The opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia again didn’t wait too long to present itself as I was asked to do the coverage for the Saudi Maritime Congress in Dammam. Haven’t yet visited the Eastern Province, so of course, I was happy to use this opportunity to discover another region of KSA, making it my 4th province to visit.
The Congress was held on Wednesday and Thursday in the Dhahran Expo Center, so I decided it would be a good idea to go down on Tuesday, so I can do a little bit of tourism and get some sleep before the 8 hours of running around with the camera after the expo visitors.
It takes less than 2 hours to fly to Dammam from Dubai, but it then takes another 45 kilometers to get out of the airport to Khobar, where my hotel was located.
The flight there I had to take was with Fly Dubai as there wasn’t other convenient time with Emirates, and it was not the most comfortable, but the saving grace is that it is a rather short flight – the a/c wasn’t working properly and my neighbour was not smelling the freshest, but at least the little bottle of oud oil that I have in my bag helps to deal with these things.
On the arrival to Dammam, I had another look at that fabulous bridge that connects KSA and Bahrain, wishing to cross it some day and make a timelapse of driving to the other side (also I really do need to visit Bahrain, it has been too long). The other thing I spotted from the plane was the Khobar water tower, which is sort of the signature building of the city. Is quite a cool view, though as you can tell the windows of the plane were very dirty.
Before you arrive to Dammam, you fly over endless dunes and you don’t really believe that somewhere between these dunes there is an airport, but apparently there is.
On arrival I felt like once again I am somewhere in 1991, with the decorations from the past times, people praying in between the customs officers and the potted plants… It also felt rather empty, I don’t think there was another plane landing in the middle of the day for a while.
After I was welcomed to Saudi Arabia for the fourth time this year, I had to wait for almost an hour for my luggage, so the driver who was supposed to pick me up started to worry and call me just as I was about to leave the terminal.
During the next 45 minutes in one of the most plastic wrapped vehicles that I have ever been to, we passed though the typical to Riyadh (which is not so far from here) unpretty desert views
then the city of Dammam which is the fifth biggest city in KSA, the scenes of which I quite enjoyed from the comfort of my van, and eventually by 4 pm I was in my hotel in Khobar. I was hoping to go for dinner with my friends from Bahri, but when they told me that they are on the way to the Expo Center for the last round of final touch ups of their stand, I realized, that most probably I should just make plans for myself. So I decided to go visit ITHRA.
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra)—meaning “enrichment” in Arabic— was built as part of Saudi Aramco’s vision to be an ambitious initiative for the public. Ithra is the Kingdom’s leading cultural and creative destination for talent development and cross-cultural experiences. Since its opening in 2018, each attraction by Ithra serves as a window to global experiences, celebrating human potential and empowering creativity.
To get to Ithra, if you don’t have a car at hand, you first need to find an Uber, which turned out to be easy this time for me. To get inside the premises, you have to show your ID, since you’re entering Saudi Aramco lands, and at the entrance you have to pay 50 riyals for the visit of the exhibitions. Otherwise, you can visit the cafe and the library for free.
But the exhibitions were actually amazing, so I highly recommend visiting them as well. When I was there, I saw the following exhibitions:
1. The Amakin (places), which was showing people working for generations in the area and their recollections about how times have changed, and some modern art practices mostly by Saudi Artists.
2. The exhibition explaining the religious practices and symbols with absolutely beautiful mock-ups of the mosques from all around the world and intricate details going into their decorations.
3. The exhibition about geology, animals and plants of the region, traditional houses and crafts. The animals were absolutely incredibly life-like done. But also it was polar cold in this room, probably like below 15 degrees.
4. Next room exhibition was all about Saudi Aramco, its history and some posters from work places.
Further when you go down you get to the bottom part of the building with the “Source of the Light” sculpture that marks the symbolic location near where Saudi Arabia first discovered oil in 1938.
The 90-foot tall artwork consists of three towering bronze trees that grow from the base of the Source, the physical core of Ithra.
I was there completely alone and I think it was about the sunset time, so the light was just incredible. There are some exhibition centers that you visit and the building is nothing special, but the exhibition is incredible, sometimes the building is so much better than the exhibition so it takes your attention away from the show, but in case with Ithra I think the balance is just amazing between everything, but of course petrochemical money can buy you a lot of nice experiences.
When you exit the part of this exhibition hall, there is another exhibition to visit called Hijra which talks about the migration of Prophet Mohammed (PBUP) from Makkah To Madinah, but in what details! In Muslim world it is believed that he is not to be portrayed in any vision form apart from the calligraphy, and yet they managed to create an incredible exhibition working around that fact.
It was closing on 3rd hour that I was roaming around the cultural center and I thought it was time for me to wrap up if I wanted to make it to the dinner (which in the end of course never happened), so I went out to pay the visit to the library part which in itself can be roamed around for a few hours…
and went outside to take some photos of the building hoping that I will somehow be able to get out of here without too many adventures.
But there was no cars in the vicinity neither on Uber or Careem, there was no bus in sight which I could have taken somewhere out of here and generally not so many people hanging around who could help me, so I just sat down and kept hoping that some adventurous Uber driver will show up to pick me up. About 40 minutes later someone decided to come and take me back to Khobar. This said driver told me right away that mafi englezi, soooo okay let’s speak Arabic then, and when he realized that I can in fact say a few things he got so excited and started telling me stories about him going to Ithra every national day, about what to do in Khobar, playing me his favorite Saudi songs, and of course wanted to invite me for coffee to a place next door to my hotel, but I said I gotta go have dinner with my friends. My friends, however, were stuck in their stand until 5 am as usual, so I ended up going to nearby McDonalds for a grand meal of unhealthy food.
In this McDonalds there was still a family and singles entrance, so as usual I was confused where was I supposed to go, so I just went to the first door. One thing I must say it is quite much cheaper in KSA than in the UAE, though still same crappy food haha.
Spent the rest of my evening charging devices and making sure I have everything ready for the Maritime Congress next day.
Woke up, went to breakfast, didn’t have Saudi chamPAIN, but some simple food, and as I was checking the website of the congress and it said that there is a shuttle bus that will be there at 8 am, so I could maybe save some taxi money, but in reality of course there wasn’t any bus in sight so I had to rely on the kind Uber drivers once again.
I am not sure why the entrance of the Exhibition Centre was not the actual drop off place, but I had to walk around for a while trying to figure out where the action is happening. Then at the registration, for some reason they couldn’t find my badge, but it wasn’t long until they figured it out. And then the craziness began, there were so many people coming to visit the exhibition and our stand was right at the entrance, so the day flew by in a few instants. The funny part was that I was not working with my “usual” Saudi client, but their stand was 5 meters away from ours, and all those people of course had no idea that I am not with them, so they kept coming and asking me to take their photos and I had to explain to each one of them that today they have a different photographer which isn’t me… the fact that seemed to have shocked quite a few of them.
There was as usual no time to eat, breathe, or check my phone, so this is in fact the only photo I have of myself from these two days of exhibition. I also realized that I have been the behind the scenes part of this industry for so long that I indeed know half of the people in the room even though I was not in “my” country, and people kept coming to say hi, saying that they saw me last year in ADIPEC, or in some awards, or at IDEX, or at Riyadh’s WDS.
Four people tried to invite me for dinner that night, but I was just unable to lift my body off the bed once I got back to the hotel room, and after having edited all the photos and the videos, I just passed out without even having dinner.
Next day I had a fun Uber driver, who was a former English teacher, so he wanted to chat in English with me as much as he could. He showed me all the nice restaurants and landmarks on the way to the exhibition center, and gave me his number so in case I need some assistance. This time I had to spend an hour outside because they decided that they only going to let the visitors come in at 9 am, but I chatted to a bunch of people so the waiting wasn’t very long.
Another day at the congress doing the same thing, running around trying to do photos and videos at the same time, chatting to visitors, listening to key-note speakers, and with heavy legs and unbending back, the day came to an end, and it was time to get out, of course there wasn’t a single Uber in sight, so I was just chilling outside when some of my “colleagues” showed up and offered to drop me to the hotel. Being a generous Saudi soul, of course, A, the guy who was driving decided to show me some Khobar on my way out, because sadly I couldn’t stay for the weekend and see a bit of the city myself due to the fact that I had to go to Turkey that night to see my relatives, whom I didn’t see since 2019. So we drove around the corniche, and visited some very fancy developments that made me feel like we’re not in Saudi Arabia, but somewhere else.
It was very nice of him to take me around places, and definitely made me want to come back here again to visit some more, but I had other plans and trying to get to the airport in one piece, I was again invited by some random Saudi guy to a coffee shop, but alas I had to tell him that I had no time for such adventures right now as my Uber was already somewhere on the way.
In the airport I expected to meet all my Bahri counterparts who work in Dubai, but I only met a few, got invited to the lounge area where I met two Lebanese guys on top of the one who invited me to the lounge, and two out of three could speak Russian… which was quite something.
The traveling to Turkey part of the adventure would have to be in the next edition of my blog, because this already happened to be too long to read for most visitors, but thank you once again KSA for the open hearts and the generosity, and the friendliness. Can’t wait to visit you again.
3 thoughts on “Dammam, Khobar, Dhahran, ITHRA and Saudi Maritime Congress.”
“this already happened to be too long to read for most visitors,”
This time I made without a break in reading, obviously getting training…
Thanks for telling us about your adventures in Khobar.
Maybe this time my writing was more homogeneous 😅