Saudi Arabia casts an allure for sustainability

Saudi Arabia casts an allure for sustainability

Illustration of Saudi buildings
Climate change leaves the Middle East especially vulnerable, and opens big opportunities for smart cities, clean energy and water innovations.

When U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia recently to collaborate on technologies to reduce emissions in the kingdom, it was just the latest of many initiatives making the Middle East an attractive place to do green business — with a cautious approach.

I recently spent 10 days in Saudi Arabia as communications liaison on an environmental project, arriving during the Future Investment Initiative, a new business conference referred to as the "Davos of the Middle East."

At the October conference, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced sweeping cultural and economic reforms and a more liberal approach to Islam. Soon after, he also initiated a controversial crackdown on corruption, which some see as a consolidation of power.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently said he’s "rooting" for the crown prince succeed in his reform efforts. One initiative is Vision 2030, aimed at reducing the country's dependence on oil and boosting private sector participation in water and electricity sectors. The first steps were outlined in the National Transformation Plan (PDF) for 2020.

Bin Salman also has launched an exciting project called NEOM — the creation of a $500 billion, environmentally friendly megacity 30 times the size of New York. This business and industrial zone will extend across Saudi borders into Jordan and Egypt and will highlight wind and solar energy.

The timing is excellent. Saudi leaders understand that environmental degradation is expensive, and pollution reduces quality of life. According to the recent Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) report, Arab Environment In 10 Years, Arab region countries account for more than 5 percent of the world's population, yet they only have 1 percent of the global water resources. It is projected that by 2030, the effects of climate change will have reduced renewable water resources by 20 percent.

Further, the conflict and migration within the region are reflected in the utility issues; the total amount of electricity consumed in the region increased by more than 75 percent between 2006 and 2015. 

With this strained natural resource base, the region is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The Saudi government is examining its environmental policies and practices, and indeed, action must begin at home. A 2013 study indicated that government operations themselves were responsible for over 80 percent of environmental violations on Jeddah's coastline.

Fortunately, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking serious notice — and that's where the business opportunity comes in. The Saudi General Authority for Meteorology and Environmental Protection (GAMEP)'s 2017 State of the Environment Report notes: "Moving to green, smart and sustainable cities and increasing green areas and trees will help absorb pollutants, mitigate the impact of dust storms, make use of treated wastewater, and serve as a basin of carbon dioxide. Green areas will ensure a healthy and safe environment for the community."

Clearly there's potential for global companies to provide products and services to help Saudi Arabia reach its environmental goals. Smart buildings, such as the new King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre, showcase energy, water and environmental materials. At the end of December, the Saudi Green Building Forum will release its outlook for business in the kingdom.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia can be a challenging place to work. Limitations include ongoing political issues, strict restrictions for women and business constraints.

But pressure toward sustainability is increasing. The AFED report included a survey indicating that 95 percent of the 22,000 respondents in the Arab region believe that their country is not doing enough to tackle environmental challenges. And as with everything Saudi, religion is a strong motivation for environmental change: Islamic beliefs indicate that natural resources must be sustainably managed in ways that ensure their availability to future generations.

Perhaps most telling is that more than 60 percent of the Saudi population is younger than 30 and highly educated: The adult literacy rate of Saudi Arabia reached 95 percent in 2015.

With a young, highly motivated population, environmental progress should be on the way.