An entire underwater world — much of it undiscovered — awaits those who take the plunge. For decades, Egypt has leveraged the beauty of its Red Sea offerings to draw in thousands of visitors a year who come to see firsthand its unmatched marine life and experience a range of tourist offerings.
Now, it’s Saudi Arabia’s turn to tap into this market of travelers searching for the next hidden gem, away from the crowds and at the heart of exotic locales that attract adventurers seeking out some of the world’s best diving, snorkeling and swimming.
With nearly 2,000 km of Red Sea coastline, Saudi Arabia is beginning to capitalize upon its vast natural wealth. In a major step forward in preparing the area for public use, the Kingdom launched in 2017 the Red Sea Development Project, billed the “world’s most ambitious luxury tourism development” and encompassing 90 islands as never seen before.
The project places sustainability and conservation at the heart of its operations. From nurturing local flora and fauna to designating turtle nesting zones and developing initiatives to minimize coral damage, the project is setting a new standard for tourism development in the Kingdom.
However, the project only represents the start of a broader shift that must occur in Saudi Arabia for the country to promote environmental responsibility and in turn safeguard its land and sea for years to come.
In particular, it is essential to raise awareness among Saudi youth of the importance of conserving the Kingdom’s natural resources. Doing so is to invest in the country’s future, which will increasingly rely on international tourism revenue as the country diversifies away from oil.
Teaching the value of conservation to Saudi youth must start small — from introducing students to a curriculum that emphasizes environmental responsibility to enforcing heavy fines on littering and launching community-based initiatives, such as beach cleanup days and the discontinuation of single-use plastics. One 2018 public opinion survey of Arab countries revealed that low environmental awareness in Saudi Arabia was a primary driver of environmental decline. Ten years prior, a separate poll revealed that 40 percent of those surveyed perceived climate change to be a threat to Saudi Arabia, yet only 39 percent believed it was caused by human activities.
Attitudes have drastically changed in a decade, yet more work remains to educate the public on actions they can make as individuals to protect the environment.
Notably, the frightening speed at which coral reefs are dying is a reminder that environmental stewardship must be championed from the ground up. Local populations have the most to lose when fragile ecosystems are damaged, the natural beauty of a site is forever lost, and sustainable sources of income are compromised.
At the same time, while environmental conservation must be practiced and enforced at the local level, it is critical that the government formalize such efforts and monitor their progress.
In May 2019, the Government of Saudi Arabia announced a partnership with the UN to strengthen environmental protection through a $25 million agreement in which the Kingdom’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture would receive technical support for capacity building and the development of regulatory structures in the environmental sector.
The agreement also provided for technical expertise in environmental law, air quality management, climate change and waste management, signaling a new chapter in Saudi Arabia’s conservation field.
In fact, achieving environmental sustainability is one the key elements of Vision 2030, which pledges to protect and rehabilitate the Kingdom’s natural resources while making them accessible to the public as a partnership between the public and private sectors.
Yet as with all issues as immediate and life changing as climate change and environmental degradation, countries can do more to commit the requisite political willpower and engage in multilateral cooperation, combining expertise and financial resources to address common challenges. Such collaboration becomes even more important when countries share in the geographic wealth of an area under threat.
According to a group of researchers from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, Egypt, Jordan, Switzerland and Australia, up to 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs may be destroyed by 2050 due to the accelerated pace of climate change. Nearly as disheartening, the researchers noted, is that “there is no coordinated effort to research or manage the reef system as a whole” in the Red Sea area.
One solution? Increased buy-in from the countries that earn significant tourism and leisure income from the Red Sea’s resources, including Egypt, Jordan and Israel. That same group of researchers called upon UNESCO to name the Red Sea’s coral reefs as a Marine World Heritage Site that would be jointly managed by the aforementioned countries and Saudi Arabia.
Elevating the status of the reefs is key to enabling their conservation and penalizing actions causing their damage. In Saudi Arabia’s case, the Red Sea and its pristine coastline represent something far larger than the reefs themselves: This precious environment is a symbol of opportunity for the country and offers a chance to get it right in guaranteeing they will remain for future generations to respectfully enjoy.
As Saudi Arabia looks to share its natural wonders with the world, it must first work to ensure that every individual views himself as a custodian of the environment. For the Red Sea’s resources to one day remain open for all, everyone must believe they are equally responsible for their protection.