Environment: will Saudi Arabia’s flag remain green?

On a lazy morning, in the family section at a local cafe overlooking the Jeddah Corniche (but during a non-familial gathering), a friend of ours was sharing the news that Saudi Arabia ranks fifth in the world on the list of most polluted countries. Although we are aware of the problem with environmental pollution in Jeddah, these news came as a complete shock to us.

In all of Saudi Arabia, the environment faces many challenges. The country is one of the largest producers and exporters of petroleum in the world, with much of the oil industry centred in Jeddah with its estimated 3.4 million people, around 14 percent of the kingdom’s population.

Between 2004 and 2009, the inhabitants increased by 2.3 percent. In addition to the city’s Saudi population, there are an estimated 1,600,000 foreigners in Jeddah. They represent 47 percent of its total population; the highest rate of foreign inhabitants in the entire kingdom. The young generation, those aged between 20 and 34, currently represent 43 percent of the population. With the continued population growth and the arrival of more migrants, rates of consumption are likely to increase dramatically in Jeddah. This will result in even higher rates of pollution over the next few years.

The average number of cars per Saudi middle-class household is two to three. Therefore, it is not surprising that the country suffers from high levels of vehicle exhaust, accounting for the 50 percent of hydrocarbon pollution in the air. The public transportation system is poor, sewage systems in all of Jeddah are weak, and the population growth in the major cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam is rapid. These factors, adding to the oil-related industrial boom, contribute to very high pollution rates.

Another challenge for Jeddah and other Saudi cities is poor public awareness of the importance of environmental preservation. The government and the country’s environmental bodies still lack decisive laws and regulations to stall pollution and increase greenery in the kingdom. There is a lot that can be done by these different bodies, in agreement with other citizen-based organisations. Also, Saudi society is essentially a consumerist society, generating a mass of waste which is difficult to dispose of.

Despite all these challenges, some individuals take on the brave task of protecting the environment and fighting to save what is left of it. The Naqua’a project is one such attempt. For three years now, Norah Mograby, Mona Othman and Muna Amer have been struggling to establish partnerships with different Saudi institutions and companies to raise awareness about the environment and how to ensure sustainability of natural resources. They also organise workshops for schools in order to enhance the green awareness among the younger generations.

The idea for Naqua’a was born five years ago, when Norah, Mona, and Muna found that they shared a common interest. It was during their undergraduate studies that they developed a concern for the environment. Together, they established the Green Society Club on the Dar Al-Hekma Collage campus. Their aim was to have the students more involved in preserving nature, something that they managed to do. The campus was turned into an eco-friendly one, after the three of them had convinced the college management that recycling and preservation of resources such as water, paper, and power, was important. With time, the club became a project aimed at promoting positive ecological change in Saudi society as a whole, and especially in the country’s private sector, where the global business mindset must take into account environmental concerns and corporate social responsibility. Naqua’a has had international success as well: the founders of the group were selected by the White House to represent Saudi Arabia in the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Right now, Jeddah is trying by all means, including the launch of civil initiatives and governmental statements calling for preserving the environment (or what is left from it) to retain its nickname “the bride of the Red Sea”. The question remains: is this possible?