How Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ula went from being underdeveloped...to having negative unemployment

More than 60 balloons take to the sky, giving rides to visitors during the Hot Air Balloon Festival. (UPI)
Updated 21 May 2019

How Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ula went from being underdeveloped...to having negative unemployment

  • Al-Ula is home to ancient Nabatien sites and the Winter at Tantora festival which hosted Yanni and Andrea Bocelli
  • In three years it has reached a negative unemployment rate of -2 percent, showing how Vision 2030 can work

RIYADH: In almost no time, the city of Al-Ula in northwest Saudi Arabia went from being relatively unknown to a very early symbol of success for the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan.

Previously underdeveloped and mostly ignored, it has now become home to the Winter at Tantora music festival, which was sold out every night between December and February as visitors flocked to see legends such as Andrea Bocelli, Yanni, Mohammed Abdo and Majida El-Roumi perform.

Projects such as the Sharaan Resort and Sharaan Nature Reserve, which are due to open in 2023, promise to turn the city into the tourist hotspot it was always meant to be.

After all, not many places in the world can say they are sitting on 3,000 years of history, which is the case with Al-Ula, which is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Madain Saleh.

Recently, the Hot Air Balloon Festival presented a blueprint for adventure tourism in Saudi Arabia. Next, the Dakar Rally will take place there in 2020.

Al-Ula’s success — mostly due to the work done by a dedicated, recently formed royal commission — portrays what Vision 2030 is all about: Opening up new industries, lessening the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, capitalizing on its long-ignored historic and cultural treasures, and creating jobs for the country’s booming population.

A senior official with access to employment figures told Arab News that in less than three years, Al-Ula has achieved a negative unemployment rate of 2 percent.

This means that Al-Ula now needs to import workers from neighboring regions to keep pace with the demand for jobs.

“I’m so happy with the opening of tourism in Al-Ula. It has given us an opportunity to work and let go of some of the super-conservative beliefs that (our) people had,” said Manal Al-Budair, an Al-Ula local who works in the media.

“In the past, the only acceptable job for females was a teacher. But with the opening up of Al-Ula, much change has taken place,” she added. 

“I hope we host more events. It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to welcome people from all over the world to our historical city,” she said.

“Tantora highlighted our youth’s ambitions and our willingness to work hard, prosper and succeed.”




Mirrors outside the Maraya concert hall. (Itar-Tass)

Fired by ambition, many locals say they want to work as managers or hold equivalent job titles.

The perception of some of Al-Ula’s residents is that some senior-level positions have been filled by talent from bigger cities who have more experience in fields such as hotel management and marketing.

However, the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU) has a promising plan to develop skills and deepen the job market.

“The people of Al-Ula are at the heart of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula’s drive to encourage economic prosperity for current and future generations,” said the RCU’s CEO Amr Al-Madani.

“The people of Al-Ula hosted 37,000 visitors from 72 countries around the world during the first successful annual Winter at Tantora festival.”

Ahmed Alimam, a senior tourism development officer at the RCU, told Arab News: “The people of Al-Ula are hugely encouraged by the opportunities continually opening up through Al-Ula’s positioning on the (economic) map.”

He said: “Al-Ula has long been a destination that has welcomed visitors from around the world in its capacity as a historic crossroads and as a place for pilgrims to rest during their journeys.”




The Elephant rock in the Ula desert. (AFP)

He added: “Our ancestors had long guided visitors across the desert, but with the advent of modern-day transport, this role had almost disappeared. Now, we’re sharing our heritage with the world once again.”

The RCU has worked up palpable enthusiasm in Al-Ula over its potential as an outstanding destination for tourists.

Scholarships and training are broadening horizons, meaning that people in Al-Ula are learning from global best practices.

“An entrepreneurial spirit is truly encouraged, with young men and women applying for business licenses and investing in equipment, and even farmers building residential units and huts inside farms and between palm trees,” Alimam said.

The RCU has hired young Saudis from Al-Ula to be trained to become park rangers. 




A Saudi park ranger. (Royal Commission for Al-Ula)

They will work to preserve and develop the wildlife in the park, which will have breeding programs for rare and endangered species that are native to the region.

“The rangers have been trained by expert rangers from the College of African Wildlife Management Tanzania (CAWM) from Mweka, which is the leading institution for professional and technical training in wildlife and tourism management in Africa,” said Al-Madani.

“Additionally, qualified and highly experienced staff are offering research and consultancy services to enhance wildlife management at Sharaan, and are now sharing their knowledge with young people in Al-Ula.”

Scholarships are a strong incentive for the people of Al-Ula to be ambitious about their career plans. 

The first scholarship phase, which started in 2018, saw a total of 168 students head for studies in the UK, the US and France.

“Following a hugely successful first year, the program is being expanded. In its second year, we’re sending 300 students overseas to the existing three countries as well as Australia,” said Dr. Rami Al-Sakran, director of the RCU’s scholarship program.

“The RCU launched its scholarship program in 2018, with the objective of giving successful applicants the opportunity to pursue degrees at prestigious universities and academic institutions overseas,” he added.

“This is a key pillar in the RCU’s commitment to working with the local community to build their capabilities and empower the region’s development,” he said.

“Recently, we hosted the first midyear summit for our phase 1 students, in the US, the UK and France. We were enormously proud to see the progress they’ve made so far as they get a world-class education and actively engage in new cultures, broadening their horizons.”

Many locals, including Rawan Abdul-Rahman, an organizer of Winter at Tantora, are happy with the opportunities that have been presented to them.

“It was an amazing experience. It gave us opportunities and opened doors for us,” she said. 

“Even our families, who are conservative and would’ve never approved of anything like this before, were ecstatic and encouraged us to take part in all the events. This is something unprecedented given our conservative backgrounds.”

Summing up the experience of the local population, Abdul-Rahman added: “Al-Ula not only opened us to the world, it also opened the world to us.”


Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 18 November 2019

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.