Commentary | The Eastern Province, Land of Opportunities – Mulhim

Published: April 17, 2012

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Abdulateef Al-Mulhim | Arab News

Saudi Arabia consists of 13 provinces of which the Eastern Province is the largest in terms of area, with a population of about four million. It covers an area of about 260,000 square miles and is almost as large as the US state of Texas.

The capital of the province is Dammam, where the office of governor Prince Mohammad bin Fahd is situated.  The young prince was educated in the West and graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he majored in economics and political science. His office is called the Amarah (“governor’s office”).

One of the traditional weekly events in the province is called the Majlis, where Prince Mohammad would receive every Monday afternoon a group of residents from all over the province and all members of society.

At the Majlis, you will see heads of government departments, businessmen, college professors, heads of tribes and students. The governor and the audience talk about many subjects, especially local issues including education, infrastructure projects and health care. Any citizen in the audience can have private time with the prince. At the end of the meeting, the governor and the audience have lunch together and the conversations continue. The Amarah also receives petition letters from all citizens at any time. The Majlis is held on a weekly basis in all 13 provinces of the Kingdom. This way, all citizens can speak directly to administrative figures in the Kingdom’s provinces.

The Eastern Province is located on the western side of the Arabian Gulf and shares common borders with many countries. It borders Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Yemen. Bahrain is only a few miles away and is connected to the Eastern Province by a 14-mile causeway. The region where the Eastern Province is located was known as Bahrain in pre-Islamic times. The name of the region then became known as Al-Ahsa. Later on it was renamed the Eastern Province. It has very old cities such as Al-Ahsa, Qatif and Uqair. There are also new cities such as Dammam, Alkhobar and Dhahran. Saudis always refer to Dammam and Alkhobar as the twin cities or the Saudi Seattle-Tacoma.


The Eastern Province has one fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves. It also has the largest oil field (Alghawar) and the largest offshore oil field in the world (Alsafaniyah).

There are a lot of other oil fields in the province with hundreds of oil wells. The most famous one is oil well “Number 7″ in Dhahran. The oil that came out of this well marked a historical turn in fortunes for modern Saudi Arabia. Oil was discovered in the Kingdom in 1938. Today’s oil reserve in the Kingdom amounts to about 267 billion barrels.

The Eastern Province became one of the most important areas that connected many civilizations thousands of years ago and connected east and west in modern day history. The Eastern Province was the place where the Dilmun civilization was connected with Mesopotamia. There is evidence of settlements in the area dating back to 3500 BC. There was archeological evidence that linked the area to ancient Gerrha. Also, the Sumerians traded beyond the Strait of Hormuz and the Eastern Province was the cord that connected them with places as far as India and beyond. The area was a place where stronger civilizations overtook the weaker ones. In 1792 BC the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians. However, the most notable civilization story was the wealth that Gerrha had. It was immense, and in 205 BC the wealth was made available for trading with other different regions. Gold and silver and other commodities of the time were traded. The location of the area between India and China on the east and the Mediterranean Sea in the west, in addition to Mesopotamia in the north, provided the Eastern Province with a rich history. The area continued to be the land of opportunities in later centuries. Around 1515, parts of the Eastern Province were under Portuguese rule when they invaded the Strait of Hormuz and extended their rule to Bahrain and Qatif. The Ottoman Empire and later on the British wrestled for control of the area.

From 1913 and beyond, King Abdulaziz bin Saud had Hofuf and Qatif under his rule. Thus, the Eastern Province became part of modern Saudi Arabia. Twenty years after King Abdulaziz was in Hofuf, where the most important historical event in the Kingdom took place in the Eastern Province. The area saw the arrival of the American pioneers in 1933 to look for oil.

With the discovery of oil in 1938, new cities were established. Later on the joint American group of companies was named the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in 1944 and later on in 1988 it was renamed Saudi Aramco when the Saudi government bought all the shares. The presence of Aramco in the Eastern Province had many positive effects on the area. The company continued to connect different places. An example of that was the establishment of the Trans Arabian Pipe Line. It started from the Eastern Province and went through Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The Eastern Province features a diverse way of life. There are the oil, agriculture and fishing industries. Al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province has the largest oasis in the world. Qatif is another oasis in the Eastern Province. Both have the largest number of palm trees in the world. The Eastern Province has the best fishing waters in the Middle East, with the Arabian Gulf home to a variety of fish. Jubail and Qatif are the two main cities for fishing.

The local judicial and administrative bodies and government departments are located in Dammam. The city is home to King Fahd International Airport, the University of Dammam and King Abdulaziz Seaport. Dammam is also the first city to have a train station in the Eastern Province. The railroad track connects Dammam with Abqaiq, Hofuf and Riyadh.

Dammam has many medical complexes that are considered the most advanced in the area. Even though Dammam is a relatively new city, it grew and became connected to other adjacent cities such as Alkhobar, Dhahran and Saihat. It was first inhabited by the Aldossary tribe in the early 1900s.

The Saudi government in 1976 built the largest industrial city the world. Jubail developed from a small fishing village into one of the largest industrial cities in the world. A project to build chemical plants in Jubail led to the creation of the largest industrial complex of its kind. The SABIC complex became the largest in the Middle East and fourth largest in the world. Jubail has two ports. One is commercial and the other is an industrial port for loading and unloading chemical products. Jubail is the place where you will also see the world’s largest desalination plant.

The city of Dhahran was established due to the discovery of oil there and became a strategic place in 1938. It is home to the main headquarters of Saudi Aramco. Dhahran used to have most modern airport in Saudi Arabia during the 60s and 70s. The airport was the main hub for all international travelers in the Gulf region. Dhahran also has the most advanced university in the Middle East, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals that was established in the early 1960s.

The city of Abqaiaq is a city that started as an Aramco camp. However, it grew to be a major city in the Eastern Province. In Abqaiq, you will see the most complicated oil processing operations. In Abqaiq crude oil is processed by gas oil separation plants. The oil is also stabilized in Abqaiq and then sent through pipelines to Ras Tanurah for export.

The city of Ras Tanura is where the first Saudi refinery was built and only became known in the late 1930s. Aramco had a camp called Najmah that housed Aramco employees. Ras Tanura is one of the largest oil exporting ports in the world.

The city of Hafar Al-Batin is located in the northern part of the Eastern Province. It is only 80 kilometers from Kuwait. It used to be a resting place for pilgrims who needed water. Nowadays it is expanding and has one of the largest military cities in the Kingdom.

— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a Commodore (Retired), Royal Saudi Navy. He can be contacted at:

Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in Arab News.