“You won’t like it” the taxi driver sneered dismissively as we climbed out in front of the Massara Hotel, “I will wait” he casually added. We were in the seaside town of Kohbar for the weekend. We did like it – I’m not sure if he’s still waiting.
It was just after 12pm when we ventured out for the seemingly straight forward task of eating. However, before 2pm on a Friday in Saudi Arabia, it is anything but. Never mind, we concluded, we’ll just have a pleasant stroll along the waterfront – again with excessive confidence. The temperature was climbing steadily through the forties, and was heading for dizzying heights. Twenty minutes in the sun left us staggering incoherently, struggling to plant our feet in a series of straight lines.
We collapsed into three chairs of an Indian restaurant in the most undignified sweaty manner – rambling wildly about water and milkshakes. The waiter asked us with all seriousness if we wanted our water cold.
We had heard of a resort down the coast – a western only resort where the rules seemed to be a little different. We hungrily began to seek it out. Our first taxi driver drove for two minutes before admitting he had no idea where we were going, and told us to get out – at least he was honest.
The next was none the wiser, but was satisfied with driving blindly in one direction, while three foreigners pointed stupidly in various directions. It is an odd city. Built in an idyllic spot, with almost no thought of aesthetic value. Large areas close to the waterfront are not just derelict, but resembled a Mad Max wasteland. Enormous half built Hilton hotels stand next to such barren spots. Either there is more to be built or somebody has wildly misjudged the what guests desire to see out of their windows. Even the Sofitel, standing tall – and most definitely finished appeared to back onto some kind of water treatment area on the beach. Prime location is accorded to the fast food chains that sit by the waterfront. It is one of those places that if you don’t actually want to eat fast food muck – just imagine that! – or heaven forbid some kind of local cuisine – life is made that much harder.
The resort door creaked open, and a face that wasn’t entirely friendly peered out.
“Where from?” he barked.
“England” I called back
“75 Rial” he growled. He swung the large double doors open, and we followed him in and down a dark driveway. Without any warning he thrust his hand into a nearby bush and pulled out a clipboard, which he pressed into my hands before fleecing us for more money than is strictly necessary to go to a beach.
Moving from one of the most conservative countries in the world, to a tiny enclave that in many ways was the exact opposite, was strange at first. Women walked past in bikinis, music blasted out from different sections and people squealed as a volleyball went back and forth over the net.
We found an empty table – ordered some non alcoholic beer (somethings don’t change) and sat back in the sunshine. As almost any beach is – this one was pleasant. Yet we couldn’t shake the feeling that everything wasn’t quite right. Was it the high fences on either side with the barb wire wound along the top? – very possibly. People from the middle east are not allowed to visit, I assume it is judged they might become corrupted by our terrible ways – it made us feel like dirty heathens. But we gamely put these negative feelings out of our minds, and waded into the ocean to have some fun.
We were struggling to find anything to do. According to Trip Advisor, there are seven things to do in Khobar. Two involved shopping, and one is a spa. The following day we ventured to the Science and Technology museum, which has an IMAX – quite the treat in the cinema free Saudi Arabia. We were barely through the door when we were accosted by two pre-pubescent security guards who took one look at Andy’s shorts and blocked his path.
“Not OK” they pointed to a nearby sign that seem to suggest short shorts were not welcome in the museum. After a brief, and quite pathetic attempt to sway them, we sloped sadly out and into the terrifyingly hot sun – where we stood for ten minutes attempting to find a taxi as our insides quickly liquidized.
It is always a sad reflection of a city when one of the social highlights is a book store with a large electrical department. I have never enjoyed looking at pencils quite so much. This is how they get you – strip a place of anything resembling activities and watch people surge into the shops.
The mythical Corniche that we had heard so much about, and had managed to miss for a day and a half, sat opposite the bookstore. As the sun slipped behind the craned landscape we walked along the seafront. It is undoubtedly the most picturesque part of Khobar that we saw – which in fairness isn’t an accolade that should be bellowed from the rooftops.
It was the evening of the Champions League final, and we ventured out in the hope of a pleasant cafe with a moderate amount of atmosphere for the big game. We failed spectacularly on both counts – an extensive, and sweaty, thirty minute walk around the neighbourhood yielded not a single television screen. With our tails firmly wedged between our legs we made our way back to our hotel and watched on the big screen – just like the man behind the counter had suggested.
We left the following day. I want to say nice things about Khobar, but it doesn’t make it easy on itself. A seaside city in Saudi Arabia is obviously a much different preposition than anything I’ve experienced. A perfect example of cultural differences not only in what a seaside city should be, but what a holiday should be. I can’t in any clear consciousness recommend anybody to go here, unless you are a connoisseur of barren open wasteland areas – and happen to couple such a passion with shopping, and debilitating, mind altering heat, that you can’t actually go out in – sadly I fall into none of these categories.