in the back, from the left, looking in my direction.

For one precious day, we gave them a safe and comfortable place to relax, and time and privacy to call their families back home. As we dropped them off that evening, there were dozens of other soldiers who also received a generous day away from the desert and into the arms of fellow Americans who lived on the compound. There was a lot of joyous energy and chitter-chatter in the parking lot as they boarded the buses back to their post. One young fellow stepped off one of the buses, walked towards me, and playfully presented his paratrooper patch, which had come loose from his uniform. I have it to this day and will treasure it always. The small and flimsy cloth patch represents the deep sense of patriotism, sacrifice, and gratitude I felt at the time.

That sounds like an adrenaline-filled experience. Do you remember feeling scared?

No, actually—I didn’t feel that sense of dread. In fact, the most impressionable part of the experience was the feeling of the compound residents taking care of their fellow countrymen (we also hosted British soldiers who had joined the Americans in Kuwait). There was something very powerful about it. These were young men in their early 20s who were far from home in unfamiliar territory. Needless to say, it was such a thrill as a teenager to be among these handsome young men, and to hopefully offer some respite from what must have been looming tension in an unforgiving desert. Not to be dismissed, this was a serious and uncertain time in the region. Within days of arriving in RT for the holidays, I had to pick up a gas mask at the local school. An ominous sign of what might transpire in the coming days.

Once Desert Storm hit in January, things changed, and the tensions rose. My flight back to boarding school was scheduled to leave on January 15, 1991, the deadline that was given to Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. Needless to say, the airline changed my flight and I left early. My father, the compassionate adventurer and humanitarian, volunteered as a physician to help support safety measures during the war. He worked in a treatment tent near the Kuwaiti border, training other physicians and medical personnel on isolation and management of exposure to chemicals. This was in preparation for the potential that the scud missiles used by Iraq would be armed with chemical nerve agents. He was stationed at the border for multiple weeks, while at home, my mother had prepared a safe room with windows taped securely in the event a chemical weapon should land in the compound. Sirens would sound periodically in the compound, warning residents of possible incoming missiles. When I returned to Saudi the following summer, there were signs of the escalations still present; oil clumps from the massive January 1991 oil spill continued washing up on shore all along Ras Tanura Beach.

The Kingdom in Hindsight

When did your family leave Saudi? Have you gone back to visit/do you hope to?

My parents moved from Saudi Arabia in 1997 to Spain. They made a decision to continue their international adventures. My last trip to Saudi Arabia was in 1993 when I was 21. I haven’t been back since, but certainly I would enjoy visiting to take in the sights and sounds that I remember so vividly – eating a shawarma, visiting the souks, taking a camel ride, and smelling the sweet, salty gulf air.

What do you wish people knew about expat life in Saudi Arabia? Or Saudi Arabia in general? How do you describe your experience to the everyday person?

I’ve always struggled to describe my experience in Saudi Arabia. How do you describe such a unique experience and make it relatable? At a basic, relatable level, I would describe the compound as resembling a US suburban landscape (probably in one of the more arid states). There were lots of social gatherings and parties at expat houses, also similar to suburban US. The other experience that sticks out for me is how many people from around the world you meet. Many of the expats are from the UK, Philippines, India, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world. For the most part, I lived like a typical rambunctious American teenager in the confines of the micro-US landscape that was the compound, eating cheeseburgers and bowling, and occasionally venturing out into the desert towns and cities where the wailing, haunting sounds of prayer call would permeate the gold souk-lined streets.

As kids, we used to complain about getting bored (which would naturally lead to getting into some fun trouble), but compound life had lots of activity options. As a prime example my mother was very active there, taking karate classes, eventually teaching it, snorkeling, and studying Arabic. She was inspirational and very social. We had met many wonderful people in large part from her social interactions. We even hosted the family of one of her friends, a Saudi gentleman. He brought his wife and children to our house. We respectfully created two separate eating areas, one for the men and one for the women and young children. It was such a great way to immerse ourselves into the local culture within our four walls.

If there was one word to describe your experience in the Kingdom, what would it be and why?

If I had to use one word to describe my experience, I would say it was humbling. The world is so colorful and diverse, from what we eat to how we conduct ourselves daily. I feel it’s important to embrace other cultures with open arms, learn what you can, immerse yourself, and respect the choices of others.

What do you think are the top strengths and weaknesses of being a third culture kid? Have you ever felt misunderstood? Does living in a diverse landscape like NYC help put these feelings at bay?

As a third culture kid (TCK), I can say for myself that, my experience helped build a sense of adventure and curiosity, a love of travel, and an interest in other countries and people from different backgrounds. My experience influenced my worldview and desire to be part of a global community that promotes the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Being a TCK also builds open-mindedness and tolerance. Living in another culture demands recognition and respect for values other than your own.

The hardest part of being a TCK is the constant urge to chase that sense of satisfaction that I had growing up; boarding a jet plane twice a year, traveling from Europe to the Middle East, and moving fluidly in between different environments. I’m a restless soul and find it difficult to establish a sense of belonging in most places for extended periods of time. I feel more like a temporary observer than a resident. I have no established roots, but a wonderful web of ties to many places. This is exciting, but it can also feel unsettling.

It can be challenging to relate to peers who have not traveled or left their hometowns. It doesn’t leave me feeling misunderstood, but it is one area where we cannot truly relate. It doesn’t always occur to me until I meet up with friends from boarding school. My friends from boarding school in Austria feel as close as family – we understand each other and accept each other, no matter how much we’ve evolved over the years, and we have reverence and love for each other that is deeply rooted in our shared experience. It is a steel bond. And to my relief, with this group I find solace in that I’m not the only one who is still chasing the spin of the globe in looking for that next adventure.

Karin, thank you so much for making time and sharing your story with me.

Thank you, too, Anushka! It was a tremendous pleasure.

Karin’s story brought back a plethora of memories for me. Spending time at the Ras Tanura beach was also one of my favorite memories. The serenity of the Arabian Gulf, the Mediterranean sun, and the aroma of Arab delicacies in the air, with the company of loved ones nearby, is a memory I will always relish. Her sentiments about the benefits and challenges of being a third culture kid deeply resonated with me, and her recollections about Austria sprung upon a wave of wanderlust for me—to travel, to explore. Such a desire doesn’t fit with the state of affairs in the world right now, but it’s one that I hope to act on when the collective nightmare is over. I hope you enjoyed the read!

Arabian Nights and Mornings: The Emblems of an Expatriate Upbringing in Saudi Arabia

Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, religion, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the third culture kid experience. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.