Exclusive: Egypt’s first female Tourism Minister talks about Red Sea project and future plans

Dr. Rania Al-Mashat, Egyptian minister of tourism. (Supplied)
Updated 26 November 2018
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Exclusive: Egypt’s first female Tourism Minister talks about Red Sea project and future plans

  • On the eve of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Egypt, Dr. Rania Al-Mashat talks about destinations vital to Egypt and Saudi Arabia
  • On Monday she will launch the Egypt Tourism Reform Program, which includes a private equity fund to upgrade hotel infrastructure

CAIRO: On the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Cairo, Egypt’s first female tourism minister sat down with Arab News to talk about one of the country’s most important portfolios.

Dr. Rania Al-Mashat said she was at first a little surprised at her appointment in January this year, given her background in economics, but then it made sense.

“What was described to me at that moment was that the president wanted the (tourism) sector to be handled from an economic perspective,” she told Arab News.

“Tourism is one of the most important sectors for Egypt. It represents between 15 and 20 percent of GDP (gross domestic product). It’s a very important employment generator. There was a lot of confidence put in myself and my background.”

On Monday, Al-Mashat will launch the Egypt Tourism Reform Program, which will include a private equity fund that will upgrade hotel infrastructure. 

She speaks of plans that are underway to restore several historic landmarks as Egypt expands its tourism sector, something that is vital to the country’s economy.

“Tourism feeds into 70 other sectors in Egypt… For each direct job that’s generated, at least three or four indirect jobs are generated,” she said.

“The global economy is coming out of the global financial crisis. There’s a recovery worldwide, and people are spending more on places to go. The idea is to capture as much as we can from that increase.”

The crown prince is expected to meet with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and many senior officials to further strengthen bilateral ties, as part of his tour of Arab states. 

On the crown prince’s last visit to Egypt in March, the two countries signed a $10 billion joint investment fund related to Neom. 

The high-tech economic megacity, a pillar of his Vision 2030 reform plan, will span the borders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. 

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also working together on the Red Sea project, a sustainable development that will span an island ecosystem. 

“Several islands were off the map for foreign and private investments. Now the president is keen on investing in these islands for the very first time, but with a different concept in mind,” Al-Mashat said.

“Taking into consideration the nature of these islands’ ecosystems… the hotels that will be constructed on these islands will be very ecofriendly, like the ones seen in the Maldives and so on.”

Europeans make up of more than 50 percent of Egypt’s tourists. Arabs come second at 25 percent, with Saudis making up the bulk. 

Some 600,000 Saudis visited Egypt in 2017, while many Egyptians visit the Kingdom for the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages. 

“Given that the Egyptian people are very religious, whether they’re Muslim or Christian, Egyptians can’t get enough of visiting Saudi to perform Hajj or Umrah as much as they can,” Al-Mashat said.

She first performed Umrah in 1997, and has observed firsthand the level of development Saudi Arabia has gone through to accommodate and ease the flow of pilgrims in terms of logistics, visas and transportation.

“We have a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia. We’re very impressed with the speed of modernizing the IT systems, which makes it very easy in terms of issuing visas and monitoring our people on the ground,” she said.

“The magnitude of the effort taken on the Saudi side to arrange for such a trip is very impressive.”


How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

Updated 22 March 2019
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How ‘liquid of life’ is under threat in the Middle East

  • An increasing number of people in the region do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation
  • In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services

DUBAI: World Water Day had somewhat of an abysmal feel to it across the Middle East this year, as the region witnesses a growing number of people with no access to supplies of the vital resource.

Although the issue of supply has always been critical for the Arab region, known to be one of the most water-scarce in the world, matters are only getting worse with a rise in refugees and the displaced.

“The freshwater scarcity situation is aggravated by several factors, such as dependency on shared water resources, climate change, pollution, non-revenue water losses from aging systems, intermittency, inefficient use, and high population growth,” said Ziad Khayat, first economic affairs officer in water resources in the Sustainable Development Policies Division at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). “Occupation and conflict also affect people’s ability to access water and sanitation services. The Arab region is perhaps the only one in the world still experiencing direct military occupation.”

He spoke of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which affects access to water resources and the ability of countries to properly manage and provide required water and sanitation services, with a ripple effect on food security, health and development. “Armed conflict in the region has resulted in the destruction of the water and sanitation infrastructure, hampering the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation,” he said. “In response to shortages, households resort to unregulated water vendors relying on compromised resources, such as unprotected wells. In addition, damaged wastewater systems have resulted in river waters and shallow wells becoming contaminated.”

Water shortages and electricity outages have rendered many health care facilities non-functional, while vulnerability to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, particularly for people living in conflict-affected countries, has greatly increased. “The systemic conditions affecting the Arab region’s water security are not expected to improve in the near future,” he said. “In fact, climate variability and change are projected to impose additional pressures, with adverse impacts on the quantity and quality of freshwater resources in an already water-scarce region, affecting its ability to ensure food security, sustain rural livelihoods and preserve ecosystems.”

A higher frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme weather is being experienced in many countries, which aggravates the situation of vulnerable communities and has led to economic losses and environmental degradation in several parts of the region. “The region has a high population growth rate and is one of the most urbanized in the world, with more than 58 percent of the population now living in cities,” Khayat said. “It has witnessed significant and uneven urban transformations, with some countries undergoing rapid wealth generation, others confronting economic challenges, and several afflicted by conflicts that have led to major displacement and migration of large sections of the population.”

Such trends are expected to place more stress on the urban infrastructure, particularly in water, given the scarcity conditions in the region. And with 86 percent of the region’s population — or nearly 362 million people — living in countries under water scarcity or absolute water scarcity, action is needed. “The predictions are that water scarcity is only going to get worse unless we change the way we manage the resource,” said Monika Weber-Fahr, executive secretary at the Global Water Partnership. “I remain an optimist. We were able to meet some of the water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a new and broader resolve to, not just improve water supply and sanitation, but take a more holistic approach to managing water, including its transboundary aspects.”

“Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year’s World Water Day at the UN. The central challenge, Weber-Fahr believes, is that to achieve efficient, equitable, and sustainable water management, all parties must have genuine opportunities to actively participate in water management decisions. “Only then can decisions be taken that reflect how we all value water — reflecting its social, economic and environmental value,” she said. “We need to create a safe space for people to come together to build common ground for water management decisions, working with everyone, everywhere.”

In 2015, there were more than 51 million people in the Arab region lacking access to basic drinking water services, and more than 74 million without access to basic sanitation services. Access to water and sanitation  is also lacking in rural areas compared with urban areas. “The record shows that in the past 10 to 12 years in the Arab region, the overall proportion of population with access to safe drinking water has improved from 85 percent to 90, almost reaching the global average of 91, but deteriorated in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, where it dropped from 94 percent to 88 due to military occupation, civil conflicts and insufficient investments,” said Dr. Waleed Zubari, professor in water resources management at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Disparity between urban and rural population in both services continues to be considerably large, especially in the lower-income countries. This is expected to continue with the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen and in Iraq, and under the military occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

If only excess water during rainy days can be stored for use during the dry months, water shortage wouldnot be much of a problem. (AN file photo)

Climate change and drought are also expected to worsen river flows, which is the main source of water for many Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. “Whether we have achieved a universal access to water for all the population or not, there are some challenges that will stay with us in the Arab region,” he said. “Scarcity of water resources and limited endowments facing increasing water demands due to increased population will continue to be a major challenge in the region. Another issue that needs immediate attention is the water supply and use efficiency, recycling and reusing water, considered very low in the region, and if worked on, will reduce water stress tremendously.”

Peace and stability will also help improve the situation, as well as rebuilding the water sector in countries shattered by civil war and occupation. Similarly, water management, efficiency and conservation in policies will need to progress.

For Dr. Ahmed Murad, dean of the college of science at United Arab Emirates University, said that providing clean water for the population is essential for all communities. “Historically, the absence of water could increase conflicts between nations,” he said. “Latest statistics show that about 844 million people in the world live without access to safe water, and one in nine lack the access to safe water.”

He spoke of more pronounced circumstances in the Middle East, with high temperatures and a low amount of rainfall. “Such conditions with population growth may reduce the availability of clean water due to a high demand on water resources,” he said. “The limited and diverse water resources will pressurize natural resources, and this will continue to deteriorate if no action is taken.”