Dammam, Saudi Arabia

Dammam, Saudi Arabia

Mashary Al-Naim

The Dammam Metropolitan area is located in eastern Saudi Arabia along the Gulf seashore, in the most oil-rich region in the world. Today it comprises a number of cities, including Dammam, Khobar, Dhahran and Qatif, as well as a cluster of smaller towns and villages. This new urban conglomeration sits on the coast just to the northwest of the island archipelago which forms Bahrain. Indeed, Dammam itself was only formed in 1923 when a group from the Al-Dawaser tribe decided to move from Bahrain to the mainland, where King Abdulaziz allowed them to settle. They split into two groups and created separate fishing villages in Dammam and adjacent Khobar. These two villages began with slow development until 1938 when Saudi Arabia started exporting oil in commercial quantities (the county’s formation into a modern kingdom had only happened in 1932).

As a result, the Dammam region witnessed continuous urban growth in the second half of the 20th century, even if initially it wasn’t enough to bring all the urban centres together. Just two decades ago, the cities and towns in the region still remained scattered and a sense of urban connectivity did not really exist. The term ‘Dammam Metropolitan’ has therefore emerged due to the huge developments that have taken place since the 1990s, especially after the municipality decided to build a unified seafront along the whole shoreline. Now it is difficult for anyone to identify the boundaries between Dammam and its neighbouring centres: the area has become a large urban mass connected by major highways and real estate projects which all make it look and feel as if it is just one big city (see Plate 5).

The urban structure of the area can thus be considered as young, because all of its cities – excluding Hofuf and Qatif (along with a few older villages) – only really got started in the fourth and fifth decades of the 20th century. Indeed, it could be said that the origin of contemporary settlement in this part of Saudi Arabia stems from when Aramco (the Arabian-American Oil Company, now Saudi Aramco) built its initial housing projects in ‘camps’ for oil workers in the eastern part of the country from 1938–1944; the first ever was in Dhahran, close to Dammam.1 These estates introduced for the first time a new concept of space and a new image of the Saudi home. It is possible to say that this early intervention had a deep, if not immediate, effect on the native population: it certainly made them question what they knew and how they should behave in their domestic environments. In other words, this initial change can be seen as the first motive for social resistance to new urban forms and imagery within the contemporary Saudi built environment. We should also mention here the impact of the railway which was constructed in 1951 to connect Dammam with Riyadh through Al-Hassa. That project was crucial because it encouraged many people from central Saudi Arabia to move to the under-populated Dammam region and build up their businesses there.

The significant impact of this experience presented itself in conflicts between the old and new in local Dammam society. Threats from interfering outside elements to social and physical identity created for the first time in Saudi Arabia a social reaction towards the physical environment. The conflict between traditional cultural values and the introduction of western forms and images was limited at the beginning of the period of modernisation; indigenous people followed what they already knew and tried to continue to implement it in their daily lives, including their homes. However, this emerging contrast between traditional images and newer westernised images in the minds of local people can also be considered the beginning of important physical and social changes in the Saudi built environment.

This chapter therefore tells the story of development in this eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Its main goal is to investigate how urban identity in the region has gone through transition during recent decades, and how this has influenced the ‘acceptance’ and ‘use’ of urban structures. The text here will concentrate on people’s lifestyles within their home environment in relation to the wider transformation of urban structures. For this purpose, I have for many years been conducting fieldwork studies to trace urban changes in Dammam and find out how people respond to them. Social, economic and political changes must all be seen as major factors in the analysis of the impact of urban change on cultural identity.


4.1 Dwellings in the Dhahran ‘camp’ formed by the Aramco oil company


4.2 House in the Dhahran ‘camp’


4.3 House in the Dhahran ‘camp’


The first indication of a conflict between local culture and western culture can be ascribed to Solon T. Kimball, who visited the Aramco headquarters in 1956. He described how the senior staff members at the (American) ‘camp’ in Dhahran were completely imported from United States:

Not one westerner would have difficulty in identifying the senior staff “camp” as a settlement built by Americans in our southwestern tradition of town planning. It is an area of single-story dwellings for employees and their families. Each house is surrounded by a small grassed yard usually enclosed by a hedge.2

This American camp, intended for senior oil workers, and which introduced its own new spatial concepts, contrasted strongly with the surrounding home environments found in the existing old cities in the region, Hofuf and Qatif.

In face of such developments, native Saudi people still persisted with their own spatial concepts and images, tending to resist the imported ones. They considered the latter as strange things. Therefore, whenever Saudi workers and their relatives ‘moved in, they took over any empty land available and erected basic shelters and fences of locally available material, separated from each other by narrow irregular footpaths.’3 This created ‘a community of mud-brick and timber houses, built in a traditional and comfortable way’.4 During his visit in the mid-1950s, Kimball noticed this alternative community growing up, and described the Saudi camp built adjacent to the senior staff camp as ‘neither planned nor welcomed … these settlements represent the attempt by Arabs to establish a type of community life with which they are familiar.’ Kimball openly recognised the insistence of native people on their own identity through his description of the Saudi camp as ‘an emerging indigenous community life’.5


4.4 General view of the city of Dammam


4.5 General view of the city of Khobar

We should mention here that in the first two decades of change a number of alterations appeared in local Saudi people’s attitudes towards their homes. What Kimball observed was the stance of the native population at their first point of direct contact with western culture. Saudi people, at this stage, refused to accept change and simply stuck with what they knew. This is not to say that the new westernised images did not also influence people; however, they were still in the process of developing a new attitude towards how they lived in their homes. An attitude had not yet been formed to reflect just how deeply the new forms and images broke the old idea of the Saudi home.

The Saudi government and the Aramco oil company were not at all happy with the presence of the alternative traditional-style settlements in the oilfield areas.6 Even as early as 1947 the government had asked Aramco, which employed American engineers and surveyors, to try to control the growth of the unwanted settlements. This led to the first planned cities in Saudi Arabia, carried out on a grid-iron pattern, in Dammam and Khobar.7 The spatial concepts and building forms which were introduced into these two planned cities accelerated the impact of westernised modern architecture on local people, not just in these two new developments, but also in surrounding older cities in the Dammam region.

The main characteristics of urban development in Dammam and Khobar were, as noted, based on the western principles of grid-iron land subdivision. These two cities were divided into a number of almost-square blocks surrounded by wide streets, as a form of ‘domino planning’. The blocks were generally around 40–60 metres in either direction, and in the city centre areas at least were orientated in a northsouth direction. Both the new street pattern and structures built on them were totally new, and as such they shocked local people; yet at the same time it started a transformative urban era which led in time to complete urban and social change. The Saudi government allocated some entire blocks to extended families that moved into the new cities and built new neighbourhoods within the planned urban structure. It is difficult now to track precisely how the social urban identity of the new developments were formed, but what certainly happened is that a mix of old and new values and lifestyles came to be created in these areas. We can thus attribute the sense of urban identity of the Dammam Metropolitan region today to this formation of a modernised fabric from the late-1940s and 1950s.


4.6 Apartment block with shops below on King Saud Street, Dammam

As mentioned earlier, the new type of house that was built, which became widely known as a ‘villa’, was imported originally from western countries and built on oil bases. But it was a type which developed further in the 1950s when the Aramco Home Ownership Program compelled local Saudi workers to submit designs for their houses in order to qualify for a building loan from the company.8 People had to rely upon Aramco’s architects and engineers to design their new houses because there were so few architects in Saudi Arabia at that time.9 In order to speed up the approval process, Aramco’s architects and engineers developed several standard design alternatives for employees to choose from. However, all these designs adopted a style loosely described as the ‘international Mediterranean detached house’.10


4.7 Apartment block on King Saud Street


4.8 Close-up view of apartment balconies on King Saud Street

This hybrid kind of villa house soon spread into the two new planned cities in the eastern region, Dammam and Khobar, especially in neighbourhoods which constituted the original historic settlements.11 To give one example, Al-Said has studied the growth of the old Al-Dawaser neighbourhood of Dammam.12 He found that, between 1930 and 1970, this neighbourhood grew from 56 to 250 residential units, and that these were ‘mostly typical courtyard residential units as a result of contentious house subdivision and room addition’.13 The situation was similar in Khobar, where the house style was more influenced by the prevailing traditional styles in the region. So even though many modern developments appeared in these two planned cities due to Aramco’s programmes in the 1950s and 1960s, many residents, especially in the older settlement areas, insisted on using a more traditional variant of the house form.14

It can be argued that Saudi people, in that period, were still strongly influenced by their previous cultural experience, and were able to express this loyalty very easily since the full force of modern building regulations was not yet being applied. This meant that people had greater flexibility to decide the form of their houses. It is important to note here that most Saudi Arabians still retained a strong connection with their social, physical and aesthetic traditions, all of which were then strongly reflected in their domestic environment.

The new architectural image that spread through the planned cities was mainly of concrete buildings with neat crisp facades and balconies. Three-, four- and five-storey buildings appeared rapidly on the main streets – such as King Khalid Street in Khobar and King Saud Street in Dammam – during the 1950s and 1960s. The new urban form was very striking to local people compared to what they had been used to in the older cities. Furthermore, from 1960 to 1980 an entire range of abstract westernised building forms was developed in the Dammam region, often for very commercial purposes. The urban and architectural developments of the time created a real crisis of architectural identity which became one of the main issues debated amongst Saudi intellectuals by the 1980s.


The desire to create a modern country in a short period of time therefore brought about total physical change to most Saudi cities.15 As in other Middle Eastern countries, the process of modernisation in Saudi Arabia ‘is largely physical and heavily imitative of the western model’s external departments and lifestyles’.16 This is today manifested in unified governmental planning policies throughout the Saudi kingdom. However, prior to the 1960s, most attempts to regulate and control the growth of Saudi cities were partial and had limited impact.17 By 1960, however, the first proper building regulations were issued in the form of a circular by the Deputy Ministry of Interior for Municipalities.18 This circular, as Al-Said mentions, was:

… the turning point in Saudi Arabian contemporary built environment physical pattern and regulations. It required planning of the land, subdivision with cement poles, obtaining an approval for this from the municipality, prohibited further land subdivision, controlled the height of the buildings, the square ratio of the built [area], required set-backs, [and so on].

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Dammam, Saudi Arabia
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