Saudi Arabia bets the House on a greener planet

As the House of Saud marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of the Kingdom’s ground-breaking Vision 2030 project, Oliver Poole in Riyadh examines its impact and why success is needed if the world is to combat climate change

Sunday 25 April 2021 15:45
<p>Red Sea islands are opening up to sustainable tourism as part of Vision 2030</p>

Red Sea islands are opening up to sustainable tourism as part of Vision 2030

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here is no escaping the prevalence in Saudi Arabian life of Vision 2030, the hugely ambitious economic and social plan to transform the Kingdom that was launched five years ago today and the success of which will, within his own country, define the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Arrive at King Khalid International Airport and almost the first thing you see are huge advertising hoardings bearing its distinctive starred logo. Talk to senior officials and every proposal is explained in the context of how it contributes to the plan’s success. Roam the streets and the Vision 2030 branding is repeated across government institutions.

It is the defining economic and social narrative of contemporary Saudi Arabia: a mission statement broken down into 96 strategic objectives that in its approach mimics the documents produced by multinationals seeking corporate change. Here in the world’s second largest oil producer and the home to the Two Holy Mosques, however, it is being adopted to transform a country.

The plan’s genesis, unsurprisingly given its format, came from the work of management consultants. The Crown Prince, knowing the scale of the problems faced, contracted McKinsey, which in 2015 produced a report titled ‘Saudi Arabia – Beyond Oil’.

This warned that the realities of a changing global energy market, and a population boom that will lead to millions of young Saudis coming on to the job market in coming years, shock treatment was needed to wean the country off its dependency on oil revenues and create a thriving private sector.

Vision 2030 was launched by the then 30-year-old Crown Prince the following year to deliver just that shock. “We,” he promised his people, “will work tirelessly from today to build a better tomorrow for you, your children, and your children’s children.”

Now, five years later, how far is Saudi Arabia delivering on that promise?

To see for myself, I travelled to Sindalah Island in the Red Sea. Launched in 2017 as one of the first Vision 2030 projects, this formerly near-deserted island is at the centre of plans to make Saudi’s west coast into a tourism hub, attracting visitors from around the world and creating tens of thousands of jobs.

In many ways it can be seen as symbolic of Vision 2030’s ambition: investment in one of the world’s largest non-oil-producing sectors (tourism); one that challenges traditional Saudi Arabian approaches (the encouragement of international arrivals to behave, within limits, as if in the West); and, as I would discover, containing a commitment to sustainability that gives hope one of the world’s largest polluters is recasting its relationship with the planet – many of the anticipated visitors will be from the Gulf region rather than long-haul.

The Saudi Green Initiative features a pledge to plant 10 billion trees across the country, with five times that figure planted across the region as part of the Middle East Green Initiative

It is also, however, a vast investment running to hundreds of millions of pounds in a tentpole project that, like critics have warned of other Vision 2030s so-called ‘giga-projects’, may be a vast white elephant that looks good on paper but will not work in practice.

There is no questioning that the archipelago is a beautiful spot, one reminiscent of the most untouched of islands in the Gulf of Siam. The sea is the turquoise you marvel at in travel documentaries. The reefs, which are the fourth largest in the world, so close that the diving can rival Australia.

Development is occurring fast. Where there were once just sand dunes there is now the emergence of 11 hyper-luxury hotels designed by architectural companies such as Norman Foster’s. When I was there, pop up bars and restaurants had opened, the fish served fresh from the sea.

The question, of course, is whether it will attract the required visitors.

The scale of each composite part of Vision 2030 cannot be overstated. The development of Sindalah is only part of a broader strategy, called the Red Sea Project, which is planning to transform more than 90 islands off the Kingdom’s west coast into destinations for international tourists. The total area covered is some 28,000 square kilometres, roughly equal to the size of Belgium.

At its launch, the BBC joined other outlets in questioning whether the required numbers will want to choose it as their holiday destination. “Austere religious and social codes,” the broadcaster said, “have hardly proved enticing to tourists”. And on top of that, ongoing war in Yemen, which has led to more than 18,000 civilian deaths since 2015, and a crackdown on free speech by activists. To turn around the words of Kevin Costner’s character in Fields of Dreams, the risk is that in this case they build it, and no one comes.

The Project’s head, John Pagano, is bullish whenever questioned about its success, even despite the impact of the pandemic on tourism numbers. As the former managing director of London’s Canary Wharf business district, as well as the Baha Mar Development company, which developed a 1,000-acre resort complex on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, he has form on projects of such scale.

He predicts that around half the visitors will be from Gulf states, who will likely be attracted by the possibility of not having drunken Westerners around, and half from further afield, many of them families who may well feel the same. Pagano has regularly cited the climate, which is cooler in the summer months than Dubai and guarantees sun to the Europeans, and the luxury of the resorts as other key attractions.

“The next milestone is welcoming our first guests at the end of 2022,” he told business experts last year. “That’s what’s on the horizon. We’re working towards opening the resort, although not the full 16 hotels. We’re probably going to open five by the end of 2022, and then the balance will open in 2023. We’re committed to opening and welcoming our first guests.”

What Pagano also highlights, however, and what I had not realised until visiting the area, was how important sustainability is to what he says they are trying to do. He loves to talk about the marine biologists they have worked with to ensure the surrounding reef is not only undamaged but flourishes, and how it will be powered by renewable energy and recycle its own water.

Saudi Arabia has not got a good environmental record. It is one of the world’s top 10 carbon emitters. At the moment only seven per cent of energy production is clean. The government’s own figures warn that air pollution is shortening life expectancy in the country by 1.5 years.

Today the streets of the cities of Saudi Arabia remain packed with cars running on dirt-cheap petrol, and recycling seems often an alien concept with rubbish as likely thrown on the ground as a recycling bin.

It is why this talk of sustainability had surprised me. I had not previously realised the extent that it was intended that Vision 2030 was not only about social and economic change but environmental too.

This month the full scale of the authorities’ ambition in this regard went public. The Crown Prince announced two new initiatives which again demonstrated quite the bonkers scale of Vision 2030.

Calling them the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative, the Saudi leadership laid out how it was now planned to ensure that a billion hectares of land would be sustainably maintained by 2040. Ten billion trees would be planted in the Kingdom and 50 billion across the region; almost a third of the country made into protected areas; and 94 per cent of rubbish recycled.

But the part that really stuck out was the announcement that it was committed to eliminating 130 million tonnes of carbon emissions through using clean hydrogen technology, and ensuring that renewable energy made up 50 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s electricity by 2030. Even though it is unclear what this means for the primarily state-owned Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer, if these goals are delivered, this will not be the Saudi Arabia I or any of us have known all our lives.

The impact the initiative would have far beyond Saudi borders was a point the country’s Minister of Environment, Water and Agriculture, Abdulmihsen al-Fadhli, wanted to emphasise when he joinedThe Independent to answer our questions.

“The green initiative has many objectives on the national, regional and international levels,” he said. “On the national level, the initiative will play a major role in restoring the natural vegetation cover and combat desertification, one of the biggest challenges facing the kingdom and the entire region.

“Restoring vegetation cover will help biodiversity through restoring natural habitats, such as mountain forests, and help restore coastal and marine habitats, such as mangrove forests. It will contribute significantly to enhancing the quality of life and promote ecotourism in the kingdom. It will also support food security since it covers planting agricultural trees suitable to the local environment.

“On a regional level, the initiative will catalyse and significantly strengthen regional collaboration to combat desertification, which is impacting the entire region more than any region in the world. On the international level, the green initiative will be a major contribution to global efforts to combat climate change and restore biodiversity through a nature-based approach which has many known advantages.”

It is five years since Mohammed bin Salman announced his Vision 2030 plan for sweeping economic reform

He acknowledged that an approach of this scale would not be easy in a desert state. “Since Saudi Arabia is an arid region, the biggest challenge is how to achieve the very ambitious targets of the Saudi Green Initiative while maintaining the sustainability of water resources,” he admitted.

“We plan to face this challenge through multiple measures including using local plant species, which have adapted to the arid environment and do not consume large amounts of water. Also by using renewable water resources such as rain harvesting techniques and treated wastewater. We will also leverage innovation and best practices to reduce water consumption and keep it at a minimum.”

For decades, Saudi Arabia was labelled an ‘obstructionist’ in climate talks. In 2015 it was accused of trying to block the Paris Agreement. This month, the Crown Prince told his people: “We reject the false choice between preserving the economy and protecting the environment. Climate change will enhance competitiveness, spark innovation and create millions of high-quality jobs.”

The world is running out of time to deal with the climate emergency. This is not something theoretical. Scientists are clear that global carbon emissions need to decline around 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050. If that target is to be reached the world needs an environmentally conscious Saudi Arabia. The concern is if it really means it and whether it can deliver.

To judge that it is worth examining how other aspects of Vision 2030 have fared. It is perhaps the biggest bet on enforcing rapid social change occurring in the world today. This is resulting in the government challenging the previously all-powerful clerics, whose religious enforcers would patrol the streets with sticks, the leading families who together had controlled vast areas of the economy, and royal elites that wanted to block the possibility of change.

In 2017 the Crown Prince detained 500 of the most powerful business leaders in Saudi at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh until they handed over billions of pounds in cash and assets. It was called an anti-corruption drive but it above all cemented the Crown Prince’s control of the country. In this period of change, the stakes are high and the delivery ruthless.

But the core tenets laid out at Vision 2030’s launch are correct. The country does need jobs to be created, the private sector does need to be expanded, fresh investment is required in new sectors, and a diversified economy is the only hope as the world moves away from oil.

Since 2016 the country has spent a huge amount of effort and money seeking to deliver on those objectives. Some of this change has, controversially in a country so long ruled as a near-theocracy, been social; the extent of which it is often hard to grasp from the perspective of the West as the changes can seem so incremental from the familiar perspective of the social norms of our own lives.

You certainly still do not want to be gay in Saudi Arabia. A woman’s life in Riyadh is very different from that in London. But, in Saudi, the young people I talked with in private were giddy with the excitement and speed of how things have altered in the last five years.

Women for the first time have been able to travel or receive a passport without a guardian, and can no longer legally be fired from a job just for getting pregnant. They can drive. Cinemas have been reopened and, prior to the pandemic, men and women were allowed for the first time to mix at popular music and sporting events. International rap singers were invited in to perform. WWF matches held. The previously unimaginable had become reality.

For those of us like me from Europe, standards still fall far short of what any of us would consider acceptable – or even tolerable. This remains a highly repressive country. Activists continue to be arrested, including Manal al-Sharif who helped lead the campaign to let women drive. The state has strict surveillance on its people, whether when walking the streets or accessing the internet.

Flogging is a punishment often administered for crimes, torture used by the police and, even though changes have been made, the law still ensures that women are subordinate to men, particularly in family matters such as divorce or inheritance.

But, for Saudis, the change that is occurring has been revolutionary. Above all, I was repeatedly told how the religious police had been defanged and their presence on the streets significantly diminished. The fear of them was vanishing. Whatever one feels about the Saudi state, there is good news for its citizens. There may be a long way to go but, in the aspect of social change, which is perhaps the most politically dangerous of Vision 2030 internally, words have meant actions.

It has to be hoped the same proves true for the Green Initiative. Like much of Vision 2030, the ambition is mindboggling, so much so that it is impossible not to question its viability. Again like the plan to turn the west coast of Saudi Arabia into a tourist haven, it initially seems ridiculous. But again, like I saw on Sindalah Island, money is already being poured into trying to make it happen.

In the northwest of Saudi Arabia is the oasis town of Sakaka. Its historic heart looks like something from Beau Geste, with the castle at its centre made of stones piled together into walls overseen by a conical three-story keep. Outside the town, however, the desert glistens not with sand but with row upon row of solar panels, stretching into the distance. For this ancient spot is ground zero of Saudi Arabia’s pledged green future.

It is the home of Saudi Arabia’s second solar project, built at a cost of £250m and created by a Japanese-joined consortium. Seven more similar sites are now being tendered for at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. Like with so much about Vision 2030, change is starting, but a lot more will be needed to be delivered to achieve the scale of what has been promised.

“Coming from the world’s biggest oil producer, this is a bold statement,” UAE-based climate consultant Tanzeed Alam said of the Saudi’s Green Initiative announcement. At present only Iceland and Norway get more than 50 per cent of energy from renewables, he added. In Saudi in 2017, renewables made up just 0.02 per cent of the country’s final energy consumption. There is “a lot of work to do”, Mr Alam warned.

Under Saudi Green Initiative pledges include a reduction in carbon emissions from the country’s own energy use, with the expansion of solar farms

Many aspects of what Vision 2030 set out to do has yet to be achieved in the first five years. Critics point to how unemployment has gone up to 15.4 per cent, far from the target set of 7 per cent. They point to how the government has often prioritised glitzy megaprojects rather than enacting ambitious-enough reform to encourage state-free entrepreneurship.

And they point to how, although many foreign firms remain as keen as ever to do business with Saudi Arabia and access its investment reserves, few have yet to risk spending their own money to invest in the country, despite hyper-lavish investment events like the annual so-called ‘Davos in the Desert’.

In 2016 the Crown Price talked of Saudi no longer being dependent on oil revenues by 2020. The impact of the drop in oil prices caused by the pandemic on the country’s economy showed how far off that objective remains.

But for many Saudis, the first five years of Vision 2030 has seen life improve. The social changes, though far short of what may be hoped, have liberalised ultraconservative norms. Economically, despite the headwinds caused by the Corona virus and subsequent governmental budget cuts, much of the red tape that previously hampered the development of small businesses has been removed.

Above all, in a country where more than two thirds of the population is aged under 30, it still is delivering progress to the new kind of country that young Saudis continue to dream of. When you talk with senior state figures, they readily acknowledge in private that this support by the young is the crux to the present regime’s security. Without them, the ultraconservative religious and business elements could stop – or even rescind – the gains achieved.

“We want a normal life,” the Crown Prince told a conference in Riyadh shortly after being appointed. “A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness. Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 year of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once.”

Vision 2030 may not have delivered its lofty ambitions so far but it is not just an economic plan. It is at the heart of a generational battle to determine the future shape of the country.

Saudi officials maintain that Phase One of the project, as they call the last five years, has created a baseline for what will come next and that expanding the private sector is the focus of Phase Two. “The next five-year stage is the stage of launching and building on what we have accomplished,” the government’s own 5th anniversary assessment states, “and in it we look forward to realising the economic transformation that is based on people, which is the wealth of this country.”

Whether that succeeds will help determine the nature of the future of Saudi Arabia and the lives of its people. But whether its Green Initiative succeeds, and whether the country manages to hit the carbon targets laid out in it, will help determine the future of the planet.

Such is the scale of the stakes that surround the experiment being undertaken in Saudi Arabia and the scale of the bet that the regime has placed on it. At its launch five years ago, the Crown Prince promised Vision 2030 meant a “better tomorrow” for his people. As sea levels continue to rise, on its success and its commitment to a non-petroleum-centred future for the kingdom will depend not only Saudi Arabia’s future but also inexorably our own.