Don’t be dissuaded by the laid-back air of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The region’s anchor cities might not have the fast-paced buzz of Jeddah or Riyadh’s urban flair, but this corner of the Kingdom has its own ambitious 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 where a small fishing village grew into one of the Middle East’s largest ports and where Arabia’s biggest and most impressive cultural centre was forged. It’s a region rich in diversity, heritage and quiet drive that – slowly but surely – is coming into its own. Here are some of the Eastern Province’s top cultural draws, for visitors of all ages.
Rising 295 feet 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 is a world-class cultural centre that – regionally at least – has no equal. Future meets past in this state-of-the-art building, which spans 85,000 km2 and includes a vast library, theatre, cinema, ideas lab and knowledge tower, along with a range of curated galleries and installations designed to inspire, enthral and engage. Little ones will particularly love the Children’s Museum.
Look up the centre’s packed programme of events, workshops, talks and performances to see what's scheduled. Entrance to Ithra is free, but events and the cinema are ticketed.
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 touchscreen gaming. Don’t miss the state-of-the-art exhibits, including those on alternative energy sources, and the cinema shows.
An avid collector of cultural and traditional artefacts, Abdulwahab Al Ghunaim took his hobby to a new level when he opened the Alfelwah and Aljowharah Museum in 2018. A collection that began life as a handful of local treasures is today a valuable haul of more than 500,000 collectibles, packed into a palatial villa in Dammam.
The collection is an eclectic mix, with items including a 500-year-old copy of the Qur’an, vintage cars, antique gramophones and some of the private possessions of Saudi’s first monarch, King Abdul Aziz. Visitors can also see a traditional Saudi bedroom and meeting hall setup. A quirky mix of curiosities, this is a pleasure to visit.
The historic neighbourhood 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. Take a wander: the walls 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 m2 museum in Al Khobar was born of Majid Al Ghamdi’s urge to preserve the vintage finds of his childhood, a pastime which grew into a 10,000 pieces strong collection of retro toys, board and video games, posters, televisions, cameras and branded food and drink containers. From a cabinet charting the evolution of Coke bottles from the 1970s onwards to plush Sesame Street character toys and vintage Barbies, there is no better place to relive your childhood.
Part museum and part restaurant, Dammam’s turret-topped Heritage Village is a look back to a simpler life. The five-storey building encases a museum, where troves of jewellery, manuscripts, fabrics and other artefacts are on display, and a small craft-filled market where Arabic perfumes, incense, woven palm-frond baskets and wall hangings are sold. But the real draw here 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.