How the Saudi Green Initiative seeks to turn the desert green

Special Thee Ain, top left, in the Kingdom’s south features native flora of the region. (Shutterstock)
Thee Ain, top left, in the Kingdom’s south features native flora of the region. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 14 November 2022

How the Saudi Green Initiative seeks to turn the desert green

How the Saudi Green Initiative seeks to turn the desert green
  • The plan unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2021 seeks to plant 450 million trees by 2030 
  • The initiative seeks to halt desertification, preserve biodiversity and preserve limited water resources

JEDDAH: Although the majority of Saudi Arabia’s terrain is covered by desert, a surprisingly large number of indigenous plant species are able to withstand the harsh climate. Now, under the umbrella of the Saudi Green Initiative, efforts are underway to preserve, and even increase, the amount of vegetation across the Kingdom.

From its desert vistas in the north to the southern region of Asir, the Kingdom is home to an abundance of vegetation, including more than 2,000 wild plant species belonging to 142 families. According to the Saudi National Center for Wildlife, however, about 600 of thee species are classified as endangered and 21 are already thought to be extinct.

The SGI, announced in March 2021, is the largest afforestation project the country has ever seen, with a target of planting 450 million trees by 2030. By the end of 2021, about 10 million trees had already been planted across all of the Kingdom’s 13 regions.

When one thinks of Saudi Arabia, forests might not be the first type of ecosystem that springs to mind. However, the Kingdom has about 2.7 million hectares of woodland, primarily in the remote southwestern highlands of Abha and Asir.

On the face of it, the goal of planting 450 million trees may sound ambitious, to say nothing of the planned greening of the desert, especially given the frenetic urban expansion the Kingdom is witnessing.

But in fact, to counter the potential harm of urban sprawl, the Saudi government has set specific SGI goals to incorporate green spaces harmoniously into urban expansion, including parkland and afforestation within the limits of the Kingdom’s desert cities.

Wild plants, such as the blood lily, contribute to protection of Saudi Arabia’s unique biodiversity. (Supplied)

The greening of unmanaged surfaces within these cities will not only help to curb rising temperatures but also cut carbon dioxide emissions, improve air quality, provide opportunities for more active lifestyles, and beautify cities in a sustainable way.

In more rural climes, meanwhile, the greening efforts have to work against encroaching desertification, limited water resources and record-high temperatures, all of which are thought to be the result of climate change caused by humans.

The SGI road map sets out to halt and reverse desertification and soil degradation, preserve the Kingdom’s unique biodiversity, and maintain limited water resources in a nation where rainfall in scarce and groundwater is being depleted.

Currently, Saudi Arabia has 15 areas that are protected because of their biodiversity; 12 are on land and three of them are marine. The National Center for Wildlife proposes to increase that number to 75, 62 on land and 13 in coastal and marine areas.

The King Salman Royal Nature Reserve in northern Saudi Arabia covers about 6 percent of the Kingdom’s landmass. It includes mountain terrain, vast plains and high plateaus, and is home to about 300 animal species along with rare archaeological heritage sites, some dating back as far as 8,000 BC.

The reserve’s management has recently planted 100,000 seedings with the help and participation of volunteers in partnership with Maaden, a joint effort by the reserve’s authority and partners to contribute to SGI’s goals.​


* 2,000 wild plant species are native to Saudi Arabia, belonging to 142 families. However, about 600 are classified as endangered and 21 are already extinct.

* 15 areas are protected in the Kingdom because of their biodiversity, 12 on land and 3 marine. The National Center for Wildlife plans to increase the number to 75.

“We are committed to increasing the vegetation cover, as we have already achieved in planting 600,000 plants as well as having many seed-sowing campaigns to increase the vegetation in the reserve,” a KSRNR spokesperson told Arab News.

“The trees and shrubs are perennial plants that restore the desert-degraded habitats. These plants are native species to the desert habitats and are adapted to the desert’s harsh conditions, such as drought and high temperatures, and do not require excessive water for irrigation.

“The reserve’s strategic objective is to establish a seedling program that includes many projects, such as installing the main nursery.”

Nevertheless, water remains a major challenge for conservation work and greening schemes in the Kingdom. Over the centuries, inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula found ways to sustain life and survive droughts by digging freshwater wells. Over time, and in the wake of the Kingdom’s economic boom in the 1970s, Saudis turned to modern farming methods, increasingly tapping groundwater reserves.

Saudi Arabia and its journey to 10 billion trees - SGI is aiming to contribute to the largest afforestation project in the world.

With no rivers or natural lakes, and very little annual rainfall to replenish sources, Saudi Arabia established seawater desalination plants in its eastern and western coastal areas to support inland cities. Nevertheless, the demand for freshwater is growing and natural aquifers are fast depleting.

The Saudi government is therefore exploring ways to preserve its water resources and use them more efficiently so that they can continue to meet the demands of a growing economy while also keeping green spaces well watered.

Maria Nava, a scientific consultant for Greening Arabia at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Center for Desert Agriculture, told Arab News that the SGI’s strategic team is likely to tap into treated wastewater to irrigate newly planted vegetation.

Another goal, she said, is “to reduce rainfall loss to the sea or through sand infiltration by the implementation and improvement of water harvesting in the Kingdom and remediation of soil for water retention where needed.”

Plants in urban areas tend to need much more water and canopy cover to provide shade than those growing in mountain, wadi and desert climates, Nava said.

“This vegetation requires more water compared with desert trees, which are drought-resistant and have fewer leaves,” she added.

Under the Saudi Green Initiative, efforts are underway to preserve and increase plant life as well as tree cover across the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Given the Kingdom’s diverse topography, much will need to be done to restore arid or semi-arid lands, prevent soil erosion, retain water, farm using permaculture techniques, and plant vegetation that is tolerant of local conditions, including the growing threat of dust storms.

“All areas in the Kingdom are important and are treated as such,” said Nava. “Each action zone has been deeply studied and analyzed for its potential for tree growth, water availability and aftercare of the vegetation.

“Within the scope of each zone, the propositions are based on being sustainable and that the vegetation can be kept and enhanced in the future. It is not that some have more attention than others; it is more that some, because of weather, water availability, soil, topography, etc., have a higher potential to ‘host’ vegetation than others.

“Nevertheless, all ecosystem changes will affect others, which has also been considered. Each strategy has been thought out in order to be sustainable.”

Driven by necessity, Saudi Arabia is rethinking its water-conservation strategy. Given the ambitious goals of the SGI, a shift from irrigation with desalinated water to the use of treated water was recommended because of the energy demands.

A bitter apple. (Shutterstock)

“Desalination is more energy-intensive than wastewater treatment,” said Nava. “It is possible to reuse all the wastewater for irrigation since the water quality is good for it and there are already plans for this to happen in the Kingdom.

“Currently there is already some reuse of treated wastewater, and as part of the national water strategy the reuse of treated wastewater will reach 70 percent by 2030, with plans to increase this percentage in the near future.”

As the nation becomes more aware of its natural bounties, communities across the Kingdom are also beginning to more actively participate in efforts to achieve the goals of the SGI and achieve a greener future.

“The communities are the base for all the initiatives to become real and succeed,” said Nava. “It is highly important to engage and involve the people, hear their needs, understand their traditions and make them part of the decisions.

“The implementation of the SGI has to be based on three main pillars: social, economic and sustainable.”

Saudia reveals bold rebranding for a tech-infused future

Saudia reveals bold rebranding for a tech-infused future
Updated 2 min 6 sec ago

Saudia reveals bold rebranding for a tech-infused future

Saudia reveals bold rebranding for a tech-infused future
  • Top official says new look represents airline’s commitment to digital advancement
  • Saudia introduces option for female passengers to request seating next to other females

RIYADH: The unveiling of a new brand identity for Saudi Arabian Airlines is more than a change in its appearance, as according to a top official it is but a part of a huge transformation in the company’s approach in line with the ongoing digital transformation.

Khaled Tash, group chief marketing officer at Saudia, told Arab News on Sunday the new look represented the airline’s commitment to digital advancement and an array of new services and products in the pipeline.

He said the rebranding signifies the company’s embrace of the developing tech industry, reflecting the Kingdom’s broader ambitions.

The official said: “This is not about changing our logo or changing our colors.” It is, he added, more about improving our services and introducing new products.

“We are very keen to accelerate the transition…the overall reaction from the market” has been overwhelming, Tash said.

Elaborating on how the update reinforces the airline’s digital transformation, Tash noted that Saudia stands out as one of the pioneering airlines in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to integrate artificial intelligence into its customer experience.

“The Travel Companion is an AI-driven personal aide. When users access the Saudia app, it intuitively recognizes them without requiring manual data input and promptly aids with all travel-related queries,” elaborated Tash.

Highlighting its capabilities, he mentioned that users can ask Saudia’s travel companion bot for holiday recommendations, which will engage in an interactive dialogue to understand preferences before offering tailored suggestions.

Additionally, users can seamlessly book their flights directly within the chat interface when conversing with the travel companion, eliminating the need to navigate away from the conversation.

The AI-driven bot is slated for launch by the end of this year, coinciding with an enhanced version of the airline’s application.

“Digital transformation is not just a buzzword that we use, we aim to improve the customer experience using new innovations,” Tash stated.

He elaborated that, guided by that motto, the company has pinpointed 260 features and services for introduction or enhancement if they already exist.

The airline has also launched a VIP meet-and-greet service. Tash expects this addition to boost revenue from booking services by 10 percent.

In alignment with Arab culture, the airline has introduced an option for female passengers to request seating next to other female passengers on specific, long-duration flights.

Tash said the unprecedented growth in the Kingdom’s tourism sector is also proving to be fruitful for the airline and it is part of the ongoing transformation. He specifically mentioned the fact that Saudia is the first airline to begin operations to and from the Red Sea International Airport.

The marketing head also revealed that the airline has ambitious goals to more than triple its passenger count over the next seven years.

Clarifying the shift in Saudia’s vision, Tash mentioned that historically, the airline’s objective was to connect the Kingdom’s citizens to the world. However, the current goal emphasizes bringing the world to Saudi Arabia.

AlUla Date Festival garners $1.6m in auction sales

AlUla Date Festival garners $1.6m in auction sales
Updated 02 October 2023

AlUla Date Festival garners $1.6m in auction sales

AlUla Date Festival garners $1.6m in auction sales
  • Events will take place every Friday and Saturday through Nov. 11
  • The first-place, 2nd-place and 3rd-place winnerswill get prizes worth SAR 75,000, SAR 50,000 and SAR 30,000, respectively

RIYADH: The AlUla Date Festival has garnered SR6 million ($1.6 million) in auction sales since it began on Sept. 8, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

Organized by the Royal Commission for AlUla, the annual event is a celebration of the region’s culture and a boon for the economy. Events take place every Friday and Saturday until Nov. 11.

Now in its fourth edition, it includes awards for farmers for the quantity and value of their produce sold.

The winners will be selected by the royal commission, Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, National Center for Palm and Dates, and Agricultural Development Fund.

The first-place winner will get SR75,000 ($19,997), while the second- and third-place finishers will receive SR50,000 and SR30,000 respectively.

Saudi Space Agency to explore opportunities at 74th International Astronautical Congress

Saudi Space Agency to explore opportunities at 74th International Astronautical Congress
Updated 40 min 1 sec ago

Saudi Space Agency to explore opportunities at 74th International Astronautical Congress

Saudi Space Agency to explore opportunities at 74th International Astronautical Congress

RIYADH: The Saudi Space Agency will explore opportunities with global bodies at the 74th International Astronautical Congress, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

The event, which has over 6,000 participants every year, takes place Oct. 2 to 6 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

This year’s theme is “Global Challenges and Opportunities: Give Space a Chance.”

Saudi Arabia’s pavilion will showcase its astronaut program, history of exploration, and recent achievements in the industry.

It will also highlight the Kingdom’s cooperation with various international bodies.

The IAC’s mission is to highlight the latest advancements in the sector, and foster networking.

Frankly Speaking: How do US Jews feel about a Saudi-Israel deal?

Frankly Speaking: How do US Jews feel about a Saudi-Israel deal?
Rabbi Marc Schneier on Frankly Speaking. (Still image from FS video)
Updated 02 October 2023

Frankly Speaking: How do US Jews feel about a Saudi-Israel deal?

Frankly Speaking: How do US Jews feel about a Saudi-Israel deal?
  • Rabbi Marc Schneier says Jewish American community is “ecstatic” about the prospect of normalization of ties
  • Expects to see Israel, KSA, US Congress ‘on the same page’ on US arms sales to Kingdom, help with civilian nuclear progam
  • Explains his rationale for supporting Arab News’ “Why Riyadh?” campaign backing Saudi bid to host Expo 2030

DUBAI: The Jewish American community was “ecstatic” over a potential deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, according to Marc Schneier, a well-known American rabbi and an adviser to several Arab Gulf states.

Appearing in the first episode of a new season of the Arab News current affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” he said such a deal may be a step toward resolving the Israel Palestine conflict.

“I think we are very close. I believe we are on the cusp of seeing this rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he added.

Schneier praised the efforts of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who he said “represented himself in a very human, very personal way” in a recent much-talked-about interview with Fox News.

US broadcaster Fox News aired a two-day special last month on Saudi Arabia’s transformation, featuring an exclusive interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Fox News chief political correspondent Bret Baier was in Saudi Arabia for the program and the interview. (Supplied)

Speaking to Bret Baier of the US TV network, the crown prince revealed among other things that “every day we get closer” toward normalization of Saudi Israel relations.

“Very few people had the opportunity to really hear from him, particularly in English. And that connected with the audience,” Schneier said.

He noted that the crown prince’s comments on the future of Saudi Israel relations not only struck a chord with American Jews, but also with 16 million evangelical Christians in the US, many of whom had a strong positive opinion of Israel.

“I heard from some of my evangelical friends who are in the leadership of this group, how refreshing it is to hear from the great leader of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia his genuine desire and a dream to see a peace not only with Israel, but for a peaceful coexistence for the entire region,” he added.

US broadcaster Fox News aired a two-day special last month on Saudi Arabia’s transformation, featuring an exclusive interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Fox News chief political correspondent Bret Baier was in Saudi Arabia for the program and the interview. (Supplied)

However, Schneier felt that the purported demands from the Saudi side — removal of US restrictions on the sale of weapons, assistance with the creation of a civilian nuclear program in the Kingdom, and the creation of a written security pact — could present difficult but not insurmountable hurdles.

“Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US — be it the administration or Congress — would be on the same page,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

During the Fox News interview, the crown prince emphasized that a solution to the Middle East conflict would be a necessary component of any Saudi Israel deal.

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” he said when asked what it would take to get a normalization agreement.

Schneier said: “That’s the only hurdle that’s left on the table — not a very easy hurdle to overcome.”

Marc Schneier, a New York rabbi and an adviser to several Arab Gulf states, spoke to Frankly Speaking host Katie Jensen on a wide range of Middle East issues, notably progress toward Saudi-Israeli normalization but also the prospect of Israel-Palestinian peace and the hurdles in the path to achieving it. (AN photo)

He considered Jews not only in the US but around the world, including in Israel, as “being a bit naive and not appreciative of the importance of resolving this Israel Palestinian conflict once and for all.”

Schneier acknowledged that some within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly right-wing government may reject any type of peace deal in favor of further expanding Jewish settlements in Palestine. But he pointed out that right-wing leaders had a record of making peace.

He cited former American President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, ex-US President Ronald Reagan’s summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt as examples of diplomatic success achieved by more conservative political leaders.

“Often when it comes to these negotiations, when it comes to concessions, you need the people who are more to the right to lend credibility and legitimacy and authenticity to what would be a genuine and real peace. So, I’m not concerned about that.

“If the (Israeli) coalition agrees to the peace, I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to deliver on that peace.

“My question is, will the Palestinian leadership have that same credibility in terms of being able to deliver on that peace? Does the current Palestinian leadership have the support of the Palestinian people?” Schneier added.

This photo taken o on September 30, 2016, shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the funeral of Israel's former president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. (AFP/File)

For there to be “a genuine, real, authentic peace,” he said, “the question one has is whether or not the current Palestinian leadership can actually bring many of these promises and guarantees to fruition. These are some very, very difficult questions.”

Schneier suggested that Arab Gulf states could, and should, play a major role in ending the Palestine Israel conflict.

He said: “I don’t think that the Palestinian leadership could possibly arrive at some kind of resolution with the Israelis without the participation of countries like Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, like Bahrain, Qatar, and others.

“And Israel will need the assistance, particularly of the crown prince and Saudi Arabia, to deliver on this peace.”

In mid-September, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio that “there is certainly a likelihood” of details of a deal for forging Saudi Israel relations being “finalized” in the first quarter of 2024.

While Saudis were critical to the peace process, Schneier believed that the Kingdom may adopt an approach different from those taken by Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel.

“Maybe Saudi Arabia will take the UAE approach — an operating approach — ‘we’ll make peace now, then we’ll deal with the Palestinians later.’ I don’t believe that is the approach of the crown prince,” he added.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have never had formal diplomatic relations, though ties between Israel and several Arab countries have warmed in recent years. The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 saw the UAE and Bahrain normalize ties with Israel, followed by Morocco and Sudan.

In this photo taken at the White House in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2020, then US President Donald Trump attends a photo session with Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani (L), Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (2L), and UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) after participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords. (AFP/File photo)

The Abraham Accords have met with their own share of criticism. In an appearance on “Frankly Speaking” in May last year, former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, said there was “no evidence” that normalization had led to Israel being any more lenient on Palestinians.

Violence by Israeli settlers has been on the rise this year, with the UN recording 591 attacks by setters in the first six months of this year as opposed to 358 in the whole of 2020.

Schneier said: “It takes time for things to settle in. But I know people to people in Bahrain, in the UAE, in Morocco, in Israel, that there’s a very, very genuine and heartfelt feeling in terms of reaching out to the other.”

He described the Abraham Accords as “revolutionary” and “a natural progression for Muslims and Jews to be coming back together.”

Schneier has taken on an active role in Middle Eastern diplomacy, having facilitated a rapprochement between the presidents of Turkiye and Israel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Izaac Herzog, respectively.

“Before March 2022, the state of relations with Israel and Turkiye was one of conflict. Today is it one of great cooperation. So, yes, I’m very, very proud of the role that I played and looking forward to playing similar roles with other countries in terms of bringing the Muslim world closer to the state of Israel,” he added.

Schneier, a native New Yorker, is the president and co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which was established in 1989 with the aim of improving Muslim Jewish relations and Black Jewish relations.

A poll conducted by the FFEU and PSB Research poll in 2018 showed majorities of Muslims and Jews recognize the similarities between the two faiths. (Courtesy:

“My preoccupation is to find the path to narrow the gap, the chasm, the divide between 1.6 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews,” he said.

“At the end of the day, Muslims and Jews, we are family, we’re cousins. We may have had a few family disagreements, but there are no two other religions that have more in common and have that historic bond than Islam and Judaism.

“So, for me, it’s a natural progression for Muslims and Jews to be coming back together.”

And Schneier reaffirmed his support for Arab News’ campaign to back the Saudi bid to host World Expo 2030.

“I think people don’t appreciate what the Kingdom has done from an interreligious point of view.

“We know about all the changes, all the reforms, politically, economically, but you should know that Saudi Arabia was the first of the Gulf states to reach out to other states, reach out to the West from an interreligious point of view.”

In this photo taken on Nov. 26, 2012, representatives of various religious groups, international organizations, and the United Nations attend a photo session during an inauguration ceremony of the KAICIID Center (King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria. (AFP/File)

In particular, he lauded the role of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, founded in 2012 by the late King Abdullah.

“It was the King Abdullah Center that was the first interfaith religious center ever championed, ever founded, by a Gulf country,” he said.

Before agreeing to serve as the 2022 football World Cup’s interfaith adviser, Schneier called for direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha and the provision of kosher food at the world’s largest sporting event to ensure “Israelis were made to feel welcome there.”

He added: “I call it my bagel diplomacy. We brought the first bagels ever to Doha, to Qatar.”


Saudi Film Confex opens in Riyadh

Saudi Film Confex opens in Riyadh
Updated 01 October 2023

Saudi Film Confex opens in Riyadh

Saudi Film Confex opens in Riyadh
  • Experts discuss how industry can help boost national economy

RIYADH: The Saudi Film Confex opened on Sunday at the Riyadh Front Exhibition and Convention Center.

The four-day event, hosted by the Saudi Film Commission, seeks to promote the social, cultural and economic value of cinema and brings together industry experts, executives and investors from around the world.

During a discussion titled “Film as a Catalyst for National Economic Growth: Aspects and Features,” the panel explored ways to extend the influence of the film industry on other economic sectors, such as tourism, entertainment, technology and innovation.

Jason Cloth, the founder of film and TV financing company Creative Wealth Media, said the movie industry underwent significant changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people increasingly turned to streaming platforms.

“The pandemic changed people’s viewing habits,” he said. “We see box office numbers dropping a bit and transactional numbers increasing quite a bit. The bigger issue with the studio releases is the budget sizes.”

If box office numbers failed to improve, it would be difficult to release some large-budget films, he said.

Tariq Bin Ammar, a Tunisian-French film producer and founder of Quinta Communications, was also on the panel.

“For Tunisia, I spent a billion dollars in foreign currency with never any local finance, because we knew we didn’t have the money,” he said.

“As for Saudi Arabia, it does not need foreign consultants anymore. With all due respect for our American and English friends, Saudi Arabia is capable, and in a very few years it will be totally independent.”

He added: “When Italian, French, English or American producers and directors make movies they make them for themselves, for their people.”

In contrast, Saudi Arabia produced films for both local and international audiences, he said.

Nabeel Koshak, CEO of Saudi Venture Capital Co., said: “I would say the filmmaking movement in Saudi Arabia definitely has funding as a crucial component of this ecosystem.”

Over the past five years, the government had provided $2 billion in funding for the industry, he said.