What is the ‘Material Girl’ doing in Saudi Arabia?

Updated 09 November 2018

What is the ‘Material Girl’ doing in Saudi Arabia?

  • UK expert Seetal Solanki, a recent speaker at Tanween, is part of a two-year project mapping out local resources to determine a way to reduce waste in the Kingdom
  • Clothes from milk, seaweed rugs: She teaches how everything we use can be recycled, repurposed and reused

LONDON: Here is a thought for all you home decorators: What about a bookcase made of compressed leather? Or tiles made of coconut shells? 

What about using bricks made out of discarded bathroom ceramics (that’s right, old sinks and toilets)? And for something really wacky, what about fabric made out of milk?

Believe it or not, all those materials are already available, along with many more that are recycled, repurposed and reused in all manner of unexpected ways.

If sustainability is the buzzword of our time, then Seetal Solanki is the queen bee of the concept, and she is spreading the message far and wide, including to Saudi Arabia.

Solanki recently returned from Tanween, the three-week event held at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (also known as Ithra) in Dhahran that showcases creativity in the arts, sciences and entrepreneurship. Audiences at her packed workshops could not have been more enthusiastic, or eager to learn, she said.

“The open-mindedness was inspiring. Their questions were very critical and interrogative. They asked about scale of production and were open to all ideas.”

It was Solanki’s second time at Ithra, and she is now part of a two-year project to map out the local resources available in the Kingdom to find which can be used in a different way to reduce waste.

Seetal Solanki at work in her Ma-tt-er design studio in London. (Aneta Pruszynska)

Saudi Arabia’s consumption of plastic is the highest in the Middle East and 20 times higher than the global average. The Kingdom consumes twice as much plastic as any of its GCC neighbors and every year generates plastic waste equivalent in weight to 2 million cars. Each individual gets through an average 40 kilos of plastic bags every year.

The rest of the Gulf has little to boast about, however. The dubious accolade of the world’s top producer of waste per capita goes to Kuwait, a tiny country of 4 million people. The huge quantity of rubbish and the lack of properly maintained landfills have led to groundwater contamination, unregulated burning and the release of toxic gases.

Reducing waste is now a priority and this means re-examining all materials and devising different uses for anything and everything. 

Solanki, 37, is the founder of Ma-tt-er, a research design studio that researches and explores the past, present and future use of materials. 

Take paper coffee cups. Millions are given out every day. Since the cups are made of paper, people probably believe they are easy to recycle. In fact, each cup has a plastic lining. But this can be removed and is useful for making electric cables. A paper company in the north of England is already doing this (and recycling the paper cups into high-quality paper and card). Why not replicate it in the coffee shop-loving societies of the Gulf? 

The companies Solanki and her team have advised on sustainability range from corporate giants such as Ikea and Nike to a small hotel chain in Bali, Indonesia, which is committed to using only local materials, including coconut shell tiles. They are experimenting with volcanic ash as a glaze for ceramics.

“The core of the business and work is looking at alternative ways of manufacturing and also changing the way we look at materials,” she said. 

Soft fabric made from seaweed that has been dried and spun into yarn, one of a host of recycled and repurposed products. (Aneta Pruszynska)

From a shelf in her East London studio Solanki takes what looks and feels like a block of wood. In fact, it is offcuts of leather, discarded by the fashion industry and compressed into a material that is more than strong enough for furniture-making.

Next she takes a big lump of what looks like white gypsum, but is, in fact, crushed mussel shells.

A piece of deliciously soft, fluffy fabric turns out to be made from seaweed that has been dried and spun into yarn. Bricks repurposed from old bathroom sinks are already being used in construction. Corn husks make a wonderful veneer.

Most astonishing of all is a square of cream-colored wool made of casein, a high-protein byproduct of milk that bodybuilders take as a nutritional supplement. 

Casein looks like milk curds but behaves like plastic. It can be heated and molded into many forms, and can be made into furniture or turned into yarn that can be spun, knitted or woven. It has the versatility of plastic without the environmental damage.

Date stones are among the many discarded items Seetal Solanki hopes to recycle and turn into everyday objects. (Aneta Pruszynska)

Saudi Arabia has plentiful limestone, clay, granite and marble. It also has an awful lot of dates, and while using the wood of the date palm tree for building and the fiber from the leaves for rope is obvious enough, finding a use for all those discarded date stones is more challenging.

But research is already underway, according to Solanki, who has a master’s degree in textile futures from Central Saint Martin’s art school and also teaches at the Royal College of Art.

One of the biggest hits at Tanween this year was petroleum-free plastic made from starch, water, vinegar and glycerine. In filament form, it is used in 3D printing, but it can also be produced in sheets. Whatever the form, it is biodegradable and will not clog up the oceans and kill marine creatures. 

“Oh, yes, they loved it,” she said. “But, then, they loved everything. These are the people — the young designers, engineers and scientists — who can introduce change, and there is such a hunger and thirst there for knowledge and innovation. That is the only way I can describe it. And it’s just super-exciting.”

Meet Saudi Arabia’s female horse whisperer

Updated 3 min 5 sec ago

Meet Saudi Arabia’s female horse whisperer

  • One of the Kingdom's first female trainers, Dana Algosaibi has made animal welfare her life mission
  • Working with horses is both a career and a hobby

DUBAI: “The horse whisperer” is what Dana Algosaibi aspires to be. As one of Saudi Arabia’s first female horse trainers, the 39-year-old is breaking taboos by taming and training animals as part of a trailblazing career in the Kingdom.

Originally from Alkhobar, she has made it her life’s mission to care for animals in Jeddah. Along the way, Algosaibi hopes to change attitudes toward animals in Saudi Arabia and the region as whole.

“I’m not expecting or trying to get all people to love animals, or have animals, or take care of them,” she said.

“I am just trying to raise awareness so that people become at least kind toward animals and do not try to hurt them. We have so many stray cats and dogs, and in our religion, this is something very important. I don’t know why some people don’t see this aspect at all. It’s very strange.”

Algosabi has no doubt who she inherited this quality from — her father, whom she describes as an animal lover.

Dana Algosaibi tends to some of the animals she has rescued. (Photo supplied)

“We had a lot of animals in the house and the garden, from dogs, cats and monkeys to parrots, sheep, falcons, deer and horses,” she recalled. “We had exotic animals. I remember when I was a child, people thought our house was a zoo. They would come to look at the animals.

“It was a pretty interesting childhood, I loved growing up with animals and it was one of the best things I had as a child because I was around them all the time.”

As she got older, it took Algosaibi years to find her true calling. Discovering the purpose of education took some time.

“For me, school was not a happy moment,” Algosaibi said. “I went to seven different schools, and changed majors many times in many countries. It was always a roller coaster.”


Animal mistreatment has long been an issue in the Middle East. To help counter it, Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, a Saudi entrepreneur and investor, recently took a stand by rescuing more than 1,300 horses, donkeys, mules and camels that were made to carry tourists and pull carriages in the Jordanian city of Petra. After witnessing an expose by PETA, the animal-rights group, of the conditions under which the animals worked at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Prince Alwaleed devised a plan to tackle the problem. It includes a sanctuary for the city’s animals, restoration of steps leading to the site, and electric vehicles (and charging stations) in which tourists can be ferried around. His venture capital firm, KBW Ventures, plans to build a fishless aquarium in Riyadh and supports efforts to provide the Middle East with more vegan food.

A four-year degree in education in the UK allowed her to explore the subject in depth and find out whether she was cut out for a career in the arts. That was quickly followed by 13 years of traveling between Europe and North America, where she started working with horses and dabbling in the performing arts.

After moving back to the Kingdom in 2013, Algosaibi started teaching people what she calls “horse therapy” — communicating with the animals — and riding them at the Ancient Arabians stable in Jeddah.

“I am not a therapist but the work I do, which is natural horsemanship, is almost like meditation,” she said. “I do yoga around the horses as I’m also a yoga instructor. I have created my own cocoon.”

Dana Algosaibi riding one of her horses. (Photo supplied)

Ancient Arabians had contacted her in its quest for Saudi horse trainers. Algosaibi was delighted with the stable’s work ethic and approach to horses. “They gave me the green light to do anything I wanted to do,” she said. “It’s my own place.”

She describes her work with horses as unconventional, hoping more people will learn how to treat the animals better. “I don’t know anyone in Saudi Arabia who understands the work I do with horses,” she said.

“The horses trust me, and I enjoy this fact. I don’t feel restricted like I do in other places. (People) look at me as if I am crazy but what I do is very simple. We have not been educated to actually listen and understand the language of horses.”

According to Algosaibi, one has to be in tune with a horse to understand its language. “It’s not rocket science,” she said. “Once you have mastered this skill, the horse will trust you, you will deliver your message easily to the horse and it will be easier to train the horse. I’d love to be like the horse whisperer.”

Algosaibi is a strong believer in the theory that animals, horses and dolphins in particular, have a natural healing power. According to her, horses played a crucial role in her own recovery from severe depression. “I used to take a lot of medication, which had made my situation worse,” she said.

“I had to find my way through food, through animals and nature, to heal myself. This is one of those things that (taught me) how to accept (the circumstances of life) and live with (the circumstances).”

If you’re already an animal lover, then you’re lucky and you’re blessed.

Dana Algosaibi

As her life shifted toward finding happiness in helping others, Algosaibi began volunteering for cat and dog shelters in Jeddah. But it was the plight of a donkey that was to prove an eye-opener.

Murphy had been beaten and tortured and left with a broken leg in the desert. “The place was very far away in the desert and, when I first reached the location, I couldn’t believe there would be a donkey there,” she said. “I went down a hill and found a tunnel where I found Murphy, with a broken leg, all alone.”

Finding Murphy was not the end but the beginning of a long process. “No one wanted to take him in and everyone said ‘just put him down’,” Algosaibi recalled. “People said ‘throw him to the lions in the zoo.’ I couldn’t believe the level of reluctance to help just because of Murphy’s condition and the fact that he was a donkey.”

A few months later, with the help of a friend, Algosaibi found a place for Murphy, before she decided to move him to Ancient Arabians. The need to find Murphy a home, as well as information from Saudis about other injured donkeys, prompted her to think of building a shelter for equines.

Dana Algosaibi and her horses. (Photo supplied)

“I learnt a lot about donkeys,” Algosaibi said. “They are at once very similar to, and different from, horses. However, I needed help in launching the construction of the shelter, which currently houses a lot of abused horses. It’s like a sanctuary for these equines.” She expects work on the structure to be completed within the coming month.

Looking back on her life so far, Algosaibi is pleased that she has been able to follow her passion. “I remember, while growing up, my family used to tell me, ‘working with horses is great but it’s a hobby. What’s your career?’ But I used to think, it’s both.”

Algosaibi’s hope is that in the future more people in the Middle East will start treating animals with love and respect. “If you’re already an animal lover, then you’re lucky and you’re blessed,” she said.

“If you’re not or if you’re afraid, then you should give yourself a chance. I’m not asking people to be obsessed by animals but to not miss out on a whole different level of love and communication. It’s simply out of this world.”