Ithra by Aramco
Updated: Jul 3
"What makes you different makes you beautiful".
For my June birthday this year, instead of flying out to celebrate with family and friends who are all scattered about the globe and hard to reach right now, I remained in Saudi. Given the hot summer temperatures at this time of year, I had to put my thinking cap on to come up with a unique way to mark the occasion and keep cool!
My last couple of birthdays have been clouded by Covid concerns. Even though we are beginning to see the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, I was determined that this birthday should reflect this more upbeat and cautious return to a familiar and normal existence.
At the end of the working week, my friends and I hired a car and drove out of Riyadh, heading towards the east coast, making for Dammam. The road trip is an easy drive that afforded each of us turns behind the wheel during the four hours it took us to reach our hotel. Then, we set off to fill our weekend with new discoveries supported by a calorific selection of road trip snacks and the Abba music blaring out of the radio.
Dammam, Dhahran, and al Khobar are all part of the wider metropolitan and residential area that makes up this important governorate in the eastern province. The area was originally known for fishing and pearl farming, and it is home to one of the largest ports in the Arabian Gulf. The Eastern Province was settled in 1923 by the Bedouin tribe of al Dawasir, who traveled over from Bahrain because they feared the colonial interference of the British Empire at that time.
Then in 1936, the discovery of oil transformed the whole area, and the global conglomerate Saudi Aramco was born. The Saudi Arabian Oil Company dug the famous Dammam Well Number Seven, also referred to as the Prosperity Well, due to its seemingly endless supply of crude oil.
The discovery of oil in Saudi led to additional discoveries further along the Arabian Gulf in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. However, in 1950 some of the largest oil fields in the world were discovered in Saudi, which led to Saudi becoming a prominent world player in the production of fossil fuel.
The 2020 Forbes Global 2000 list of public companies has Saudi Aramco as number five globally at the time of writing. In contrast, the four public companies at the top of the list are all in banking and financial services and are from China and the US, respectively. Incidentally, number six on the Forbes list is Apple which made billions more profit than anyone else on the top 10 Forbes list during covid. So Covid, it seems, was good to Apple!
So with all this wealth and good fortune, it is only right and proper that Saudi Aramco give back to the community around it. And in this regard, they do a lot. For example, one of their more interesting projects in the Eastern Province is called Ithra, or King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture. Ithra is a cultural center built to fuel (their word, not mine) creativity, inspiration, and passion for the arts.
Ithra keeps an eye on the future and takes knowledge and inspiration from the past to create stories and exhibits of the highest quality. The iconic architecture marks the spot of the first Saudi oil field, which was discovered in 1938. The center was built by a Norwegian firm called Snohetta. The textures, shapes, and material used in the building ensure this masterpiece wins many international awards for its unique form that combines to represent oil-bearing rocks.
Inside the eighty thousand square meter complex, you will find a four-floor Library, the eighteen-floor Ithra Tower, a three-floor Idea Lab, Energy Exhibit, five gallery museums, a three hundred and fifteen seat cinema, a nine hundred seat performing arts theater, a one thousand and five hundred m2 great hall, and a children’s museum.
A day visit is filled with workshops, performing arts, film screenings, and touring the numerous fascinating exhibits. General entry to the center is free, but some of the programs and facilities require a paid entry tickets, which is pretty much the same a most museums and galleries worldwide and not overly expensive at fifty SAR. There is so much to take in that the center is not your typical one-time visit to tick off the to-do. Instead, it is designed for repeat visits with family and friends because there is so much to see, do, and learn.
My friends and I spent a full afternoon going from one exhibit to another and loved every minute of our visit to this world-class center. Our personal favorite exhibit was called Terra. It was hugely popular with most visitors because it is created by a series of international artists focusing their message on sustainability. Their immersive virtual reality experience, narrated by Jane Goodall, puts you beside a watering hole in Africa as Zebra, Giraffe, and Lions come right up to your nose as part of the VR experience, and it was a huge hit with young and old alike.
We did a lot of walking around Ithra, going at a leisurely pace to see as much as possible. Our visit was punctuated by regular tea breaks in its funky café. The center is open till late every night except Sunday. I think we will be back again in a few months to see what they do next.
While Ithra sets the visitor experience bar high, some other popular activities in the Eastern Province include snorkeling and diving off the coast. We also enjoyed walking along with the Cornish, which is dotted with several good coffee shops where you can stop off for an iced coffee and look out on the fishing boats along the coastline.
Along with the Dammam Cornish, we also paid a visit to a more traditional type of museum. This one was a recreated heritage village and home to a popular local restaurant, definitely worth a stop if you are along that way. Further south toward Khobar is half-moon beach, and outside of covid times, this is a very popular beach for families and friends to get together to enjoy boating and other water sports.