TheFace: Asma Alsaleh, senior Saudi autism specialist and researcher

Asma Alsaleh. (AN photo by Ziyad Alarfaj)
Updated 26 April 2019

TheFace: Asma Alsaleh, senior Saudi autism specialist and researcher

  • When I reflect on my life, I can attribute all my successes to the unconditional love and support of my family

I was born into a family that valued education more than anything else.

My parents did everything possible to ensure that my four siblings and I could follow our passions and chosen fields.

Being a middle child in a Saudi family, I had to negotiate to get what I wanted, and that not only made me a goal-getting person but also developed my leadership skills.

Early on, from elementary to high school, I was an excellent student and managed to graduate with a high score which gave me many options to consider in regard to college applications.

Out of my sheer love for children and a curiosity about autism, majoring in special education at King Saud University (KSU) was the obvious choice.

January 2011 marked both my graduation from KSU and the beginning of my career as an autism specialist in the Center for Autism Research (CFAR) at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center (KFSH&RC) in Riyadh.

I was fortunate to be one of the first CFAR appointments and I helped build the team and develop its overall vision and mission.

I worked with a multidisciplinary team to conduct assessments, diagnoses, and interventions, and as an aspiring autism specialist, I was focused on expanding my knowledge and cultivating experiences in the field.

This led me to obtain certification in Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) and Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), both considered to be the gold standard in diagnostic evaluations for autism.

This made me the first Saudi research-reliable therapist in ADOS-2, in addition to becoming a certified therapist in the Early Start Denver Model (a behavioral therapy for autistic children aged between 12 and 48 months).

In 2016, I was fortunate to embark on yet another wonderful and challenging journey. I decided to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Learning is a continuous process especially in a field where new methods and tools are being discovered and updated all the time.

On a personal note, for someone that appreciates strong family ties, having to live abroad without my family was extremely difficult.

By 2017, after writing a thesis titled “Quality of Life Among Mothers of ASD Children in Saudi Arabia,” I obtained my master’s degree in psychological studies. I was appointed as a senior autism specialist and scientific project supervisor upon my return to KFSH&RC.

Aside from an incredibly busy career, I strive to be fit and ensure I do a workout at least three times a week. I also took up gardening as a hobby, which has helped enhance my well-being.

When I reflect on my life, I can attribute all my successes to the unconditional love and support of my family.

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 23 min 43 sec ago

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

  • Agreement between agriculture ministry and Dubai's ICBA aimed at conserving natural resources
  • Kingdom's biosaline agriculture research and systems stands to benefit from ICBA's expertise

DUBAI: Agricultural development and environmental sustainability in Saudi Arabia will receive a boost in the coming years, thanks to a new agreement between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.

The agreement aims to enable Saudi Arabia to achieve its goal of preservation and sustainable management of its natural resources by raising the quality of biosaline agriculture research and systems.

The ministry says that the agreement will make use of the ICBA’s expertise in capacity development besides agricultural and environmental research, especially in the fields of vegetation development, combating desertification and climate change adaptation.

“It also includes training programs for Saudi technicians and farmers,” the ministry said. “In addition, it will localize, implement and develop biosaline agriculture research and production systems for both crops and forestation, which contributes to environmental and agricultural integration.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, the ICBA’s director general, told Arab News: “The agreement had been in the making for about two years. That was when we were approached by the Saudi government.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, at the center's Quinoa fields in Dubai. (Supplied photo)

She said: “We put forward a proposal to demonstrate how the ICBA can help the Saudi government to implement its Green Kingdom Initiative, through which the ministry is trying to restore green coverage in the country and revive old conservation practices.”

Geographical features and climatic conditions very greatly from one part of the country to the other.

In the past, experimentation with such crops as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa proved detrimental to the Kingdom’s environment and natural resources due to faster rates of groundwater withdrawal.

“The ministry wanted to put a halt to over-abstraction of water, so they went through different policies,” Elouafi said.

“They made sure, for example, that farmers stopped producing wheat because about 2,400 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 kg of wheat. It was a huge amount,” she added.

“The new strategy is to find more appropriate crops for the farming community, which is quite large in the Kingdom.”

Saudi Arabia has been trying to grow its own food on a large scale since the 1980s. 

The objective of the Green Kingdom Initiative is to reduce the agricultural sector’s water demand by finding alternatives to thirsty crops.

The agreement will require the ICBA, over the next five years, to build for Saudi Arabia a new biosaline agriculture sector. 

As part of this shift, cultivation of a number of crops, notably quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum, will be piloted in high-salinity regions and then scaled up.

“The crops did very well in the UAE,” Elouafi said. “We’re looking at Sabkha regions, which have very high salinity and wetlands, and are on the ministry’s environmental agenda.”

Another objective is “smart” agriculture, which will involve raising water productivity, controlling irrigation water consumption and changing farming behavior.

Elouafi said that getting farmers in the Kingdom to stop cultivating wheat took some time as they had become accustomed to heavy government subsidies. In 2015, wheat production was phased out, followed by potatoes a year later and then alfalfa. 

“Farmers were provided everything to the point where they got used to a very good income and a very easy system,” she said.

“Now farmers are being asked to start producing something else, but the income won’t be the same, so it’s very important at this stage that the ministry has a plan and it’s fully understood.”

The agreement envisages preparation of proposals for ministry projects that involve plant production, drought monitoring, development of promising local crop and forestation varieties, and conservation of plant genetic resources.

“We’re also discussing capacity building because the ministry is big and has many entities. Because Saudi Arabia is a large country and has the capacity to meet some of its food requirements internally, what’s required is a better understanding of the country’s natural capabilities in terms of production of the crops it needs, like certain cereals,” Elouafi said.

“The way the authorities are going about it right now is more organized and more holistic. They’re trying to plan it properly.”

Elouafi said that having a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s water constraints and managing the precious resource is essential.


Although almost the entire country is arid, there is rainfall in the north and along the mountain range to the west, especially in the far southwest, which receives monsoon rains in summer.


Sporadic rain may also occur elsewhere. Sometimes it is very heavy, causing serious flooding, including in Riyadh.

“They (the government) are very interested in drought management systems. The Kingdom has a long history of agriculture,” Elouafi said.

“It has large quantities of water in terms of rainfall, and certain regions have mountainous conditions, which are conducive to agriculture.”

Clearly, preservation of water resources is a priority for the Saudi government. But no less urgent is the task of conversion of green waste to improve soil quality, increase soil productivity and water retention, and reduce demand for irrigation.

The Kingdom is one of at least three Gulf Cooperation Council countries that are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework for the recycling of waste into compost.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are respectively aiming to recycle 85 percent, 75 percent and 60 percent of their municipal solid waste over the next decade, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled “Global Food Trends to 2030.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE rank in the bottom quartile of the 34 countries covered by the EIU’s Food Sustainability Index, with low scores for nutrition and food loss and waste. 

The answer, according to many farmers, policymakers and food-industry experts, is a shift toward more sustainable management of each country’s natural resources.