An Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia Runaround

I arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Monday evening for two days of meetings.  I had flown first to Bahrain, and then drove across the causeway that connects the two countries.  The actual driving portion of the journey probably only takes about 30-40 minutes, but the border crossing procedure takes considerably longer.  Not because there were lines (thankfully none), but because of the multiple steps (I counted between 6 and 7 checkpoints we went through).

Getting a visa to Saudi Arabia requires a wee bit of planning, and thankfully that was mostly taken care of for me a few months back.  I was a bit nervous going into the border though because my current visa expired the day after I was scheduled to leave Saudi Arabia.  Sometimes countries get nervous about that.  Further, my visa was originally processed as ‘arrival by aircraft’, as opposed to ‘arrival by car’, thus further compounding potential issues.  Thankfully, the border guards didn’t seem to care about either, and happily let me (and driver) into the country.  And they also must have decided that I wasn’t carrying any alcohol or drugs into the country, as they didn’t tear apart our car (like every other car).

As for where I was headed, it was to the city of Al Khobar, which is in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, overlooking the Persian Gulf.  Here’s a quick map as a refresher:

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Also, as a note that may be somewhat obvious – I was a bit more careful here in what I took photos of.  Thus, no people at any close or distinguishable distance, nor any buildings beyond some Americanized/tourist sites.  By the same token, the area I was in is extremely safe these days, and I really had little to worry about (likely far safer here than in the bad parts of Washington DC).

With that, I headed out of the hotel Tuesday night and out into the nice warm sun.  This time of year the weather here is actually quite pleasant.  Neither too hot, nor cold.  Just right.  And in what was I think the fastest ever satellite acquisition time (about 2 seconds), my GPS watch was ready to go.  Must have gotten turned on at some point in my bag while nearby, thus having the hotfix ready to go for the next time.

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My planning for the run was somewhat minimal.  The night before while arriving at the hotel I noticed a waterfront area with some shops, and then took mental note of how to get there from my hotel.  It didn’t seem too far away, perhaps a mile.  So, I headed back out to the main road and followed it back along towards the water.

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The road turned out to have a plethora of chocolate and other sweets shops on it.  Like the diamond district, but for chocolates.  Really, every other store was chocolates for hundreds of meters.  Calorie friendly this street was not.

In fact, there was even not one, but TWO cupcakes shops (Pink Box, and A Cup of Cake):

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Later on that night I went and checked them both out, buying cupcakes from both stores (about $1.50 each per cupcake).  Ok, actually, I bought a few cupcakes per store.  A sampler.

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Inside A Cup of Cake:

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Interestingly, the ‘take-away’ device was just various paper bags.  The man behind the counter (they’re all men here), warned me that my particular cupcake selection was not apt to work well in said bags.  So, I just hand-held it instead.

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The taste of the cupcakes was a bit mixed.  One of the icings (Mocha) was actually quite good, and the cake along with it solid and not dried out.  But the other cupcakes were all dried out, and the icings were also dried.  They’re made offsite, and then dropped off to sell in the storefront.  I suspect they sat for a while.  I only ate about 1-2 bites of each (sorta like wine tasting).

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On the flip side, they did have a cupcake van.  Kinda nifty, can’t argue with that.

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At any rate, back to running.  Shortly after the cupcake shops I saw this building.  This is apparently where small satellite dishes go to die.  I’ve never seen so many small rusted out satellites dishes in a single location on this planet.  Unfortunately the photo doesn’t accurately depict the sheer number of dishes up there.  The exact reason for such concentration is unclear to me.  Perhaps it’s sorta like the old SETI projects, crowd-sourcing.

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I continued along the road towards the water.  In my running world, there are always two ‘easy picks’ for running while traveling: Along water sources, and around airports (perimeter roads).  Without fail, these two options always work.

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Eventually, it turned from city-scape to seascape.  There was a large park on one side of the road, butted up against the Le Meridian hotel (with its massive fences seen above).

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On the other side in the distance though I saw a water tower.  There was some construction blocking my view, so I figured I’d run a bit longer and maybe get a better look at it.

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Eventually I found a hole in the wall:

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Turns out, this tower was built by the local water company, and started about 15 years ago.  Construction has never quite been finished.  Think of it as a living monument.

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Satisfied that’s all I was going to see of that, I headed back the other direction along the water.  I was happy to see there were public bathrooms available.  I didn’t have to use them, but always nice to have the option!

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Soon the real waterfront park started.  This park is considered a bit of the crown jewel of parklands in the area, and indeed it’s quite nice.

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It meanders along the water, and is fully non-motorized only.  There were plenty of people out running/walking and even some casual biking.

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Also lots of families out and about.  Note that swimming was not permitted here, which is too bad – might have made for a good openwater swim site:

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There was even a small train running along the roadway!  Ok, so I guess one motorized vehicle (and follow-truck) was allowed.  Apparently small trains follow me everywhere these days.

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After about 1.20 miles of running along the beach path, it came to an end.  Obviously, that was a fine place for a self-portrait:

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As to why I know this distance of exactly 1.20 miles it’s only because I later noticed in Strava that I triggered a single segment run by exactly three people…including me.  The segment included the beach area, starting with this sign:

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And here’s the segment:

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From there, I decided against going back along the water, and instead dipped across the park towards the city a bit.  I passed what I presume to be a covered prayer area:

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A short bit later, I came to the mother lode of American influence in Saudi Arabia.  Starting with none other than a Toys “R” Us variant:

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Across the street was a plaza, somewhat designed like those service station plazas up and down the I-95 on the US East Coast where you can quickly pull in.  This plaza backed up against the park/beach/water, but was filled with American eating establishments.  For example, McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Applebees, Pizza Hut and more.

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As well as the always present KFC, and Hardees:

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Further down the road Chili’s, Starbucks, TGIF, and the Outback Steakhouse:

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It’s sorta mindboggling actually.  I don’t think I could find this concentration of American restaurants in the US!  And, also nearby was Quizno’s, Krispy Kreme Donuts, and additional redundant McDonalds (clustering for high availability is important).

In fact, I found it somewhat interesting than when crossing the board from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia (driving across), the very first building upon completing the 6 or 7 inspection checkpoints checking for illegal (Western influenced) contraband…was McDonalds.

Ok, back to running…

At this point, the sun was starting to set.  The weather was still beautiful out.  Pretty much the perfect warm weather running temperature:

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I then made my turn back down the main drag towards my hotel.  One thing I found interesting was the stoplights including countdown timers letting both the stopped as well as non-stopped drivers know how much time was left.  There were no yellow lights – just red and green.  You can see the gigantic timer board off to the right:

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A bit longer down the road and I was soon back at my hotel:

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All in, just a nice 45 minute easy run on a taper week.  From a running perspective, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer venue in the area to run.  I’m not sure if there are many running races or triathlons in the area (though I know there are some in Riyadh, the biggest city about 4hrs drive from here).

With that, I’m headed back home this evening, ready to run the Paris Marathon on Sunday.  Good times ahead!

Thanks for reading!

23 Comments

  1. The stoplights in the city were I work has those countdown timers; it's interesting to see them on stoplights. The cross walk ones are incredibly useful when you're bike commuting.

    Reply
  2. Michael

    I have seen these timers in Santo Domingo, DO, as well.

    Reply
  3. Leila

    Wow! Thanks for all the photos. I lived in Ras Tanura, 20 years ago. It's about as small a town as they come, more of a compound really. We would drive into Dhahran though and it's changed so much!

    Reply
  4. Monica

    It is so much fun to read about your travels to other countries. Like "a man on the ground" report. Great pictures! The sun looks HUGE in that one photo. I'm going to say it-it's pretty sad that all our unhealthy eating habits are reaching into other countries. Good luck on the Paris marathon!

    Reply
  5. Silsan

    Nice to see you dropping by our sort neck of the woods. The place where that small train chugs around is locally call "the corniche". Expats crowd the area on thursday and friday mornings cause that weekend here. You got lucky, you came in when the weather got little milder. Bit windy in past weeks.

    Good Luck with the marathon.

    Reply
  6. Stu-M.

    Follow your travels with interest, especially as you are in a similar business as myself (Networks). Hope your meetings go OK. I will be back there at our office at some point this year.

    Reply
  7. Ed

    When I run in the middle east, I make sure my running pants go below the knees. I definitely get sideways looks in my 7 inch shorts.

    Reply
  8. Amedeo

    Ray, where do you put all running items (shoes, tshirt etc) in your travel bag in order to avoid working clothes could smell?

    Reply
  9. Ayad

    Wow.... you came to my hometown.

    how cool is that!!!

    I am a big fan. Next time you are in town contact me and Ill organise a ride with the local bike club in nearby Dhahran.

    Reply
  10. Ivan

    You lucky guy...

    I've been twice to Ryhad during the last 9 months (and there's the possibility of a third trip in a few weeks) and I had to completely give up on running outside.

    At least the part I've seen in Ryhad is a complete mess from a pedestrian point of view: no sidewalks, or they simply disappear, cars parked forcing to walk you on the asphalt, half a meter steps... all in all, trying to run there was more an obstacle course than anything.

    Oh, and I was absolutely discouraged to use any short trousers to avoid any problems with Mutawa. So, for me, it was indoor running or nothing :(

    Reply
  11. The only times I've ever wished I were a man have been during travels to conservative countries where women running the streets is either frowned upon or downright not safe. I always look for a hotel with a treadmill in those situations. Makes me appreciate living where I do, wearing shorts and a tank whenever I want, and not having to wear a headscarf everywhere I go. Though in extreme heat and sun, a headscarf is a great way to keep cool--at least there's that!

    Reply
  12. Inspirational stuff. Keep this fabulous blog going, it is also an interesting travelogue.Good luck.

    Reply
  13. Thor R

    This made me laugh out loud: "clustering for high availability is important"!
    Could this be your in-house joke tag line?

    Reply
  14. Steve T.

    Ray, fascinating as always.

    Being an American and having lived in Riyadh, I also found it quite interesting and valuable to see how different societies mix in the modern world. Sure there are significant cultural differences to be aware of with regard to exercise and modesty that are best dealt with by respecting the local customs and social standards for being out in public. As with any city on earth, and your blog does a fantastic job showcasing, the locals know the neighborhoods best and will help (like those above).

    For instance, the triathlons in Riyadh take place mostly inside compounds discreetly away from public view and that are used exclusively for housing non-Saudi workers. Women and even men in Tri-suits or running shorts in public is just not permitted there. (Side note: I'm with Ed's comments above on running clothing, especially in Riyadh or Jeddah having narrowly escaped being confronted by the local mutaween for even a momentary indiscretion).

    Another example is shown in your photos. While the restaurants are easily recognized as American, there are two entrances, one for men and the other for families. Works for everybody.

    I think I check your site now more to see what adventure you are on. World travel and Triathlons are a great mix.

    P.S. We even had two guys complete an full Ironman inside our compound (it was one of the largest)!

    Reply
  15. Bob K

    Great travelogue, Ray. Thanks for giving us all a look at the exotica in S.A. Hope your marathon goes well!

    Reply
  16. Casey

    Ray, you and your wife should be contestants on the Amazing Race. You guys would surely win with all your travels and fitness level.

    Reply
  17. We have those big countdown timers here in Thailand too. I really like them. No more wondering how much longer. It's amazing how long 110 seconds can seem though.

    Reply
  18. tjend

    I've read your gadget reviews for a couple years now, but just now have been able to spend a little time checking out your blogs. Very much enjoy them and appreciate your interest in sharing your experiences. Today is my first comment here. Your run today, the photos, and your comments along the way all brought me back to similar experiences I've had elsewhere, but not where you are now. A view into your experiences is interesting itself, and it's personally enjoyable to consider what you present in the context of me own experiences. Though I've not been to Al Khobar, I've along similar coastlines and your photos and descriptions bring back memories of the air, the smells, and the sounds while adding the new information that Al Khobar is to some degree similar to those other places. In any case, thank you for sharing. It's fun.

    Reply
  19. Ja'far

    Please let me know if you ever plan another trip to Al-Khobar - I'd love to meet you for a run and some cupcakes!

    Reply
  20. Gina

    I have been in alkhobar recently i found okkk I just came here to read and share that I lost my perfume in taxi lol which I bought new and packed so please always be careful when u r in taxi or u ask the number of taxi driver whenever u sit specially indian or Pakistani do whatever but be careful u never know and taxi drivers are so rude and there was nothing so special in alkhobar just crowded malls and corniche crowded with families with b.b.q grills with them hehe that's it :)

    Reply
  21. Jason

    It was cool reading your artilce. I lived at the Le Meridian hotel for a while and running along the corniche is some of the best running you will find in Khobar. I currently live in Jubail and i've been running at the corniche up here. I was wondering if anyone knows if there is some type of online calendar with running and cycling events in Saudi Arabia? I would love to find a half marathon or cycling event to participate in.

    Reply
    • Ben replied

      If you feel like making the trip across to Riyadh, google "Riyadh Wheelers"; "Riyadh Road Runners" or "Riyadh Triathletes". All are pretty active clubs and have some decent level athletes racing.

      Reply
  22. Simon

    Interesting. I've just been offered a 6 month stint in Al Khobar so I'm trying to suck up all I can about living there.

    Thanks :-)

    Reply

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