Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Eastern Province

Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Eastern Province Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

Bordering the Arabian Gulf and containing the towns of Dhahran, Al-Khobar, Dammam, Qateef, Hafuf and Jubail, 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 and one end of the Dammam-Riyadh railway. Trains leave daily for Riyadh at 7.30am and 4pm. The journey takes between four and five hours and the train passes through Abqaiq and Hafuf, the main town in the Al-Ahasa oasis.

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 at Al-Khobar to Bahrain, where it was processed. Today, Al-Khobar is at one end of the King Fahad Causeway, a 25km feat of modern engineering that links the Kingdom to the island of Bahrain.

Dhahran is the town that ARAMCO built. The city consists of the ARAMCO compound, the airport (soon to be moved to a spectacular new site some 60km north), the US Consulate and the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals.

Some 13km north of Dammam is the town of Qateef; it was first settled about 3500BC 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 Elqateef". 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 (pictured). 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 a 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 ruins are known as the Jubail Church and are acknowledged by the Saudi bureaucracy who will not issue permits to visit it because "the site is being excavated." In any case, the ruins originally contained four stone crosses, which later went missing though the marks where the crosses were are still visible. The ruins are thought to date from the 4th century, which make them older than any known church in Europe. Not much else is known but speculation is that it was in some way connected to one of the five Nestorian bishoprics which are known to have existed in this area of the Gulf in the 4th century.

The town of Hafuf is the centre of the Al-Ahasa 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.

Hafuf itself contains an old fort and one of the most interesting souks in the Kingdom. Because of the enormity 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.

Other things to see in the Eastern Province

Both Dammam and Al-Khobar have an impressive Corniche along the Gulf.

The development at Half Moon Bay on the Gulf is a beautiful tourist and recreational attraction.

The towns of Qateef and the islands of Tarut and Darin near Dammam may be the point of a morning excursion. Both have been inhabited for thousands of years and both have old forts.

The oasis of Al-Ahasa with its springs and streams is one of the greenest and most delightful places in the Kingdom. It is well worth a day trip by car during which one drives slowly through the villages and the area.

The Thursday morning market in Hafuf, the main town of Al-Ahasa, is particularly interesting both for its traditional crafts and for the general feeling of an old marketplace.

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