Desert sand may hold key to the next Gulf economic miracle

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The volume of sand and gravel used in creating the rapidly growing cities of the world increased more than 20 times over the course of the 20th century. (Shutterstock)
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The volume of sand and gravel used in creating the rapidly growing cities of the world increased more than 20 times over the course of the 20th century. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock image)
Updated 04 August 2019

Desert sand may hold key to the next Gulf economic miracle

  • Finite, made from desert sand, is reputed to be as strong as concrete, yet has half the carbon footprint
  • Finding an alternative to conventional concrete could relieve environmental pressure around the world

LONDON: For centuries, the vast desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula were, at best, an uncomfortable fact of life, an everyday exercise in extreme survival for the tribes that once clung tenaciously to life in arid, inhospitable areas such as the Empty Quarter.

Now, 80 years after the seemingly barren sands gave up the black gold that would transform the fortunes of all the Gulf states, the deserts may hold the key to the next economic miracle poised to transform the region.

However, unlike the vast oilfields that lay unseen deep beneath the sand in eastern Saudi Arabia until 1938, this bounty has been hiding in plain sight all along: the desert sand itself.

As impossible as it might seem, the world is running out of sand — not desert sand, but the stuff found on beaches and riverbeds and under the sea. Grains of rock or shell eroded over time by the movement of water are perfectly shaped for bonding together to make strong concrete. Smooth, wind-sculpted sand is useless for this purpose.

As the author Vince Beiser explains in his book, The World in a Grain, sand “is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live,” and this unsustainable resource has never been more in demand.




Material Finite

As the single most important vital component in every building and road, to say nothing of its starring role in every pane of window glass and the silicon chips of our phones and computers, the world is using more than 50 billion tonnes of sand every year – and rising.

In 2017, a paper in the journal Science spelled out what the authors called the “looming tragedy of the sand commons,” a reference to the fact that because of the difficulties in regulating exploitation, “common-pool” resources such as sand “are prone to tragedies of the commons, as people may selfishly extract them without considering long-term consequences.”

Over the course of the 20th century, the volume of sand and gravel used in creating the rapidly growing cities of the world increased more than 20 times, and today sand is the single most exploited natural resource.

The amount of sand dredged from the rivers, seas and coastlines of the world to create our expanding conurbations is greater than the amount of fossil fuels extracted from the earth.

Scientists from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research say that even where sand mining is regulated, “scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic and environmental implications.”

One has only to gaze up at the evolving skylines of cities such as Dubai to gain a rough idea of how much concrete went into their creation – and then, perhaps, to wonder where all the sand came from that went into making it.


KEY FACTS

• Finite is able to perform many functions and build many intricate forms and finishes.

• Finite opens opportunities to make use of abundant fine powders that traditionally have had no use.

• Structures made of Finite have the same strength as traditional housing bricks and residential concrete.

• Finite can be remolded for multiple lifecycle uses and is biodegradable.

• The inventors are trying to bring Finite to market with exciting initial opportunities.


The answer is: not from the surrounding desert. Trying to make concrete from the round grains of desert sand, says Vince Beiser, is like “trying to build something out of a stack of marbles instead of out of a stack of little bricks.”

Staring out across the desert from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, sand is pretty much all that the eye can see. But much of the sand that it took to create the 400,000 square meters of concrete used in the construction of the world’s tallest building was imported from Australia, a fantastically costly and inefficient comment on the environmentally profligate times in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, the search is on for an alternative, and a team of four researchers at Imperial College London believe they have found it. Hamza Oza, Matteo Maccario, Carolyn Tam and Saki Maruyama have named their newly developed material Finite. It is, they say, as strong as concrete, yet has half the carbon footprint.

For obvious reasons, the technical details remain a closely guarded secret. But one vitally important feature has emerged: Finite can be made from desert sand.

If they are right, the four young inventors stand to become extremely wealthy and Finite will disrupt a multi-billion-dollar international mining industry that in 2016 was valued at $8.9 billion in the US alone.

The advantages for the Gulf states, and for every other economy with a desert in its backyard, are plain: no more importing sand from halfway around the world at exorbitant prices, which will slash the cost of development and create a new export business worth billions of dollars.

But there is a potential downside and it is one that must be considered and guarded against now, before it is too late.

Much damage has been done to the maritime ecology of the Gulf since the discovery of oil. Inspiring but rampant coastal development has destroyed marine environments vital for diversity, such as the mangrove fish nurseries that once fringed the shores of the Gulf states.

The thirst for fresh water, met by power-hungry desalination plants, not only contributes to the vast carbon footprint of these air-conditioned countries, but is also polluting the Gulf with super-salinated waste water, wiping out whole species of fish and increasing the size of the enormous “dead zone” in the Arabian Sea.

Finding an alternative to conventional concrete sand would relieve environmental pressure around the world and deliver a huge and entirely unexpected natural windfall to all states surrounded by desert.

But it would be a tragedy if the discovery of the usefulness of this readily available commodity led to an unregulated gold rush capable of destroying the fragile, historic environment in which the first chapters of the Arab story were written.

To this day the vast and largely undisturbed deserts of the Arabian Peninsula are home to a surprisingly varied array of plant and animal life.

They also offer welcome refuge to human beings who, weary of city life, feel the need to recharge their batteries by reconnecting, however briefly, with the beauty of the landscape that shaped their forebears.

As such, the wild deserts of Arabia are as much a priceless cultural treasure as an environmental one, that must be protected at all costs. — Syndication Bureau

 


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.