Finnish runner to cross Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert
Jukka Viljanen will set off on Dec. 6 on a 25-day journey through 1,300 km of desert terrain, with the aim of becoming the first person to run across the massive desert
"This dream to run across the Empty Quarter has been my passion. I am very passionate about it because Rub Al-Khali is the biggest and the most beautiful sand desert in the world, it inspires me. My passion keeps me motivated to run for adventure"
Updated 25 min 58 sec ago
RIYADH: A Finnish adventurer has set himself the challenge of joining the ranks of record-breaking pioneers who have made the grueling journey across Rub Al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Adventure runner Jukka Viljanen will set off on Dec. 6 on a 25-day journey through 1,300 km of desert terrain, with the aim of becoming the first person to run across the massive desert.
The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. The vast landscape of ever-shifting dunes was explored between the early 1930s and the 1950s by the likes of Bertram Thomas, the first recorded Westerner to cross the desert, and Wilfred Thesiger, and their Arab companions.
More recently, photographer Anna Aiko crossed Rub Al-Khali on camel in 2019, and Italian explorer Max Calderan, a long-time resident of Dubai, completed the first solo crossing of the Empty Quarter in 2020. Previous explorers have crossed shorter sections of Rub Al-Khali on camels or in off-road vehicles.
Given the inhospitable terrain and testing conditions, the journey is a test of endurance however it is undertaken but Viljanen aims to take the challenge to another level by running the whole way, covering about 50 kilometers a day. His challenge has been organized by Delta Adventures, a leader in desert journeys and adventures in Saudi Arabia.
“I started as an adventure runner 15 years ago,” Viljanen said during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “I am very passionate about the sand dunes; they energize me. I love the desert.
“It has become a challenge for me as the Empty Quarter has not been crossed fully yet. I want to make it with my team. I am very passionate about creating history by crossing it successfully.
Given the inhospitable terrain and testing conditions, the journey is a test of endurance however it is undertaken but Jukka Viljanen aims to take the challenge to another level by running the whole way, covering about 50 kilometers a day. His challenge has been organized by Delta Adventures, a leader in desert journeys and adventures in Saudi Arabia.
“This dream to run across the Empty Quarter has been my passion. I am very passionate about it because Rub Al-Khali is the biggest and the most beautiful sand desert in the world, it inspires me. My passion keeps me motivated to run for adventure. It’s my passion that brought me here.”
Viljanen said he chose Dec. 6 as the start date for his adventure for a special reason: “It’s the Finnish National Day.”
The expedition will be his first experience of running in the Empty Quarter, though has run in other Saudi deserts. In fact he has run in a number of challenging environments around the world.
“In 2007, I went to the North Pole where I participated in a marathon with snowshoes,” he said. “Then I did another marathon with a mountain bike.
“After the North Pole I decided to challenge myself more so I entered another race, which was in the Libyan Sahara in 2008. I did a 200km race over there. Then I went to Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole “Some years later, I decided to run across (more) deserts. My first event was at the Kalahari Desert in 2010.”
Viljanen ran across more than 1,000 km of the Kalahari in 20 days, including some of the most remote wilderness areas in Botswana.
“A few years later I was the first one to run across the Sahara Desert, which was 1,628 km in 31 days,” he added. “Two years ago I was able to run across the second-biggest ice sheet in the world … across the icecap of Greenland. That was approximately 600 km.”
His experiences and achievements are remarkable but he has no intention of stopping any time soon — quite the opposite.
“I want to go further and out of my comfort zone,” Viljanen said. “I want to raise the bar for myself, and that’s the reason I am here in Saudi Arabia: I want to be the first person to run across the Empty Quarter.”
He will run alone but will be accompanied by a backup team consisting of Saudis and a friend from Finland. The team leaders are Mohammed Al-Khamis and Ady Al-Khamis, the owners of Delta Adventures.
“I have known them since 2014, when I was here in Riyadh for the first time,” said Viljanen “They have been to the Empty Quarter before. I consider them my extended family.”
The climate in Saudi Arabia is a lot different to his native Finland but Viljanen is taking it all in his stride.
“Yes, it’s a lot warmer but I am quite used to it because of my experiences in the Sahara and Kalahari deserts,” he said. “I like that it’s warm, I take that as a bonus.”
He said he hopes he will have a chance to talk to young people in Saudi Arabia to share his experiences and help inspire them in their own lives and ambitions.
“I would like to speak to the Saudi people after the voyage,” Viljanen said. “I will be back here to share my story. People should raise their bar and they should have new goals in their lives, coming out of their comfort zone. It cannot be achieved sitting in their comfort zone. People have lots of potential but they don’t know it; we should motivate them to become role models for others.
“The main message is ‘challenge yourself.’ I am a motivational speaker and will give motivational talks to Saudi students and people to inspire them to accept the challenge and get out of their comfort zone, because the magic happens outside of the comfort zone. The Empty Quarter is not a comfort zone; the magic will happen there.”
This visit is Viljanen’s fifth to Saudi Arabia, and he said he is always impressed by Saudi traditions and the reception he receives.
“Besides my passion to run, I want to learn about new cultures,” he added. “I am amazed by the warm hospitality of the Saudi people. I attended a Saudi wedding ceremony on Wednesday. It was a blessing. I joined them in traditional dance and enjoyed it.”
Saudi and Bahraini naval forces launch joint exercise in Jubail
Updated 10 sec ago
RIYADH: The Royal Saudi Naval Forces and their Bahraini counterparts launched a mixed bilateral naval exercise in the Eastern Province on the Arabian Gulf, the Saudi defense ministry announced on Sunday.
The JISR-22 exercise was held at King Abdul Aziz Naval Base in Jubail.
Vice Admiral Majid bin Hazza Al-Qahtani, commander of the Eastern Fleet, said that the exercise will enhance the capabilities that ensure the security and stability of the region, and develop operational compatibility and tactical efficiency.
The exercise will also strengthen capabilities in naval operations, with the participation of the Royal Saudi Air Force in close air support.
Al-Qahtani added that the exercise is an extension of the JISR (bridge) exercises, which are carried out periodically between the two countries, and aims to enhance security cooperation, secure territorial waters, and unify concepts and joint work.
Volunteerism in Saudi Arabia: A way to give back to the community
Saudi Arabia using culture of charity in Vision 2030 goal of 1 million volunteers by 2030
Updated 06 December 2021
JEDDAH: On Dec. 5, the world marked International Volunteer Day to celebrate people who dedicate time and effort in order to help others.
Volunteering comes from the recognition and realization of a situation that needs to be fixed, whether it affects humans, animals or nature as a whole.
The number of volunteers in Saudi Arabia now stands at more than 200,000, and is expected to reach 1 million by 2030, in line with Saudi goals.
Saeed Azhar, founder and chairman of Humans Come First, a Saudi volunteering and charity organization based in Jeddah, focuses on building a healthy society by conducting independent charitable campaigns and cooperating with the emerging community, to meet the needs of the less fortunate.
Azhar has been involved in volunteer work since 2013. He told Arab News that volunteering is all about helping others selflessly as it “gives his life a bigger purpose.”
He said that the concept of volunteerism has been always there in the Saudi community, and it is part of the Saudi culture presented in different forms. However, “energies of the society need to be activated properly,” he added.
“I should give back as much as I take, to empower volunteers, empower talents, create future leaders and help those in need. I believe that Allah has chosen us to be the contact point between the poor and rich people.”
Azhar and his team, which includes 200 members, 35 volunteering campaigns and more than 7,000 volunteers from around the Kingdom, completed 27,334 hours of volunteering and served 5 million beneficiaries between 2018 and 2020.
International Volunteer Day was mandated by the UN General Assembly in 1985. It offers an opportunity for volunteer organizations and individuals to promote volunteerism, encourage governments to support volunteer efforts and recognize volunteer contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals at the local, national and international levels.
“We are serving about 10 cities in Saudi Arabia. More than 7,000 volunteers participate with us. We have around 200 active members all around the Kingdom. We have happily and proudly improved hundreds and thousands of lives, locally and internationally,” he said. Community health services
An award for health volunteering was launched in 2018 to shed the light on the heroes and organizations who implement outstanding volunteer health resources in the Kingdom.
As a response to the COVID-19 crisis, 27-year-old Saudi laboratory technician Asrar Al-Shumrani, who works a the Ministry of National Guard — Health Affairs in Riyadh, served during the pandemic at a blood donation center. “It was not easy,” he said.
He added: “We used to go out to work during the darkest times of the curfew, and we were dealing with infected people.”
Working in the medical sector is one of the “purest volunteering forms” as it keeps the community safe and healthy, he said. “Despite the shocking situations and news of lives that have been lost during the pandemic, harnessing our knowledge and our time into saving what could be saved was an honor.” Enjad: Volunteering to rescue vehicles stuck in the desert
The Saudi Civil Defense helps rescue civilians in city disasters. Enjad is a nonprofit organization that also helps by using a well-equipped and experienced Saudi team to rescue vehicles stuck in deserts around the Kingdom.
Ali Aligi, Enjad representative, told Arab News that the nonprofit aims to save lives and property in coordination with authorities, including Civil Defense.
“As soon as we receive a call, our team immediately swings into action by sending volunteers from the association to search for the missing and preserve their vehicles during rainy seasons and trekking seasons by releasing vehicles stuck in the mud,” Aligi said.
Enjad raises awareness of the risks of driving during floods and heavy rain.
It also works to present the Saudi identity in a distinctive way, and highlights the role of social solidarity among its members.
In 2021, more than 40,000 cases were dealt with through Enjad services. “Our mission continues to handle all cases of vehicle loss and suspension. I believe that the association’s goal is not only to save lives, raise awareness, preserve property and more, but to also activate volunteer work,” Aligi said.
“Most campaigns and volunteer programs have short-term goals; Enjad on the other hand stems from a continuous need,” he added.
“The community is the one who serves the community. It is not just one party, but several parties.”
To volunteer with Enjad, it is necessary to have an off-road vehicle and the appropriate tools to save a vehicle stuck in sand or mud. “There is a large group of society who possess tools and skills, but they use it only for personal needs. However, such skilled members of society would be a perfect fit to serve the community and rescue many cases from around the Kingdom.”
Fraternal Saudi-Omani ties in focus as Muscat prepares to welcome Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to build on talks Sultan Haitham held with King Salman in July
Visit described as a reflection of “time-honored” ties between two Gulf countries bound by bonds of history
Updated 06 December 2021
RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Oman, the first stop in a tour of Gulf states, is expected to build on the talks that Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq held with King Salman during his visit to the Kingdom in July.
On the agenda are issues of mutual concern and ways to promote the interests of the Kingdom and Oman as well as “fulfill the aspirations and hopes” of their peoples.
The Omani news agency ONA described the visit as a reflection of the “time-honored and historical” ties between the two Gulf countries.
For over half a century, Saudi-Omani relations have been characterized by cooperation, mutual respect and understanding on various regional and international issues.
Likewise, connections at the individual level run deep thanks to bonds of history, shared Arab customs and traditions, and a common Gulf Arab heritage.
The two countries coordinate their actions under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council in accordance with the bloc’s common visions and strategic goals, with a view to achieving integration between member states in different fields.
A similar cooperative spirit informs their roles at the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the UN and various other international bodies.
Sultan Haitham’s visit to Saudi Arabia produced promises of cooperation in different fields, notably real estate development, tourism, petrochemicals, manufacturing industries, logistics, information technology and banking systems. Also on the agenda was a project to establish an industrial zone in the Special Economic Zone in Duqm.
A memorandum establishing a coordination council was signed by the two countries, with the aim of ensuring continued consultation and coordination in matters of common interest in all fields. A separate agreement was signed to boost government and private sector trade and investment as well as cooperation in the fields of environmental and food security.
According to a joint statement, the two sides also agreed to expedite the opening of their border crossings to ease the movement of people and goods to “integrate supply chains in order to achieve the desired economic integration.”
They further welcomed the “effective communication” between ministers of the two countries and directed them to work toward concluding a number of cooperation agreements.
“Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Arab world and its leading economic engine, home to a quarter of the world’s petroleum reserves and the largest free market in the Middle East and North Africa region. It’s a key, valued trading partner of Oman,” Sayyid Faisal bin Turki Al-Said, Oman’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Arab News on the eve of Sultan Haitham’s visit.
• SR 24bn ($6.4bn) total Saudi investments in Oman
• SR4bn total Omani investments in KSA
• SR2bn Saudi-Omani trade volume in first quarter of 2021
Ties between Oman and Saudi Arabia have remained strong in part thanks to regular bilateral meetings and shuttle diplomacy, a tradition established after the signing of the March 1990 agreement that finally delineated their 658 km border.
The border agreement signed at Hafr Al-Batin in Saudi Arabia solidified the relationship, sweeping away territorial disputes of the past and giving both states equal access to the area’s bountiful water resources.
Over the decades that followed, relations have grown from strength to strength, yielding ambitious economic partnerships and joint action on the GCC, which has seen a merging of strategic aims and a shared vision for economic diversification.
In 2006, Saudi Arabia and Oman agreed to open a new border crossing to help facilitate the expansion of trade.
Their engineers teamed up to build a Saudi-funded highway through Rub Al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), connecting Al-Ahsa in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province to Ibri in Oman, shaving some 16 hours off the journey time between the two countries.
Officials expect the road to be opened to civil and commercial traffic by the end of this year, which will potentially inaugurate a new era of business activities.
Once open, the new highway will cut the cost of import-export logistics, especially for merchants operating out of Oman’s ports of Sohar and Duqm, not to mention the potential boost to tourism — a sector both countries are keen to expand.
In particular, the Omani side hopes the new road — and perhaps even a future rail link — will encourage more joint investments at the Sohar Industrial Estate and the Special Economic Zone in Duqm.
Other partnerships include the development of Khazaen Economic City, the Salalah 2 gas-fired power station and the Salalah desalination plant. Saudi Arabia is also a big importer of Omani fish, making the development of the sultanate’s fisheries a matter of tremendous common interest.
Another core area of cooperation is the environment, with the two states pulling together to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent, plant billions of trees, and make the Saudi and Middle East Green initiatives a reality.
Sultan Haitham has welcomed the initiatives in previous talks with the Saudi crown prince. The two countries have also begun sharing expertise in industrial development, city planning and mineral extraction, with ministerial delegations recently meeting via video link to discuss new collaborations.
High-level officials and delegations have made reciprocal visits in recent months with the aim of integrating Oman’s Vision 2040 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 — two development and economic diversification agendas designed to create vibrant, modern economies that offer young citizens exciting new career paths and improve the overall quality of life.
Among a long list of Saudi businesses looking for investment opportunities in Oman are Al Sayadiyah United Co., which has been operating for about 40 years, trading in fish and seafood items originating in different GCC countries.
In comments to Arab News in September, Marwan Raffa, CEO of Al Sayadiyah, said he expected a very good experience in trade operations with Oman and was in touch with his Omani counterparts to expand business operations there.
Commenting on Saudi Arabia’s drive to deepen ties with Oman, he said: “Good relationships open up more opportunities.”
Saudi Arabia’s AlUla commission signs cultural, infrastructure deals with French companies
Updated 05 December 2021
LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla signed four agreements with four French institutions on Sunday to support the authority’s strategy to become a leading global destination for cultural and natural heritage.
Two of the agreements were in the cultural field and the other two in infrastructure, and aim to enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors, coinciding with the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the Kingdom.
The agreements come as an extension of strong Saudi-French relations and cooperation in several areas in AlUla governorate, where an intergovernmental agreement was signed on April 10, 2018 that focused on urban, cultural, tourism and sustainable development, the commission said.
The agreements, with active French participation, will contribute to the commission’s strategy for distinguished global partnerships, especially in archaeology, infrastructure, hospitality, and smart city infrastructure development.
Our 10-year partnership with @FERRANDIParis will establish the AlUla International College of Tourism & Hospitality, cementing #AlUla's role as the exclusive regional hub for training and specialisation within the tourism and hospitality sector. pic.twitter.com/FXy6AHmnSV
“These partnerships will also contribute to providing training and knowledge transfer opportunities to provide Saudis with new capabilities and skills,” RCU said.
120 students were sent to the two previous stages of the RCU’s International Scholarship Program, in addition to 24 students graduating as chefs from the Michelin-starred Ferrandi International Institute.
Amr Al-Madani, CEO of the RCU, said that the “Villa Hegra” agreement aimed to build a Saudi-French cultural institution according to the “French Villa” model, reinforcing AlUla’s position as a cultural hub and the Villa Hegra as a global model.
Villa Hegra, built on the "French villa" model, will mark its first arrival in the Middle East and further #AlUla's standing as a crossroads of cultural exchange: a place for collaboration, learning, culture, art and global community. pic.twitter.com/cmLbM0nLS4
This marks the model’s arrival in the Middle East, with 11 international locations, including seven in France and others in Mexico and Rome; each has been designed to suit the natural and cultural environment of the region.
He added that the agreement with the French 3D software company Dassault Systemes was based on developing a digital model that contributed to an accurate analysis of AlUla’s operations, to contribute to transforming document-based operations into a 3D visual display environment.
“This will allow for institutional excellence through a detailed visualization of the governorate, in a way that enhances the objectives of supporting development and investment and contributes to developing AlUla as a smart city, taking into account its cultural nature,” Al-Madani said.
With $2bln already invested in AlUla's primary infrastructure, our development is progressing rapidly. Our digital twin partnership with @Dassault3DS will merge technology and institutional excellence, streamline county services, and support spatial development and investment. pic.twitter.com/hPhDDWKtSe
He also said the partnership with the RATPDev Saudi Arabia Limited aims to develop a world-class public transport system in AlUla, where the company will contribute to designing public transport operations and provide assessments and recommendations to meet the needs of Al-Ula.
It also provided recommendations and solutions for the full development lifecycle of mobility operations in AlUla, from design to implementation and maintenance, he said, adding that the company was one of the best in this field globally.
These agreements are part of efforts to achieve AlUla’s vision, by promoting it as a cultural and nature destination, and in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 to diversify its economic tributaries, by developing the cultural, arts and antiquities sectors, and enhancing AlUla’s position as a destination for developing human competencies in hospitality, services and culinary arts.
Mobility is an essential indicator of the quality of life. Our partnership with @RATPgroup will bring mobility innovation and best practices in operations and solutions as we develop scalable solutions to meet the needs of the citizens of #AlUla and tourists alike. pic.twitter.com/YWHBKKD3FQ