Saltwater-grown crops lift food-security hopes of arid Arab countries

Red Sea Farms, which is based on the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah, nurtures new breeds of crops that are irrigated with seawater. (AFP/File Photos)
Red Sea Farms, which is based on the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah, nurtures new breeds of crops that are irrigated with seawater. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 17 July 2021

Saltwater-grown crops lift food-security hopes of arid Arab countries

Red Sea Farms, which is based on the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah, nurtures new breeds of crops that are irrigated with seawater. (AFP/File Photos)
  • A KAUST startup is laying down the blueprint for eco-friendly farms of the future
  • Some of the crops are grown in greenhouses while others are farmed in open fields

JEDDAH: Conventional agriculture is energy- and water-intensive, especially in countries that rely on desalination to irrigate crops and often import most of their food, amplifying their carbon footprint.

The good news is that a Saudi Arabia startup offers an ingenious, environmentally friendly solution that could ease nations’ food worries. Red Sea Farms, which is based on the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah, nurtures new breeds of crops that are irrigated with seawater.

Some are grown in greenhouses while others are farmed in open fields. The company cultivates and sells at least a dozen crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, celery, eggplant and green beans.

All are sustainable, organic and pesticide-free. The farm will expand its crop range to include around 30 fruit and vegetables in 2021, eventually raising this to about 100.




Traditionally, agriculture in the Kingdom was problematic due to the high cost of the suppling water in a desert landscape. But Red Sea Farms is breaking new ground. (AFP/File Photo)

“It’s about increasing the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables across the world while reducing the carbon and water footprint,” said Mark Tester, a bioscience professor at KAUST and co-founder of Red Sea Farms.

“What we need to do is get plants that now grow on full seawater and turn them into crops.”

Red Sea Farms, which has received $1.9 million in funding from KAUST, began by building a 2,000-square-meter greenhouse on the university campus. It has now broken ground on a 10,000-square-meter greenhouse nearby.

The first facility has cut its freshwater consumption by 90 percent and also reduced energy use thanks to innovative engineering that improves the process of evaporative cooling.

This is the result of work done by Red Sea Farms co-founder and CEO Ryan Lefers. His solution relies on liquid evaporation to lower the air temperature — in the same way that sweating cools our bodies — and uses far less energy than other air-conditioning methods.

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However, this approach was long ineffective in the Gulf region because of the high relative humidity reducing the rate of evaporation. Lefers created a salt-based desiccant that dehumidifies the air and makes evaporative cooling possible.

The company extracts brackish groundwater from a nearby borehole to irrigate its crops and run the air-conditioning system. In Saudi Arabia, most freshwater is obtained via desalination, which is energy-intensive and expensive, so switching to groundwater has slashed the farm’s carbon footprint.

Red Sea Farms is also developing open-field saltwater-grown plants. “That’s where the plant science comes in more to create new types of crops,” said Tester.

The principle is to get plants already growing in very salty water, or even seawater, and domesticate them to turn them into new varieties. Much of this work is being done at KAUST’s desert agriculture center.

For example, salicornia (sometimes known as sea asparagus) has an oil-rich seed that could be used for cooking and as a lubricant. Tester and his colleagues are improving it genetically so that it can become an economically viable crop.

“Your cooking oil in 10 years’ time could be made from salicornia,” he said, noting that oil seeds occupy a huge amount of land and have an enormous carbon footprint.




A general view taken from an airplane shows cultured farms in northern Saudi Arabia. (AFP/File Photo)

Having been selectively bred for thousands of years to improve their yield and hardiness, the wheat or corn seeds farmers use today are vastly different from their wild ancestors.

“We can turbocharge those processes through genomics but also through machine-learning algorithms to help accelerate that breeding process,” Tester said. “We’ve an opportunity now that we’ve never before had in human history to get some of these wild plants which have extraordinary properties and turn them into crops.”

The company aims to extend its footprint worldwide. Over a three- to five-year timeframe, the expansion will be focused on covered agriculture (the greenhouse) but will shift more to open-field agriculture five to 10 years from now.

Tester said: “This is a fantastic region in which to develop, test and deliver this technology. It’s a perfect incubator for this type of activity. Having got ourselves technically and financially ready, we want to go global. North and sub-Saharan Africa are on our doorstep and will be excellent regions to expand into, both in terms of impact and business potential.”


Iran systematically undermines the stability of the region, Israeli president tells WEF

Iran systematically undermines the stability of the region, Israeli president tells WEF
Updated 23 sec ago

Iran systematically undermines the stability of the region, Israeli president tells WEF

Iran systematically undermines the stability of the region, Israeli president tells WEF

DAVOS: Iran systematically undermines the stability of the region and Israel cannot accept Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, the Israeli President Isaac Herzog told the World Economic Forum on Wednesday.
“The Iranian regime systematically undermines the stability of the region. Israel and all nations of the world cannot accept Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, recognizing the threat it poses to Israel and the entire Middle East,” Herzog said.
He said that every country or region infiltrated by Iran has had “the life sucked out of its people and its land,” adding that Tehran spreads hate, pain and suffering.
“Prosperity, human liberty, creativity and growth are all erased,” the president said, pointing to what has happened in Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.
“Israel is eager to share its prosperity and successes with all its neighbors to break down barriers imposed by Iran’s influence. I truly believe that if we only choose the forces of light, the path to a drastically different brighter future is closer than we can imagine,” Herzog said.
He added that Israelis will always extend their hands for peace to their neighbors from the “Levant to the Gulf, from the Maghreb to the Mashreq, from our immediate neighbors the Palestinians to the entire Muslim world, and also to the entire continent of Africa, and the entire Middle East.”
When asked whether Saudi Arabia would follow in the footsteps of its Gulf neighbors the UAE and Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel, Herzog said that although the Kingdom is a “very important country in the region,” the process of joining the Abraham Accords “has to take its time.”
“I think the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a very important country in the region. And we would love to see developments in that direction, but it’s a process that has to take its time I guess,” Herzog commented.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan reiterated the Kingdom’s stance regarding normalization with Israel at the WEF on Tuesday, saying nothing had changed despite recent unconfirmed media reports suggesting otherwise.
“I’ve addressed that several times in the past and nothing has changed in how we view the subject. I think we have always seen normalization as the end result, but the end result of a path,” Prince Faisal told the WEF.
“We always envisioned that there will be full normalization with Israel, and I’ve said before that a full normalization between us and Israel, between the region and Israel, will bring immense benefits — we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we address the issue of Palestine,” the foreign minister said.
Herzog also spoke about the death of veteran Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in Jenin while covering Israeli raids on a refugee camp in the West Bank on May 11.
“This is of course a very sad event. And it pains me like it pains many Israelis,” the president said.
He said that Israel offered the Palestinians a joint investigation into the circumstances of the “tragic event” but that the Palestinians refused to cooperate.
“They took the body. They took the bullet and one cannot substantiate any one of the scenarios without those facts. And Israel was open and transparent and offered the US to join this process of investigation as well because we pay high importance to the freedom of speech and the work of journalists and media channels, and we respect them,” he added.


Street protests feared in Lebanon due to price rise, depreciation of currency, unemployment

Street protests feared in Lebanon due to price rise, depreciation of currency, unemployment
Updated 4 min 27 sec ago

Street protests feared in Lebanon due to price rise, depreciation of currency, unemployment

Street protests feared in Lebanon due to price rise, depreciation of currency, unemployment
  • Caretaker Communications Minister Johnny Korm: The decision to increase the tariffs for telecom and Internet services was caused by problems with suppliers and employees
  • The worsening economic crisis and increase in telecom and internet fees could bring people back onto the streets

BEIRUT: Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the Lebanese General Security, who is currently in the US on an official visit, has expressed concerns over “the social situation imploding as a result of the economic situation in Lebanon,” hoping that security would not be affected.

A security source told Arab News: “The situation is very delicate. The prices of goods are doubling, and some merchants are now requesting to be paid in US dollars, as the local currency continues to depreciate uncontrollably. Not everyone has dollar bills. How can people survive? At some point, we are bound to face a dangerous scenario.

“The security services are once again sounding the alarm regarding the miserable social situation of the soldiers. How it is acceptable for on-duty soldiers to only eat grains and canned goods every day?”

On Wednesday, Lebanon’s telecommunications company Ogero doubled and tripled the prices for some of its services. It announced packages intended for students and those with limited income, provided that the price amendments come into effect starting July.

Before going into caretaker mode, the Cabinet held a final session and raised the tariffs of prepaid mobile services.

Caretaker Communications Minister Johnny Korm said: “The decision to increase the tariffs for telecom and Internet services was caused by problems with suppliers and employees. There is no way for any sector to continue working based on the 1,500 LBP/USD rate in these circumstances.

“The sector would have collapsed, so we halved the expenses from $560 million to $255 million, and we also took several steps to reduce the burden. The sector’s income decreased to 22 percent, and we have become one of the cheapest telecom sectors in the world, as the average rate of subscription revenue is $1.88 per month, compared to $11.5 in Jordan, for instance. With the tariff increase, the rate becomes $7, with exceptions for people with limited income, for whom there will be packages of $4.5 and $7, taking into account the people with special needs, security officers and students.

“When we raise the tariff in July, the first bill we collect will be on Aug. 8. I understand and feel the pain of the citizens, but the tariff must be changed.”

In October 2019, the Cabinet headed by former Premier Saad Hariri discussed a proposal to impose a 20-cent fee on voice calls via applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook and FaceTime to avoid the imminent economic collapse after Lebanon’s dollar reserves rapidly decreased.

This proposal was the initial spark that caused one of the largest popular protests in Lebanon when protesters blocked roads with burning tires and tried to storm the headquarters of the government and parliament. The protests spread over two years, as economic conditions worsened.

The government sought to cancel its proposal hours after it was announced, but the collapse occurred. Lebanon was unable to pay its external and internal debts, and the central bank imposed measures on bank transfers. Protesters accused the ruling authorities of corruption, while the enthusiasm of Arab and foreign countries to help Lebanon waned due to the growing influence of Tehran-backed Hezbollah.

Will the worsening economic crisis and increase in telecom and internet fees bring people back to the streets?

Telecom engineer Abbas Qanso, who works with an internet service provider, ruled out the possibility of returning to the streets. “There will be protesters against the price hike, but many will accept it, just as they did with the rise in the prices of fuel, medicine and even bread.”

Official data shows that the unemployment rate in Lebanon increased to 29.6 percent from 11.4 percent in 2018-2019, which indicates that nearly a third of the active labor force was unemployed by January 2022. The percentage of unemployed women reached 32.7 compared to 28.4 for men, while the youth unemployment rate was 47.8 percent, twice the adult rate of 25.6 percent.

Economist Walid Bou Suleiman said: “The Lebanese pound will depreciate even more amid the uncertainty on the political scene.

“Nothing can curb the local currency’s depreciation except a positive shock that comes in the form of a quick formation of the government, but there are no signs of that. It’s a downhill journey from here.

“Since the government entered into caretaker mode, it is no longer entitled to take decisions. A new government needs to be formed as soon as possible, and recovery plans need to be implemented immediately, otherwise an ominous fate awaits Lebanon with the depletion of the central bank’s dollars, which will impede imports.”


US negotiator says odds against reviving Iran deal

US negotiator says odds against reviving Iran deal
Updated 35 min 53 sec ago

US negotiator says odds against reviving Iran deal

US negotiator says odds against reviving Iran deal
  • US envoy to Iran Rob Malley says US will submit any new Iran nuclear deal for congressional review if it can be revived

WASHINGTON: The US pointman on Iran warned Wednesday it was more likely than not that talks would fail to revive a nuclear deal as he vowed no let-up in pressure if Tehran clings to its demands.
Rob Malley, who has led more than a year of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, nonetheless told lawmakers that President Joe Biden’s administration still supported the 2015 nuclear accord and was ready to lift sanctions if it secures an agreement.
“As of today the odds of a successful negotiation are lower than the odds of failure and that is because of excessive Iranian demands to which we will not succumb,” Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said the United States would reject “demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA,” using the official name for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“We are fully prepared to live with and confront that reality if that is Iran’s choice,” Malley said.
He was likely referring to the clerical state’s demands to remove a terrorism blacklisting of the elite Revolutionary Guards, a step rejected by Biden and bitterly opposed by many in Congress.
But Malley made clear that Biden did not support military action — an option loudly mulled by Israel, which is suspected in a shadowy campaign of assassination against Iranian nuclear scientists.
“All options are on the table,” Malley said, while adding that military action would only “set back” Iran’s nuclear program.
Referring to the US history of war in the Middle East, Malley said, “We know that it costs.”
“But let’s leave it at this — the only solution here is a diplomatic one.”
Malley, however, warned of greater economic pressure if talks fail — and said the United States would have the support of the Europeans, unlike under former president Donald Trump.
The Treasury Department said Wednesday it was imposing sanctions on a network backed by Revolutionary Guard and Russian officials that has shipped hundreds of millions of dollars of oil in defiance of unilateral US sanctions.
The JCPOA — brokered under then president Barack Obama with the blessing of European powers, Russia and China — promised economic relief for Iran which, inspectors said, had been complying with the accord’s severe curbs on its nuclear program.
Trump withdrew in 2018 and imposed sweeping unilateral sanctions including on Iran’s oil, vowing to bring Tehran to its knees.
Malley said that Trump’s approach had demonstrably failed, with Iran stepping up nuclear work since the US pullout.
Senators including some from Biden’s Democratic Party voiced exasperation, noting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned in January that only “a few weeks” were left before Iran had advanced to the point that the JCPOA was no longer beneficial.
“We continue to wait and hope. But hope is not a national security strategy,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the committee.
Menendez said Iran had convinced the world “that the United States wants the JCPOA more than the Iranian regime does.”
Malley replied that technical assessments remain “that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal are worth the sanctions relief that we would provide.”
He also offered strong criticism of Iran’s crackdown on recent protests against austerity measures.
“I don’t think this is a strong regime that is basking in being able to circumvent sanctions,” Malley said.
“It is a regime under duress and that’s because of its own mismanagement and our sanctions.”

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Erdogan’s vowed military operation returns spotlight to Syrian border towns

Erdogan’s vowed military operation returns spotlight to Syrian border towns
Updated 25 May 2022

Erdogan’s vowed military operation returns spotlight to Syrian border towns

Erdogan’s vowed military operation returns spotlight to Syrian border towns
  • Yeni Safak newspaper: ‘Among the probable targets of the Turkish Armed forces and the (Turkey-backed) Syrian National Army, are Tal Rifaat, Ain al Arab (Kobani), Ain Issa and Manbij’
  • The potential target areas are controlled by the US-backed YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey

ISTANBUL: President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to carry out a new military incursion on Turkey’s southern borders has triggered speculation about potential targets, with the Syrian town of Tal Rifaat emerging as a primary goal of any operation.
Two days after Erdogan announced the plan, the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said on Wednesday preparations had been made for a new operation to expand “safe zones” already set up in northern Syria, with several goals identified.
“Among the probable targets of the Turkish Armed forces and the (Turkey-backed) Syrian National Army, are Tal Rifaat, Ain al Arab (Kobani), Ain Issa and Manbij,” the paper said.
Turkish control of the towns, which lie on or close to a central stretch of the 911-km-long border with Syria, could extend and deepen its military presence from near the Mediterranean coast along nearly three-quarters of the frontier.
So far, there have been few signs of military movements that preceded Turkey’s last four incursions into northern Syria. Erdogan has said decisions on military operations would be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.
The potential target areas are controlled by the US-backed YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. Turkey designates both as terrorist organizations.
The YPG has been the main target of several incursions which Turkey has carried out in northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometers of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country.
YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmoud told Reuters the group took Erdogan’s threats very seriously: “The international coalition, America, and Russia should commit to the pledges that they made to this region. Their presence in our areas must be meaningful, in the sense that it stops the repeated attacks on our people.”
The Yeni Safak newspaper said the most critical target of the latest operation would be Tal Rifaat, some 15 km (9 miles) from the Turkish border, which it said Kurdish fighters used as a base from which to launch attacks in the Afrin, Azaz and Jarablus areas controlled by Turkey and Ankara-backed Syrian fighters.
Tal Rifaat is located north of Aleppo city and just south of Azaz. An operation there alone would not represent a widening of Turkey’s “safe zones” along the border, but would push its forces deeper into Syria.
Dareen Khalifa, an analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said it was unclear whether Erdogan was talking about an operation in Tal Rifaat or further east, but she highlighted the role of the town.
“Tal Rifaat, if anything, can get him what he wants and it would avoid triggering a huge headache. I don’t think the Americans care about Tal Rifaat,” she said.
Most US forces in northern Syria are based further east.
She said Russia, which has forces deployed in the region, had not been addressing his concerns on militant attacks on Turkish-controlled areas from Tal Rifaat, and that Erdogan has been saying for years that Tal Rifaat needs to be captured.
The predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani was touted as another potential target. The YPG’s defeat of Daesh militants there in 2015 helped turn the tide against the group.
“Kobani represents the value of a global victory in the war against terrorism,” YPG spokesman Mahmoud said. “There’s no doubt that our forces will do what is needed to defend” the area.
The YPG, or People’s Defense Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the coalition which the United States largely relied on to fight Islamic State.
However, Khalifa played down the prospects of Turkey targeting Kobani.
“I don’t think there’s any interest in getting stuck in Kobani,” she said, pointing to the major demographic changes and reaction that would ensue if the Kurdish population fled.
She said that while United States forces were not in Manbij physically, it is a US zone of influence, so “I expect it to also trigger a US reaction.”
Any attack on Kobani would also risk triggering a strong reaction from Turkey’s Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of the country’s population. The Islamic State attack on Kobani in 2014 led to protests in which dozens died in Turkey.
Mithat Sancar, joint head of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), warned about the consequences of Erdogan’s plans for fresh military operations.
“We must all see that this will lead again to a bloody vortex in this region and country,” he told HDP lawmakers.
Erdogan’s talk of a military operation has also raised the stakes in Turkey’s row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance, with Turkey accusing both of harboring people linked to the PKK.
Analysts said the incursion plans reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.
Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering nationalist support as he gears up for difficult elections next year, analysts said. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.


Egypt pledges to help Libya reconstruction

Egypt pledges to help Libya reconstruction
Updated 25 May 2022

Egypt pledges to help Libya reconstruction

Egypt pledges to help Libya reconstruction

CAIRO: The head of the Egypt-based Arab Organization for Industrialization said it will “participate with its various companies and factories in the initiative to rebuild Libya.”

Abdel Moneim Al-Terras added: “The Egyptian state believes in the necessity of carrying out its national duty to support the brothers in Libya.”

He said: “Delegates from the Egyptian government had conducted exploratory visits in Libya … to determine the priority sectors in which Egyptian companies can work, as part of the reconstruction plans.”

Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ali Faraj Al-Qatrani said reconstruction is a priority for his government, which will support all companies wishing to take part.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Syndicate of Engineers signed a cooperation protocol with the Libyan General Syndicate of Engineering Professions.

Tarek Al-Nabarawy, chairman of the Egyptian syndicate, said the protocol includes exchanging experiences.