Don’t be fooled by the laid-back air of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. This region of Saudi Arabia might not have cities with the fast-paced buzz of Jeddah or the urban flair of Riyadh, but this corner of the kingdom has its own compelling story to tell: It’s where the country’s wells of black gold were first discovered, and where the world’s largest oil company was born. It’s also where a small fishing village grew into one of the Middle East’s largest ports, and where Arabia’s biggest and most impressive cultural center was forged.
It’s a region rich in diversity, heritage and quiet drive that offers something for visitors of all ages. Here are some of the Eastern Province’s top cultural draws:
Rising 90 meters from the desert, Ithra’s sculpted form dominates both the Dhahran skyline and the region’s cultural scene. Built close to the site where oil was first tapped in 1983, Ithra (the Arabic word for “enrichment”) is a world-class cultural center. The future meets the past in the state-of-the-art building, which spans more than 80,000 square meters and includes a vast library, theater, cinema, ideas lab and knowledge tower, along with a range of curated galleries and installations designed to inspire, engage and delight. Little ones will particularly love the Children’s Museum. One visitor to the museum said, “The kids particularly enjoyed playing in a sea of jenga blocks, the infinity mirror room, the illusion and perspective room, coloring corner, and indoor cave. When it was time to leave, it wasn't easy convincing our toddler to let go of all the flashy and attention-grabbing displays!”
Look up the center’s packed program of events, workshops, talks and performances to see what’s scheduled. Entrance to Ithra is free, but events and the cinema require tickets.
Just a stone’s throw from Ithra is the Energy Exhibit, a hands-on, immersive voyage into the world of petroleum, its science, energy and technology. The focal point of this kaleidoscopic space is a 12-player interactive game that brings energy production to life through touch-screen gaming. Don’t miss the cutting-edge exhibits, especially those on alternative energy sources.
An avid collector of cultural and traditional artifacts, millionaire philanthropist Abdulwahab Al Ghunaim took his hobby to a new level when he opened the Alfelwah and Aljowharah Museum in 2018. Today, a collection that began as a handful of local treasures is a valuable exhibition of more than 500,000 objects packed into a palatial villa in Dammam.
The eclectic mix of items includes a 500-year-old copy of the Quran, vintage cars, antique gramophones and some of the private possessions of Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, King Abdulaziz. Visitors can also see a traditional Saudi bedroom and meeting hall setup. There’s something in the quirky assortment of curiosities to pique the interest of every visitor.
The historic neighborhood of Bayoniya got a makeover in 2018, courtesy of a coterie of young Saudi artists who turned its streets into a giant canvas, complete with an explosion of graffiti. The Alfan Sharqy (Art is Eastern) graffiti exhibit was organized by Dawi Gallery, under the sponsorship of Princess Abeer bint Faisal Al Saud, and saw six of the area’s traditional houses transformed by a rainbow of murals, chromatic calligraphy and abstract designs. The walls here are a reminder that exciting and transformative art can appear in the most unexpected of places.
Taybeen Museum is a passion project, powered by nostalgia. The 300-square-meter museum in Al Khobar was born of Majid Al Ghamdi’s urge to preserve the vintage finds of his youth, a pastime that grew into a collection of retro toys, board and video games, posters, televisions, cameras, and branded food and drink containers 10,000 pieces strong. With a cabinet charting the evolution of Coke bottles from the 1970s on, plush Sesame Street character toys and vintage Barbies, there is no better place to relive your childhood.
Part museum, part restaurant, Dammam’s turret-topped Heritage Village gives visitors a glimpse into a simpler life. The five-story building houses a museum, where troves of jewelry, manuscripts, fabrics and other artifacts are on display, and a small craft-filled market where Arabic perfumes, incense, woven palm-frond baskets and wall hangings are sold. But the biggest draw here for many is the restaurant. Curl up on traditional floor cushions and sample delicious local fare, including delectable mezze spreads and platters of grilled meats and rice, for an experience that comes close to eating in a Saudi home.