JEDDAH: With the COVID-19 omicron variant prompting renewed concern about the pandemic, a virologist has told Arab News that its early detection is a positive first step to overcoming the mutation.
omicron, or the B.1.1529 strain of the coronavirus, was marked a variant of concern on Nov. 26 by the World Health Organization, the fifth variant of concern to date.
But, as of Sunday, Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry said that no omicron cases had been detected in the country so far.
All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the properties of the virus.
However, some may affect the transmissibility rate, associated disease severity, or the performance of vaccines.
Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, said: “The interesting thing about omicron is that it accumulated a very high number of mutations compared to other VOCs. The total number of mutations in the spike, the most important part of the virus, was 32, 10 of which were detected that bind to receptors on human cells. That's more than the delta variant, hence the concern.”
The WHO called for increased surveillance of the variant and laboratory experiments to better understand its biology.
The delta variant had nine mutations in the spike gene. According to Algaissi, there are shared mutations between the two, but what makes omicron more of a concern is the additional mutations.
Saudi Arabia suspended inbound and outbound flights from 14 African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Comoros.
“Based on what we know from the genetic sequencing, we don't have information that could tell us if these mutations will make the virus more lethal, more transmissible, if it will impact the immune response either after infection or vaccination. As of now, we don't know.”
Data shows that most of the infected patients in South Africa were unvaccinated, indicating that the vaccine's efficacy may still protect against omicron, but further studies are needed to determine by how much vaccine efficacy is reduced.
“Of the many concerns when it comes to VOCs is the effect it has on the diagnostic tool, in this case, the PCR tests,” added Algaissi. “Looking at the omicron mutation, early analysis shows that the current PCR used, especially here in the Kingdom, will still detect the variant.”
According to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data database, more than 5.5 million COVID-19 genome sequence submissions have been made so far.
Last month, Saudi Arabia urged residents to get their booster shots to increase herd immunity further. Currently, 70 percent of the Kingdom's 34.8 million population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
As of Sunday, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended inbound and outbound flights from 14 African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Comoros.
Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday it would extend the validity of resident permits and exit and re-entry visas from countries facing entry suspension. The General Directorate of Passports said the move was the implementation of directive from King Salman.
The visas are extended until Jan. 1, 2022, without fees or charges. People were notified by email, where an e-visa form was attached.
Another concern is transmissibility. Algaissi noted the difficulty of measuring an increase in the transmissibility rate by the number of infected cases. Multiple factors could increase reported cases, such as the ease of restrictions and low vaccination rates.
“Further studies and experiments are needed to determine if the mutations in omicron enhance its binding to cells, thus becoming more transmissible, and it’ll take scientists weeks to understand the omicron variant, including how quickly it can spread and what the illness that results from infection looks like.”
According to South African health experts, omicron symptoms have been “pretty mild” so far.
In a joint press conference on Sunday, the acting CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Public Health Authority Dr. Abdullah Algwizani said the variant was being monitored and residents were urged to complete their vaccination schedule, to be wary of large gatherings, and adhere to precautionary measures.
The Kingdom’s Health Ministry said that 24 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded on Sunday, raising the total number of cases to 549,695. There have been 32 further recoveries, raising this total to 538,856.
There are currently 2,006 active cases, 48 of which are in critical care. One death was reported.
UN envoy to Yemen in Riyadh for talks with GCC, Saudi officials
Hans Grundberg met with the GCC chief and the Saudi ambassador to Yemen
Updated 19 January 2022
RIYADH: The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council renewed his call to the international community to confront Houthi terrorism that obstructs all international efforts aimed at resolving the Yemeni crisis.
Nayef Al-Hajraf was speaking during a meeting with UN envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg, during his visit to Riyadh, the GCC said in a statement.
His visit comes a day after the Iran-backed Houthi militia attacked the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, killing three people and wounding seven, sparking widespread condemnation.
The secretary-general affirmed the GCC’s support for the efforts of the UN envoy and the UN toward reaching a political solution to the Yemeni war, calling on the international community to exert more pressure on the Houthi militia to engage seriously in the peace process.
Al-Hajraf also strongly condemned the continued cross border attacks targeting civilians and civilian objects in Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones, as well as the attack that targeted Abu Dhabi, “which represents a flagrant violation of international law and a threat to regional security and stability.
He also called for the Houthis to be held accountable, in accordance with international and humanitarian law.
Grundberg also met with the Saudi ambassador to Yemen and supervisor of the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, Mohammed bin Saeed Al-Jaber, where they discussed the Kingdom’s support for the UN’s efforts, Saudi Press Agency reported.
The two sides discussed joint political efforts to solve the Yemeni crisis, especially as the Houthis’ continue to reject UN and international efforts to implement a cease-fire, their insistence on increasing the suffering of the Yemeni people, and the militia’s continued attacks on civilian and economic sites in the Kingdom and the UAE.
Hydroponic farming boosts prospects of sustainable agriculture in Saudi Arabia
Setup allows minute control over conditions like temperature, pH balance and exposure to nutrients and water
Method using recycled water is ideal for Saudi Arabia, one of the most water-stressed countries
Updated 19 January 2022
JEDDAH: Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil and with limited amounts of water. As a farming method it has a number of benefits: It helps to develop fibrous roots for improved nutrient absorption, reduces the risk of roots rotting and promotes the rapid maturity of plants.
By using innovative design that requires minimal space, hydroponics gardens can grow fruit, vegetables and flowers in half the time of traditional agriculture, using 90 percent less water.
Historical records reveal that the first recorded uses of hydroponic systems were in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the floating gardens of the Aztecs, and gardens in ancient China.
In modern times, a NASA-sponsored experiment on the Mir space station in 1997 used aeroponics to grow bean seedlings in zero gravity, raising the prospect of sustainable agriculture in space. Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics in which the plants are fed using a mist sprayed onto their roots, rather than being suspended in water.
In recent years, the popularity of hydroponics has gained momentum, as existing farmers and people without any experience in traditional farming seek to take advantage of advances in technology and the potential benefits they can bring.
Low rainfall, limited availability of freshwater from rivers and lakes, and dwindling, non-renewable groundwater reserves mean that the Middle East is the most water-stressed region on earth. Meanwhile, regional demand for water is soaring — and likely to continue to rise given population growth and economic development — resulting in some of the highest per-capita water consumption rates in the world.
Across most of the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most arid regions on earth, there is precious little rainfall and much of what there is runs off into desert sand or quickly evaporates. An area covering more than 1,000,000 square miles contains almost no perennial rivers or streams, and its southern section is covered by one of the largest deserts in the world.
Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula and is one of its driest countries. Water resources are scarce and climate conditions severe. The conditions cause groundwater salinization, which is a common problem affecting the Kingdom’s agricultural sector.
Last October the representative from Saudi Arabia, as part of the Group of 77 developing countries and China, told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) of the 76th session at the UN General Assembly that the Kingdom was taking steps to build sustainable agriculture, improve consumption patterns to reduce waste by 50 percent by 2030, encourage innovation, and empower women and young people working in the agriculture sector.
70 percent increase in food production will be required by 2050 to meet caloric needs of a global population of 9.8 billion.
68 percent of that projected 9.8 billion global population will live in urban areas by 2050.
With an eye on future food challenges, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture is exploring the option of localized vertical-farming technologies, and has allocated $27 million to develop them.
The challenges the Kingdom’s policymakers face are no different from those confronting their counterparts in many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa: How to prevent the situation from getting worse and, more precisely, how to equip farmers to resolve the problems they face.
According to agricultural scientists, substantial investment in adaptation will be required to help maintain current farming yields, and achieve increases in production and food quality to meet demand. Vertical farming facilities that use hydroponics is one possible solution to the challenges, especially in countries with arid and semi-arid climates.
In recent years, several agribusinesses in Saudi Arabia have started using hydroponics systems, after conducting intensive research, collecting data and devising suitable mechanisms, with the aim of keeping pace with the Kingdom’s soaring population and food requirements.
A key feature of hydroponics is the use of recycled water, which comes with its own challenges. Although water recycling is a relatively simple process, the costs involved, from initial investment to annual maintenance, are not trivial because the resultant quality of the water must be high enough for growing plants, according to Turki Alduhayan, the CEO of Green Mast, an agribusiness in Riyadh.
“We send our water samples on a weekly basis to labs in Holland and the analysis report provides us with the water properties absorbed by the plants,” he told Arab News.
“This way we can control the water consumption and we save a lot, but ensuring high water quality is no easy feat. We are recycling water and saving money but it requires a lot of following up and evaluation to stay consistent.”
Alduhayan said he has learned what works through trial and error, having had to make decisions and comparisons, ranging from the type of soil to use in greenhouses to testing a plant’s endurance and its ability to survive in a hydroponics farm. He said he once tested a particular variety of tomato plant that yielded fruit for up to nine months and grew to a height of 14 meters.
Based on his experiences, Alduhayan said that hydroponic systems are an attractive option for many farmers in Saudi Arabia for a number of reasons.
The first recorded uses of hydroponics date back to the hanging gardens of Babylon, the floating gardens of the Aztecs, and gardens in ancient China.
Delivering produce from farm to table is easier said than done, he explained, when one considers the logistical and transportation challenges involved in ensuring shipments remain at a suitable temperature, stay fresh and are delivered to suppliers on time.
“This is one of the biggest obstacles and challenges facing hydroponic companies,” Alduhayan said. “Saudi Arabia is the size of Europe and it is expensive to transport produce to areas that are very far from the place of origin. There’s more to the business than just growing crops and produce. Even so, Saudi Arabia has come a long way in just a few years.
“MEWA has shown its support for hydroponic farming in the Kingdom but there needs to be more strict regulations to ensure that the proper protocols are followed through. Further support from the ministry, buyers and transportation service providers can, and will, help farmers in the long run. In the three years since I started my business, my costs are a fraction of when I first started.
“You can rest assured that if you buy cherry tomatoes, for instance, from a hydroponics farm they will stay fresh longer than you would normally expect of such a fruit.”
Red Sea Farms is another Saudi company that uses an environmentally sustainable saltwater-based agriculture system. This technology enables farmers to grow food and cool greenhouses using saltwater in larger quantities, and better levels of quality, than traditional farming systems, and to supply produce for a much longer growing season.
Mark Tester, co-founder of Red Sea Farms and the associate director of the Center of Desert Agriculture at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, said that while hydroponics systems are not suitable for bulk commodity crops such as wheat, they can provide a rapid return on investment for a wide variety of other crops.
“From the perspective of the government, greenhouses provide a golden opportunity to maximize the value from the (ultimately unsustainable) groundwater being extracted, giving the best return possible for this valuable resource,” he told Arab News.
“With Red Sea Farms’ technologies, the environmental footprint of production is reduced even further, which is good for the environment considering the reduced water usage and carbon-dioxide emissions, lower costs and higher income for the farmer.”
Another proven benefit of hydroponics farming is that it eliminates the need for large-scale use of pesticides and herbicides.
“Because hydroponics in greenhouses enable good control of both air and water, it also provides the chance to minimize exposure of plants to pests and diseases, thus enabling us to minimize the use of pesticides,” Tester said. “This saves the farmers money, is better for the environment and means healthier food for consumers. Everyone wins.
“The benefits of innovative farming systems become increasingly valued and increasingly valuable, even in places with ideal conditions for agriculture such as in Western Europe.
“The use of greenhouses is massively expanding. So even in the south of the Kingdom there is clearly a very important role for greenhouses to play in agriculture and the healthy, sustainable production of our food.”
As more agribusinesses in Saudi Arabia embrace modern, innovative methods, the appeal of hydroponics is expected to rapidly grow thanks to the many advantages it offers.
More broadly, growing crops using hydroponics and greenhouses is increasingly looking like a smart bet, especially for future generations in countries with arid and semi-arid climates, which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, land degradation and extreme weather events.
Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet condemns Houthi attack on UAE
The Kingdom emphasized its full support for the UAE against all threats to its security and stability
The ministers discussed several regional and international developments and approved a number of agreements
Updated 18 January 2022
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reiterated its condemnation of a deadly attack that targeted an oil facility in the UAE capital a day earlier killing three people.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen launched a number of drones and ballistic missiles, causing three tankers to explode near storage facilities owned by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., and another fire also struck Abu Dhabi International Airport. Two Indians and a Pakistani were killed and seven were injured.
The Kingdom emphasized its full support for the UAE against all threats to its security and stability, and vowed to continue — through its leadership of the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen — confronting the Houthis and the threat they pose to regional and international security and peace.
The statement came following a weekly Council of Ministers meeting that was chaired remotely by King Salman from the capital, Riyadh.
At the beginning of the session, the Council of Ministers was briefed on the content of a letter to the king from Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
The ministers were also briefed on the overall talks and exchanged visits between officials in the Kingdom and a number of countries, aimed at consolidating areas of joint cooperation and teamwork to further boost relations and support regional and international security and stability.
The Cabinet reviewed the outcome of the international Future Minerals Forum, which was held in Riyadh last week, in which several agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed, and the most important future directions of the sector were discussed.
The forum also tackled the Kingdom’s role in developing this sector, in light of the Vision 2030’s aims to diversify the economy, make the mining sector a third pillar of national industries, and work to increase its GDP contribution from $17 billion to $64 billion by 2030.
Dr. Majid Al-Qasabi, acting minister of information, said that the Cabinet dealt with a number of reports on various regional and international developments.
The ministers reviewed a report by the UN Financial Tracking Platform that placed the Kingdom among the top five donors of humanitarian aid globally, and the largest supporter of Yemen.
“This reflects the firm values and principles of this country and its people in doing good and providing aid to the needy wherever they are, and embodies its high global position in this field,” Al-Qasabi said.
The Cabinet said it appreciated the efforts to combat drug smuggling into the Kingdom after the Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority, in coordination with the General Directorate of Narcotics Control, were able to thwart two attempts to smuggle more than 8.3 million Captagon pills and arrest the recipients.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet authorized the sports minister to sign a draft agreement for cooperation in the field of sports with the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and authorized the interior and justice ministers to sign a draft Arab agreement to ban and combat human cloning.
The ministers approved a guidance model for a cooperation agreement for exchanging and protecting personal data and information for security purposes between the Saudi government and the governments of member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and authorized the minister of interior to sign a cooperation agreement with his Gulf counterparts.
The Council of Ministers also authorized the minister of tourism to sign a draft MoU with the Seychelles in tourism, and approved another MoU between the Saudi Tourism Ministry and the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife in Kenya.
It also authorized the finance minister and chairman of the Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority to sign a draft agreement with Japan on cooperation and mutual assistance in customs issues, and approved a memorandum of cooperation between the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation and its UAE counterpart in civil aviation security.
The Cabinet also set Feb. 10 of every year as Arabian Leopard Day, to spread awareness, preserve it from extinction and support the objectives of the Arab Leopard Fund.
The Cabinet also reviewed a number of general topics on its agenda, including annual reports of the Oil Fund.
Culture and cubism meet in Jeddah-based artist Faisal Al-Kheriji’s distinctive portraits
Updated 18 January 2022
JEDDAH: Saudi artist Faisal Al-Kheriji is keeping one eye on the past and the other on the future as he sets out to explore the rapid cultural changes transforming the Kingdom.
The 27-year-old artist draws on cubism and surrealism — art styles that originated more than a century ago — to create distinctive portraits showing how Saudi Arabia is modernizing and adapting to change.
Al-Kheriji’s artworks deal with subjects ranging from social customs to hospitality and styles of dress.
“I get inspired by my culture and by other artists, both globally and locally,” he said.
Al-Kheriji, who was born and raised in Jeddah, began to paint at the age of six and soon began attending art classes.
“Painting grew with me as a hobby, but I was self-taught after that. But my real journey began when I studied abroad. That’s when I started spending more time on painting, and trying new techniques and styles,” he said.
• Faisal Al-Kheriji draws on cubism and surrealism — art styles that originated more than a century ago — to create distinctive portraits showing how Saudi Arabia is modernizing and adapting to change.
• Al-Kheriji’s artworks deal with subjects ranging from social customs to hospitality and styles of dress. Al-Kheriji began to paint at the age of six and soon began attending art classes.
Al-Kheriji is widely known for his figurative paintings and prints featuring fragmented portraits.
Recontextualizing paintings from the “old masters” and adding references to contemporary culture, he produces work that is heavily influenced by artists from the past, notably Pablo Picasso and his cubist figures.
For instance, his “Reema Lisa” depicts a Saudi woman dressed in traditional Hijazi dress, while “The Men of Saudi Arabia” shows Saudi men camping in a tent in the desert.
“I prefer cubism and surrealism because cubism paints different shapes, while surrealism is about painting strange characters that you don’t see in real life. My paintings are a mixture of both,” he said.
Al-Kheriji also includes patterns, fashion, traditional practices, and other elements from Saudi and Arab culture in his artworks.
Although he pursued a degree in management and marketing, and is currently a marketing manager at Unilever, the artist is committed to his artistic practice.
“Art for me is a hobby and I enjoy every minute of it.”
Al-Kheriji’s work has gone through many stages in recent years.
“If you look at my artwork in 2018 and now, you will notice a big difference. My identity is showing more and my style is becoming more obvious. In 2018, you will find some mixed art styles in my paintings. As I grew up, however, my focus shifted to creating paintings that introduce my culture to the world, as well as honoring the Kingdom’s rich history.”
Al-Kheriji said that he draws inspiration from artists ranging from Picasso to contemporary American painter George Condo, as well as the natural environment.
“I am most inspired by Pablo Picasso and George Condo because of their unique painting style that stands out from that of many other artists.”
Al-Kheriji’s work has been shown in galleries in London, Boston and Jeddah, and he plans to expand his exhibits in order to reach a wider audience and share his culture’s rich heritage.
“In 2015, I organized my first solo exhibition in Boston and, in 2017, I also showcased my artwork in London. In Saudi Arabia, I have been able to show my paintings many times, but since 2018 everything has been more digital.”
Al-Kheriji’s love of his own culture has been a constant throughout his career.
“When it comes to art, I am an Arab Muslim who is regionally focused,” he said.
“My art is focused on the region, whether it is Muslim, Saudi or Arab cultures. The only difference, I would say, is that Boston had an impact on me when I started taking art very seriously; you could say it was my turning point with art.”
Al-Kheriji encourages other artists to keep culture alive in their artwork. “I believe that art reflects culture and can build bridges between nations.”
He added: “Nowadays artists mistakenly try to learn and do whatever they consider other people will like.”
The artist is currently working on a collection exploring fashions and traditional clothing in regions of the Kingdom.
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia’s art scene has been expanding as more of the Kingdom’s young contemporary artists make a name for themselves.
“It’s definitely gaining more attention and becoming more popular,” Al-Kheriji said. “But I still think there is a long way to go. Recently, the Ministry of Culture organized great exhibitions around the Kingdom. That’s a good step and they are outdoing the private sector.”
Al-Kheriji hopes that new emerging artists will be able to show their artworks at various galleries.
Initial phase will focus on the Bedouin style of weaving
Updated 19 January 2022
JEDDAH: The Royal Institute of Traditional Arts has launched an apprenticeship program for traditional crafts.
The first phase of the initiative will focus on the Bedouin style of weaving known as Al-Sadu, and traditional mud-brick construction techniques.
The aim of the program is to revive and preserve traditional arts and crafts by transferring knowledge from master artisans to a new generation.
Prince Bader bin Farhan, the minister of culture and governor of the Royal Commission for AlUla, announced the initiative in a message posted on Twitter: “To keep it a #Living_Identity, the #Royal_Institute_of_Traditional_Arts launched the Apprenticeship Program in traditional Al-Sadu and mud construction tracks. #saudivision2030.”
Suzan Al-Yahya, the director-general of RITA, also highlighted the initiative on Twitter, writing: “We are honored to revive our traditional arts through the establishment and implementation of #Apprenticeship Programs over the course of 30 weeks, which depend on transferring skills and knowledge from senior artisans to apprentices through a unique relationship … while learning the craft, ensuring experience is exchanged in its authentic form.”
The availability of new markets for craft products is one of the country’s tourism opportunities.
Prince Bader said traditional crafts are part of the history of the Saudi community and must be preserved, developed and passed on to future generations, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The launch of the apprenticeship program marks an important step in the efforts to achieve this, he added, and will create job opportunities and support the plans of the Ministry of Culture in line with goals of Vision 2030.
Laila Al-Bassam, a professor at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh who specializes in the history of Saudi clothing, told Arab News that preserving the country’s heritage is best achieved by “paying attention to reviving and developing traditional and industrial crafts, raising awareness among citizens about the national and economic importance of the country’s heritage, as these crafts can also be one of the tributaries of human development that could accomplish self-sufficiency in some fields.”
She added: “Spreading awareness about the importance of traditional crafts is one of the requirements to revive them. It is also important to transfer them to the new generation as the availability of new markets for craft products is one of the country’s tourism opportunities.”
Other crafts will be added to the apprenticeship program over time, including binding and gilding, metalworking, Al-Qatt Al-Asiri (a type of interior wall decoration traditionally practiced by women in the Kingdom’s Asir region) and embroidery.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture announced on Twitter the launch of a related initiative that seeks the help of educators to safeguard Saudi intangible cultural heritage.
The ministry wrote: “The intangible cultural heritage initiative is an invitation to all teachers and lecturers in the Kingdom to participate in documenting and preserving the Saudi intangible cultural heritage.”
RITA is dedicated to the preservation and promotion, locally and internationally, of traditional arts as part of the Saudi national identity. It was established in Riyadh last year as part of the Quality of Life Program, in line with the aims and initiatives of Saudi Vision 2030.
The traditional Saudi craft of Al-Sadu weaving was added to the UNESCO intangible heritage list in 2020.It is described as a traditional form of weaving practiced by Bedouin women. Al-Sadu translates as weaving in a horizontal style.