Living in an expat compound

Guest blog post by Dr Reto Wegmann, Senior Advisor of Swiss Ibex LLC, Lecturer at the University of Lucerne1

Making friends with locals is much more difficult when expats do not live among the local population, but rather in expat compounds. A compound is a gated residential community, which usually offers all kinds of amenities such as shops, pools and gyms. We generally see two reasons for this to happen or for this to even be the norm: security management and cultural norms.


The first reason, security considerations, applies to expat employers operating in high-risk contexts like Afghanistan, South Sudan or parts of the Sahel. In these regions, employers are faced with the dilemma that, while local integration might be desirable, they are also bound by their moral and legal duty of care towards their employees. Employees need to be protected from harm, both as a measure for occupational health and safety but also to keep operations running. The employers often impose several security management measures on the expat, such as limitations to freedom of movement, and living in a secured compound. This, obviously, makes it more difficult to integrate with local communities. While private companies might just withdraw if security considerations limit business and leisure activities too much, other employers (UN agencies and non-profits like NGOs, charities or faith-based organisations) tend to stay operational even in war zones and failed states. Their expats usually live in a self-contained compound.

Cultural norms

The second reason, cultural isolation, applies whenever expat employers do not want to submit themselves, as an organisation or as agents for their individual employees, to certain local rules and laws. A widely known and frequent example of such a place would be Saudi Arabia, where organisations do not always want their employees to submit to all local rules (e.g. about alcohol, sexuality and role of the woman). Staff from Europe, Asia and from the Americas tend to stick to living in compounds, where no locals are offended and where authorities might turn a blind eye, when expats stick to their own customs and habits.

A grey zone in between

In the overlapping field of these two considerations, there is a grey zone of risks which is very difficult to handle for employers due to privacy issues. Personal characteristics of the deployed expats, like religion or sexual orientation, might pose a security risk for them. For example, the possession of the Bible on the Maldives is equally illegal as are male homosexual acts in Qatar. These security risks are tied to very private characteristics of the expat that the employer is often unaware of. In such cases, compound living also might be a reasonable alternative to full local immersion.

1 This text is originally published in the book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble: How to Make Intercultural Connections and Friends (p. 51).

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