A vast land, largely desert but with mountains, rivers, oases of date palms that haven't changed in centuries as well as steel and glass cities whose horizons transform daily. A history going back to the dawn of time, as well as a leader in the modern world, Saudi Arabia is an extraordinary country!
The country’s population is estimated at over 21 million (year 2000), with some 6 million expatriates, split rather unevenly among 6,000 towns and villages. Three quarters of the inhabitants live in the urban areas of Riyadh, Jeddah and the cities of the Eastern Province.
Riyadh, home to 4 million people was designated the capital by King Abdul Aziz in 1932, but it was not until the 1970s that it took up its position properly, when the embassies and ministries relocated their offices from Jeddah. Riyadh is located in the central part of the Najd highlands and is recognized as being one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most politically stable and prosperous countries in the world. It is through the 70 years since the beginning of oil productivity that Saudi society has undergone great change and is still evolving. Urbanization, modernization, the customs of foreign peoples, higher education - these have all introduced challenges to the Saudi people that a half century ago did not exist. The consistency of Islam allows for all of this change - faith is never questioned and conduct remains subject to the same rules as ever before.
» EASTERN PROVINCE
Bordering the Arabian Gulf and containing the towns of Dhahran, Al Khobar, Dammam, Qatif, Hofuf, Jubail and Hafr Al Batin, the Eastern Province is where oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Before the discovery of oil, Dammam and Al Khobar were tiny fishing and pearling villages. There was no Dhahran at all.
Dammam is the administrative centre of the province. Al Khobar is more western in orientation than Dammam. The first recorded settlement was in 1923 and, because of its location next to the early ARAMCO camp, it grew rapidly. In the earliest days of oil shipment from the Kingdom, oil moved from a pier in Al Khobar to Bahrain, where it was processed. Today, Al Khobar is at one end of the King Fahd Causeway, a 25km feat of modern engineering that links the Kingdom to the island of Bahrain. Work is currently underway to construct a further causeway from the south of Bahrain to Qatar, thus reducing driving times to Qatar from the Eastern Province.
Dhahran, built on 2 hills (Dhahran means "two backs"), is the town that ARAMCO built. The city consists of the huge ARAMCO compound, the US Consulate and the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). The excellent Saudi Aramco Exhibit museum is also here.
Some 13km north of Dammam is the town of Qatif, one of the centres of the Eastern Province's large Shiite Muslim community. The town was first settled about 3500 BC and for centuries was the main town and port in this area of the Gulf. In fact, some early European maps label the present-day Arabian Gulf as the "Sea of Elcatif". Qatif and the nearby island of Tarut are historically some of the most interesting sites in the Kingdom.
About 90km north of Dammam is the town of Jubail. Until the mid-1970s it was a small fishing village but it then became one of the Kingdom's two newly created industrial cities. The other one is Yanbu on the Red Sea coast. The industrial city is a complex of petrochemical plants, an iron works and a number of smaller companies, plus the Royal Saudi Naval Base.
Near Jubail are the ruins of what was unearthed in the mid-1980s by a group of people attempting to dig their vehicle out of the sand. The pre-Islamic ruins are known as the Jubail Church. The ruins are thought to date from the 4th century, when there were six bishoprics in the region, which make them older than any known church in Europe.
The town of Hofuf is the centre of the Al Hasa oasis, which is one of the largest in the world. Until about a century ago, most of the dates in Europe came from here and the area remains one of the world's largest producers of dates.
Hofuf itself contains several Ottoman forts, a fine museum and one of the most interesting souqs in the Kingdom, now under reconstruction after a devastating fire. Because of the size of the oasis and the number of picturesque villages scattered through it, a leisurely drive through the greenery is an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. Just outside Hofuf are the ruins of the Jawatha Mosque, the second-ever mosque in Islam to hold Friday prayers.
It is best to be a "morning person" in the Eastern Province as the sun comes up very early - 5am in winter and 3.10 am in summer! Sleep in until 10 am and half the day is gone. Indeed, the work-day begins at 7am at the national oil company, Saudi Aramco. Many of the companies in the Eastern Province follow Aramco’s lead, unlike the rest of the Kingdom.
Arabic is the main spoken and written word and is the official language used in all government departments. English is widely used in business however and can be seen on road signs and advertisements, especially in major cities.
The Eastern Province is blessed with beautiful weather for about six months of the year, from about mid-October to April. Temperatures vary from 5-25°C (40-80°F) according to the time of day and time of year. After that, however, comes summer, a particularly oppressive time, with temperatures up to 49°C and high humidity in the months of July and August. Fortunately, everything is air-conditioned so it is possible to be quite comfortable inside.
» WHAT TO WEAR
The Eastern Province's long-term contact with foreigners, particularly from the west, led to a more relaxed approach to dress in the early days. However, the prevailing social climate in the Kingdom has re-asserted a more conservative status quo. Western men tend to work in tie and shirtsleeves throughout the year. Casually, in town it is generally unacceptable to wear shorts, although on weekends even young Saudis can now be seen wearing them in supermarkets and around shopping malls. Vests and sleeveless tee shirts are considered improper dress. The uniform thobe (robe), ghutra or shammagh (headdress) and igal (black cord to keep the ghutra/shammagh in place), is considered to be the regional dress worn by all nationals of the Gulf States. That said, the Eastern Province would appear to be the place where the highest percentage of Saudis wear western clothing on a day-to-day basis. It would be most unusual for a westerner to wear a thobe and ghutrah.
Western ladies should acquire an 'abaya' soon after arriving. This is a black opaque floor length cloak (the most versatile type has sleeves and popper studs the full length). Over the past decade, "trendy" embroidered abayas have become available. Head covering has never really been an issue in the Eastern Province, but a matching headscarf in the handbag is a useful accessory. Far from being a constraint for western women, the abaya is a positive boon. Buying an abaya means not having to buy a whole wardrobe of conservative clothes, which you may never wear again after leaving Saudi Arabia. The all-purpose cloak goes just as well over tee shirt and jeans or shorts as it does over a glamorous dress. The rule of thumb is "if you are wearing an abaya, you are properly dressed."
Children's clothes are plentiful and inexpensive so no need to stock up before coming to Saudi Arabia. Girls under the age of puberty are not expected to wear an abaya, but some early teenagers prefer to wear one to "blend in".
Only men are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. It is said that the driving standards get more flamboyant the further west you travel in the country and driving discipline is certainly at its best in the Eastern Province. Wits are still definitely to be kept about you when driving around. The wearing of seatbelts is the law and it is strongly advised that children are properly restrained. The police are equipped with speed detection devices and the penalty for exceeding speed limits may involve a night in the local police station!
The towns and cities of Saudi Arabia are well connected by a vast network of roads which are mostly in excellent condition. The European visitor will be surprised at how even a minor road in town is still a dual carriageway. The Eastern Province can be reached by road from Bahrain (via the King Fahd Causeway), from Qatar or from Dubai (approximately 8-hours from Al Khobar). Being almost totally new and well planned, the cities in the Eastern Province are among the easiest cities in the world to get around. The country's oil wealth has been poured into a road network that is the envy of countries all over the world.
Having begun from scratch and in the age of high-density motor traffic, planners were sensible enough to make all highways 3 or 4 lanes wide in each direction, and even the major roads in the centre of the city are rarely less than 3 lanes in each direction, unlike in Riyadh, where rush hours should definitely be avoided. The relatively high percentage of industrial jobs in the Eastern Province and the fact that these are not concentrated in one particular area, mean that traffic jams are rare.
» Air Transport
The Kingdom is served by 3 international airports including King Fahd International Airport at Dammam and several regionalairports spread across the country. Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), the national carrier operates all domestic flights within the Kingdom. Due to the distances between the main cities in the Kingdom, flying is the preferred choice for long distance travel within the Kingdom.
Flying in and out of Bahrain is another option. It requires a trip across the Causeway which can be a little longer, but very pleasant as long as you are not traveling on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday evenings. These times are terribly crowded and should definitely be avoided.
The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) runs a fleet of modern, air conditioned buses with routes to all the major cities and towns from the Eastern Province. Inexpensive but comfortable bus trips are also available to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.
The railway network within the Kingdom has not been developed to its full potential, though there are plans to join the major cities of Jeddah with Riyadh and the Eastern Province. The current passenger network links the Eastern Province (Dammam) to Riyadh with en-route stops at Abqaiq and Hofuf. There are several daily departures and the journey to Riyadh takes between 4 and 5 hours. Call Dammam (03) 827 4000 for departure times.
» Taxis and Limousines
White limousines are widely available and relatively cheap to take you from one destination to another within the town. It is quite acceptable for a woman to call for one to pick her up and deliver her.
You want it, you can find it here! In a mall, in a downtown "modern souq" trip, or in a real, culture-vulture traditional souq trip, you can buy anything and everything in Saudi Arabia, with the obvious exception of alcohol or pork products which are strictly illegal.
One element of shopping which a visitor will not have experienced before is the closing of shops at prayer time. Five or so minutes before prayer call customers are asked to leave the shop and the staff also exit, closing the shutters. This affects shoppers particularly at:
- midday prayers, starting between 11.30 am and 12.30 pm, when it is worth checking if the shop will re-open after prayers.
- sunset prayers, starting between 5.30 and 6.30 pm, and
- isha (dinnertime) prayers, starting between 7pm and 8pm
For non-muslims the prayer time breaks give a 30-minute travel gap to get to your next shopping destination, so a good planner can get in 3 locations between 4pm and 9.30 pm, when the shops start to close.
The main thing to remember in all shops (apart from supermarkets and department stores) is to try and haggle. Most of the international stores have fixed price policies, but the locals still try to haggle and so should you! There are more locals than foreigners so, to be prepared, shops often mark-up goods to allow for a discount. Fashion and shoe shops, which are not international brand names, will almost certainly give a discount if asked, and shopholders in the traditional souqs will be almost disappointed if you don't haggle. In any carpet or antique-type shop it's a must and can be prolonged over several visits. The principle of haggling is easy. Once you have expressed interest in a certain item, you ask the price. Whatever the answer is make a counter offer which can be anything from 50% to 30% less than the asking price. Don't be surprised if the face pulled by the shopkeeper is worse than yours, or if he turns and walks off in a huff.
Al Khobar and Dammam are basically new towns and so cannot boast any traditional souq. The downtown shopping areas have their own charm but, in catering for their cosmopolitan clientele from around the world, and the local population who have all grown up in these new towns over the past half century, the traders have no customers with roots to serve. This is not to say that shopping is not an adventure, Al Khobar is still an easy place to get around. The roads are narrow, the blocks are small, and give some intimacy to the shopping experience.
Dammam is more difficult to cover on foot. The roads are wide and full of traffic. In Jubail, the same scenario applies as in Dammam. Jubail "old" town, which isn't old at all has some interesting streets to explore.
A real jewel for souq shopping is the Qaisariya Souq in Hofuf. Built during King Abdul Aziz's reign, it was a real old-fashioned permanent souq until being destroyed by fire in 2001. The local authorities are rushing to rebuild however, realising that the souq was a major attraction for both local shoppers and those passing through this important crossroads from other southern Gulf States.
» Food Shopping
All food and beverage products available in Saudi supermarkets are of the highest quality. Strict standards (some of the strictest in the world) exist for imports and the many Saudi manufactured foodstuffs (soft drinks, all dairy products, frozen foods, most of the fresh fruit and vegetables etc) are excellent. Newcomers to the Kingdom need to try out a few supermarkets to find which has most of what they want. Remember to try local produce rather than an import to see if you prefer it from your brand from home. All foods carry a sell-by date.
As at home, you may find yourself doing a weekly "big shop" at a large supermarket and top up from a local store or compound shop. Some of the large supermarkets are: Giant Stores (in Al Khobar, Dammam, Jubail and Hofuf), not the French chain Géant but a Saudi chain. Géant (in Al Khobar and Dammam). Azizia (hypermarkets) and Panda (supermarkets), both owned by a Saudi food conglomerate; Tamimi, a Central and Eastern Province chain which stocks many Safeway products and is generally thought to be more "American" and Farm, an Eastern Province chain.
» Mall Shopping
More and more shopping is now done in malls. Indeed, window shopping is a major local pastime, with new malls springing up every year and inevitably eclipsing the last one. The Eastern Province's malls, particularly in Al Khobar, attract shoppers from all over the Gulf. The top mall is undoubtedly Rashid Mall, situated at the west end of Al Khobar. Billed as the largest mall in the Middle East and recently doubled in size, it has all the international brand name fashion stores that you would find in any shopping mall world-wide. Four floors including a basement with go-karts and video games. A large and impressive food court satisfies the appetite and includes Fuddruckers, McDonalds etc. The centre's anchor stores are BHS, Mothercare and Warner Bros. There are many other malls throughout Al Khobar and Dammam, including a small Marks & Spencer store which recently opened in one of the Dammam malls.
One of the great things about living in Saudi Arabia is the variety of restaurants and fast-food outlets available. The Eastern Province has a wide variety of restaurants to suit all budgets, almost all offering take-away and many offering home delivery. It is also worth noting that most restaurants of all categories have 2 dining areas, labelled "singles" and "families". All mixed groups or ladies should go to the "family" section, whilst men going in without any women with them should go to the "singles" section.
» Al Khobar & Dammam Corniche
The Al Khobar corniche is perhaps the most developed coastal area in the Eastern Province and is about to undergo even morechanges that will transform the city forever. The corniche in the centre of Al Khobar has been developed over the years as a green, peaceful recreation area for the whole family, with restaurants, picnic spots, amusement parks, fitness circuits and fast food outlets, all away from the busy traffic a few hundred metres away - the ideal place to stroll or jog in the early morning or evening. Dammam corniche weaves in and out of bays and coves for many kilometres, all the way up to Qatif and Tarut Island.
» Hofuf & Al Ahsa
A stay in the Eastern Province must include a tour of the natural and historical sites of Al Ahsa, the ancient capital of the region, the largest palm tree oasis in the world and, until 1953, the seat of the Governor of the Eastern Province. The drive from Al Khobar takes about an hour and a half so an early start is needed if you are making a day trip of it - although an overnight stay is recommended at either the 5-star Al Ahsa InterContinental or the 4-star Hofuf Hotel.
The best starting point for a visit to Hofuf is the Hofuf Museum, as this is very well laid out, and helps to explain much of how the natural and historical sites came to be. Unfortunately the museum is not usually open at weekends. The museum staff can be contacted on (03) 580 3942.
Another claim to fame of the region is the Jowatha Mosque in the village of Jowatha near Hofuf. This was the second mosque of Islam and its ruins can still be seen today. The recent completion of the restoration of Qasr Ibrahim (qasr meaning palace although it is more of a fort) marks the end of over twenty years of public works which restored the dome of Al Quba Mosque, which stands within the fort. Located at the north-east end of the Kut district, the oldest part of Hofuf, the fort has been restored to what it would have looked like at the turn of the 20th century during the last Ottoman occupation. Visits to the fort can be arranged through contacting the staff at the Hofuf Museum.
The Jabal Gara is an enormous outcrop of rock to the east of Hofuf, which in pre-historic times formed an island in a much largerArabian Gulf. The sea eroded the rock forming a labyrinth of caves. The water receded millions of years ago and the site has become a local tourist attraction, with interior staircases leading up to the top of the mountain where there is a superb view of the surrounding oasis.
The Al Gara Potteries is another "must see" in Saudi Arabia. Not far from the Jabal Gara caves you will find the pottery which produces glazed and unglazed designs, as well as special creations. The clay comes from Hofuf and the kilns, fueled by palm branches, are built into the mountain side.
» Qatif & Tarut Island
Like Al Ahsa, Qatif and Tarut Island are steeped in history and there are several historical and natural treasures to see if you know where to look. As in Hofuf, the starting point for information and guidance is the museum. Dammam Museum is responsible for the historical and archaeological sites in the Qatif area and will be more than happy to help you if you get in touch with them on (03) 826 6056.
The Dammam Museum is located on the top floor of the Dammam Library, which is opposite the stadium on First Street and well worth a visit.
The small Hammam Abu Louza Turkish bath house was in no doubt the centre of social life during the various Ottoman periods. Under a Turkish dome the hot springs would bubble up creating a warm plunge pool and giving off the heat and vapour of the steam bath in the long seating area next door. The water table has fallen and the plunge pool is now empty as the water is used to irrigate the date palm plantations nearby.
Tarut Island is a very special place with lots to see. In its centre is an imposing Portuguese or Turkish Fort which dates from the 16th century. A visit inside the fort can be arranged through the Dammam Museum. Although the fort is the most obvious historical site, what lies beneath is far more interesting. Near the fort walls and in its centre are the remains of constructions in cut limestone, which have been partially excavated. It is believed that the remains are of a Dilmun temple dating from around 2,000 BC.
Tel-Tarut, the mound on which the fort stands is thought to be man-made. It is assumed that something even lies underneath the Dilmun temple, as the area has thrown up Ubaid pottery from 4,000 BC. The whole site is surrounded by a fence as the area is clearly precious.
The old Tarut Village, behind the fort, is fast disappearing with the former grand houses falling further into decay and being demolished. Take a walk through the old village - the people are friendly.
Darin Village is located at the eastern end of Tarut Island and has, even today, a bustling fishing port full of Dhows.