Yanbu is on the other side of Saudi Arabia from where I lived and worked for five years on the Gulf Coast in Dhahran. I had heard about the city because it’s one of two industrial developments undertaken by the Royal Commission (info here), the other being Jubail, which is within easy striking distance of Dhahran. I’d been to Jeddah a couple times on business but not out into the environs, and I’d travelled by car from Taif (south of Jeddah) all the way down to Khamis Mushait and back (see the post on that trip here). Yanbu lies well north of Jeddah and within the ambit of Medina, which lies only about 160 km away, so that particular corner of Saudi Arabia was outside my ken. A friend from Yanbu extended the invitation to visit whenever I liked, so in January of 2015, some seven months before I left my job in Dhahran and departed from Saudi Arabia never to return, I made my way to Yanbu to have a look with my friend as tour guide.
The start of the trip was not auspicious and we have my fortitude as a traveller to thank for the fact that I made it to the airport and eventually to Yanbu. Less hardy (or more sensible) people may well have turned back. I had left plenty of time to drive from Dhahran to the airport in Dammam — a distance of some 30 km. But as usual when the Travel Gods get wind of the fact that I’m going on a trip, bad things began to happen. By the time I was ready to hit the road toward the airport a full-on sandstorm was underway. 🙁 Those of you who’ve never driven through a sandstorm can imagine driving through a blizzard, only instead of snow you have sand pelting your car and covering the roadway. Oh joy. I’d driven through two other sandstorms so had a few of the tricks for such conditions to the ready — watch the side of the road to see where the pavement leaves off if at all possible, go slow (unlike the Saudis whizzing by you at normal speed LOL), and DON’T use your wipers if you want to be able to see through your windshield in the future. The paint job on your car may take a hit, but hey, you pays your money and you takes your chances. Fortunately the wind was not at hurricane force that day so my 10 year old Mazda suffered no cosmetic disfiguration. I had my work cut out for me navigating my way down the road, however. Once in the vicinity of the airport, the Saudi penchant for minimalist directional signage, nearly always placed exactly where you need to turn rather than before it, joined with the necessity of keeping my eyes peeled on the road to produce two full trips around the airport loop road before I finally spotted the bloody sign and made the turning. Departure time loomed ever closer. Will he make it? Will he end up a raggle-taggle stretch of parched bones uncovered by the next sandstorm as it blows away the deposits of the last one? Not to worry, I finally made it to the airport, parked and got to the gate with about 5 minutes to spare. Close one.
Sandstorms can close airports, of course, but the Travel Gods failed to throw that spanner into the works, as well. So arriving just under the wire to a flight that was not cancelled, not even delayed, I had the perfect opportunity to pat myself on the back for having outsmarted the Travel Gods yet again, those old creeps. Off we went toward Yanbu in a flurry of sand that cleared once we began our climb into the sky where the storms can’t reach. When we landed a couple hours later in Yanbu it was clear as a bell.
Places on the Gulf Coast have little history. The Red Sea was where the action was in the past in Saudi Arabia, in the Hejaz region. Yanbu was in antiquity one of the staging posts on the Incense Route (info here and BBC documentary by Kate Humble here), the trade route that brought frankincense from Oman to the Middle East and made a lot of people very wealthy in the process. The source of wealth today is oil, of course: Saudi black gold. The Wikipedia page on Yanbu (here) has this to say:
Yanbu is an important petroleum shipping terminal and is home to three oil refineries, a plastics facility and several other petrochemical plants. It is the country’s second port (after Jeddah) and serves as the main port for the holy city of Medina, 160 km (99 mi) to the east. The natural harbour is protected on both sides by wide coral reefs. These reefs remain mostly untouched, making them excellent areas for diving. Three major oil pipelines lead across the desert from the oilfields in the east to terminate at the Red Sea in Yanbu.
All that and KFC, too — what more could you want? 🙂 I did want more. I wanted history. I wanted some sense of a life that went on before oil started being pumped out of the ground in the 1930s, because that sense was wholly absent from the part of Saudi Arabia in which I lived. Dhahran is an Arab version of Houston for the most part, if you overlook the mosques. The area of the company compound I lived in could well have been lifted wholesale from Texas and plopped down in Saudi Arabia, so few are the differences from what you’d see in the USA. Yanbu’s twin sister, Jubail, likewise has no history. It’s all brand new, dreamed up as a planned industrial city and wholly devoted to that purpose. There’s a corniche area along the coast with a mall (what else?) but it’s entirely incidental to the industrial goings-on.
Yanbu is quite different. It has industrial development, to be sure, but there was something there before all that business began. There is history in Yanbu, quite a lot of it, in point of fact, if one reads the chronicles. The industrial city began development by royal decree only in 1975. It occupies its own precinct, Yanbu Al-Sina’iya, set off from the historic center of the town that sits in Yanbu Al-Balad. In typical fashion the expats brought in to work in the oil and petrochemical facilities are housed in posh compounds in the industrial city. In the four days I spent in Yanbu I only saw a handlful of white folks in the downtown area where I stayed. It’s inconceivable that a foreign family would live in the historic area. Being the lone whitey most of the time suited me just fine — I’d come to see something authentically Saudi, not more foreign import goods like myself.
My hotel was a bit north of the historic center and its vicinity was fairly new, so there’s little to ooh and aah about there. Soon after settling into my suite, however, my friend and I went to the Corniche, along the shore, and I had my first experience of the Red Sea. I was astonished and delighted. Time for some pics: