UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival

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Saudi Arabia’s move to open up Hegra, in AlUla Valley, has restored a missing chapter in region’s history. (Shutterstock)
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Pololikashvili, left, says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been very supportive of the Kingdom’s tourism sector during the pandemic. (Supplied)
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Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.(Supplied)
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Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.(Supplied)
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Updated 10 November 2020

UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival

  • Secretary-general of World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) spoke to Arab News on a wide range of topics
  • Zurab Pololikashvili talked about new reality for tourism sector led by innovation and sustainability

RIYADH: The tourism industry in the Middle East and North Africa region has taken a drastic hit since the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

From Morocco in the west to Oman in the east, tourism has played a significant role in generating jobs and sustaining local economies in a part of the world famous for its holy cities, cultural heritage sites, sandy beaches and glittering metropolises. Ballpark figures of losses suffered by the sector run into billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), is cautiously optimistic that the Middle East can bounce back from the pandemic quickly and that Saudi Arabia has a vital role to play in the expected recovery.

“We really hope that with such strong partners and friends, we can make tourism a priority,” Pololikashvili said in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Arab News.




Pololikashvili, left, says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been very supportive of the Kingdom’s tourism sector during the pandemic. (Supplied )

Q: Tourism ministers of the G20 held a meeting in the first week of July to explore means to boost tourism. What, in your opinion, were the key takeaways?

A: Firstly, I would like to congratulate Saudi Arabia as the host of the G20 summit meetings. We started preparatory meetings in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had other ideas but decided to change the format.

As I mentioned, in April we had a very interesting meeting with the G20 ministers. We discussed how to restart tourism and how the industry can recover, both during and after the pandemic. G20 countries collectively account for more than 70 percent of the global GDP, of which tourism is a big part.

We created a crisis committee where we presented our vision and ideas. Saudi Arabia was a highly active member of this committee. We had five meetings. The objective was to prepare short-term and long-term plans on how to restart tourism.

The situation was evolving on a daily basis. It was a very uncertain moment to discuss the issue, but we finally received recommendations, protocols and guidelines for G20 member states on actions to take both during and after the pandemic.

The main topics will be discussed at the G20 meeting, where we will present two different projects led by Saudi Arabia, one of which concerns the empowerment of women in the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.




Pololikashvili was instrumental in developing tourism in Georgia when he was economics minister. (Supplied)

Sustainable development is another one of the main goals of our discussion in Riyadh. Unfortunately, it will be the first time the G20 tourism ministerial meeting will be held via video conference, which is a challenge.

We will give a presentation on the future of tourism, in which the ministers will discuss how we are going to adapt to new lifestyles, new economies and new challenges that we will face after COVID-19.

I will do my best to be in Riyadh during this meeting and conduct it with His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Saudi Arabia’s minister of tourism, and the G20 ministers.

Q: The pandemic has led to an unprecedented drop in tourism demand. International tourist numbers will fall by 60 to 80 percent in 2020, according to UNWTO future scenarios. How can the industry become robust again?

A: The most important thing is health. Let us see how the pandemic plays out in the coming months. We are truly optimistic that step-by-step, borders will reopen.

The two main components necessary to restart tourism are reopened borders and a return to the connectivity that we had before.

 

 

Currently, many airline companies are in trouble without connectivity because 70 percent of visitors travel by airplane. Recovery depends on how fast connectivity can restart and how soon borders reopen, but also on how the pandemic will be evaluated in different parts of the world.

The situation is changing every day. I will be very honest: It is impossible today to make a forecast for the next year.

There is much uncertainty. While we can’t predict entirely what will happen, we will be better prepared for what comes in 2021.

If everything goes smoothly, I think 2021 will be much better than 2020, which was a disaster year for the tourism sector. I am sure that in 2021 we will come back with much better figures than this year.

Q: You recently spoke with the Saudi tourism minister and praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to restart tourism. What impressed you about the Kingdom’s plans?

A: I forgot to mention that the third part of the G20 summit discussion will concern jobs and skill-building.

We are talking about creating one million new jobs in Saudi Arabia through tourism, so we will need trained and well-prepared new professionals. We embarked on a monumental project about eight months ago to this end.

We have a special Saudi program that will be launched at the end of September. The idea is to be ready, after two or three years, to prepare young men and women who will be involved in this mega project, in which Saudi Arabia is investing over the next five to six years.




Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb at Al-Ula. (Supplied)

The project aims to create an educational hub for the Middle East in Saudi Arabia. We will thus focus a lot on education, which is a big part of tourism. Without a professional and well-educated workforce, it is impossible to develop tourism.

Q: Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up 80 percent of global tourism, so they are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19-linked downturn. What can governments around the world do to ensure their survival?

A: Starting from the first day, we issued recommendations and asked countries and member states to support the private sector, especially SMEs, which are still in big trouble.

We always use Saudi Arabia as an example. From the very beginning, the government led by His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom I had the honor of meeting, has been very committed to the tourism sector.

At a time when financial investments in SMEs and millions of jobs are at risk, Saudi Arabia is one of the best examples we can show to other member states to encourage them to support companies, entrepreneurs and people involved in the tourism industry. Saudi Arabia’s financial support is crucial for people in the SME sector.

We know this is neither easy nor cheap, but it is a smart and important decision to help the sector survive.

We are working on a lot on innovation. We want to export Saudi talent outside the country. We believe that there is an abundance of creative people and ideas in the sector, and we want to give them an opportunity to showcase their projects globally.

IN NUMBERS

  • 67 million - Fewer international tourists as of March 2020.
  • $80 billion - Lost exports over the same period.
  • 60-80% - Projected decline over the whole year.
  • 100-120 million - Direct tourism jobs potentially at risk.

Q: What are your thoughts on the latest Saudi domestic travel packages as a summer offer?

A: After the pandemic, I think people will start to travel domestically, not only in Saudi Arabia but also across the rest of the world.

That means that, in a period of one and a half years, people will travel more within countries than abroad because there are still many closed borders and restrictions on travel.

People will use their holidays to travel inside their countries, which will be also beneficial for these local destinations.

We declared this year as the “Year of Rural Tourism” without knowing that a pandemic would happen. The idea was to promote regional tourism development and create new jobs there. In Saudi Arabia, you have mountains, the Red Sea and cultural tourism.

All these destinations offer Saudis the opportunity to travel inside the country. Step by step, tourism will develop and become an important part of Saudi life.

Q: As the minister of economic development, you helped tourism kick off in Georgia. What advice do you have for Saudi Arabia, a country that just last September began welcoming international tourists to its UNESCO sites, only to be forced by the pandemic to put its plans on hold?

A: I think the first very step Saudi Arabia took to open its borders and make the country more accessible was an important one.

The second step is connectivity. Saudi Arabia has excellent opportunities and the capacity to become a new hub for the region in the coming years. It has created tourism products such as cultural tourism. The Red Sea and Neom are other excellent opportunities to invest in.

Every time I travel to Riyadh, I feel at home. The people are very friendly, and the country is opening up more in a sense.

Different factors will make Saudi Arabia attractive to tourists and travelers: diverse destinations, educated staff, high-quality services and the presence of more international companies’ representatives in the Kingdom.

Q: Have you visited UNESCO World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia?

A: We visited the historical district of Riyadh, where it was planned to organize the G20 meeting. I also had the opportunity to travel to AlUla, which I found to be unique and one of the best UNESCO Heritage sites. From what I saw there, I am certain it will become a must-see destination.

People outside the Kingdom do not know the beauty of AlUla; it will be one of the most important assets to promote. I know the investments the Saudi government has made to the project in the past two years.

I remember being one of the first tourists when it had just opened up to visitors in February and March. I always say that once tourists and people recognize a destination, it does not need any recognition from international organizations. I am sure this will be the case for AlUla. A destination recognized by tourists means it is recognized by the whole world.




A bas-relief decorated with a lion dating from the fifth to first century BC found in AlUla Valley. (Supplied)

Q: Final question: Is there a road map for a rejuvenation of the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc’s tourism sector?

A: I think we have two international hubs in the Middle East: Dubai and Doha. Others include Bahrain, Oman and of course Saudi Arabia, which is the future of tourism. I see Riyadh and the whole country as another mega hub in this part the world.

I am sure that we will hear good news coming from the region in the future. I am also sure that one of the first regions to recover over the next two years will be Europe because it is concentrating a lot on tourism.

We have excellent news from Brussels in the form of financial support for all leading EU member countries.

If we compare the Middle East to other regions, it too is under control and in a good situation. This gives us hope that it will quickly recover and become once again a widely visited global destination.

************

Twitter: @HussamMayman


Saudi Cabinet calls for revival of Israel-Palestinian peace talks

Updated 01 February 2023

Saudi Cabinet calls for revival of Israel-Palestinian peace talks

  • Ministers calls on the international community to step up and play its part in the process
  • They also discuss the preparations for the Kingdom’s participation at this year’s G20 meetings

RIYADH: The Saudi Cabinet on Tuesday reiterated the need to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and called on the international community to live up to its responsibilities in relation to this and to help end the occupation, stop Israeli attacks, and ensure civilians are protected.

It came during the weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers at Irqah Palace in Riyadh, presided over by King Salman, during which members discussed the latest regional and international developments, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

At the start of the session, the Cabinet was briefed on a message sent to the king by the Algerian president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and a telephone call Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Ministers then discussed the preparations for the Kingdom’s participation at this year’s G20 meetings, in light of its desire to develop initiatives and solutions that can help address the challenges facing the global economy.

These include a joint framework initiative for debt treatment, and Saudi Arabia’s role in the implementation of the Financial Intermediary Fund for Health Security, including financial support of $50 million, to help prevent pandemics.

They also include the Kingdom’s work in cooperation with the Indonesian presidency of the G20 last year to develop a response to the global food-security crisis, and the implementation of those initiatives in partnership with India, which holds the presidency of the G20 this year.

Acting Minister of Media Majid Al-Qasabi said the Cabinet also reiterated the Kingdom’s condemnation of the burning of copies of the Qur’an in a number of European capitals.

Ministers welcomed the signing of agreements and memorandums of understanding during the Riyadh Global Medical Biotechnology Summit last week, he added, as well as discussions during the event that focused on developments in the sector, investment opportunities, and ways to consolidate and enhance the Kingdom’s leading position in this field, in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 to diversify the national economy through research and the development of scientific knowledge.

The Cabinet also noted the outcomes of the Municipal Investment Forum in Riyadh last week, during which investment portals were launched for Saudi cities, and 125 contracts and agreements worth more than SR12 billion ($3.1 billion) were signed, offering more than 5,000 investment opportunities for the private sector. During the event, about 200 projects for entrepreneurs were reviewed, and the largest investment opportunity of its kind in the outdoor advertising sector was launched.

Ministers approved a cooperation agreement between the Saudi and Uzbekistan ministries of energy, and another one between the Saudi Ministry of Education and Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education.

They authorized the minister of culture to sign a draft memorandum of understanding for cultural cooperation with the Ministry of Crafts, Culture, Hotel Industry and Tourism in Mali, and approved a memorandum of understanding between the Saudi and Senegalese governments for cooperation to encourage direct investment.

The Cabinet also approved a MoU on desalination cooperation between the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, and authorized the minister of health to sign a draft MoU for cooperation with the Tunisian Ministry of Health.

The minister of media, and chairman of the board of directors of the General Authority for Audiovisual Media, was authorized to sign a draft MoU with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in India, and the president of the Islamic University of Madinah to sign a draft MoU with the Islamic Development Bank Group.


Saudi Arabia strongly condemns Pakistan blast, offers condolences for victims 

Updated 31 January 2023

Saudi Arabia strongly condemns Pakistan blast, offers condolences for victims 

  • Saudi Arabia says it stands by Pakistan against all forms of violence, extremism
  • Blast inside mosque in northwestern Pakistan killed over 80 people on Monday

ISLAMABAD: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday strongly condemned a bomb blast that took place in northwestern Pakistan, killing over 80 people and injuring several others, saying that it stands by the people of Pakistan after the attack. 

Eighty-three people were killed and over 50 were injured when a blast ripped through a mosque located in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday afternoon, during Zuhr prayers, a hospital spokesperson confirmed. 

The mosque was located inside a compound where the headquarters of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police is located. Militant groups have stepped up attacks against security forces in Pakistan ever since a fragile truce between the Pakistani Taliban and the state broke down last year. 

A senior Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander claimed responsibility for the Peshawar blast. However, hours after the attack, the TTP released a statement distancing itself from the episode, saying that it did not target the mosque. 

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's strong condemnation and denunciation of the terrorist attack that took place at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan," Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. 

The Kingdom stated its "firm position" against targeting places of worship and shedding the blood of innocent citizens. "The Ministry also affirms that the Kingdom stands by the brotherly Islamic Republic of Pakistan against all forms of violence, extremism, and terrorism, regardless of its motives or justifications."

Saudi Arabia condoled with the families of the victims and wished a speedy recovery to the injured. 


Saudi Arabia condemns ‘provocative’ Qur’an burning in Denmark

Updated 29 January 2023

Saudi Arabia condemns ‘provocative’ Qur’an burning in Denmark

  • The foreign ministry reiterates the Kingdom 'strongly rejects all these blatant acts'
  • Saudi Arabia calls on European governments to urgently address all these practices

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Saturday strongly condemned the burning of copies of the Qur’an by extremists in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, “in a new provocative step to the sentiment of millions of Muslims around the world.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated the Kingdom’s position, which “strongly rejects all these blatant acts that have unfortunately been repeated in several European capitals recently, under the pretext of freedom of expression, without a clear reaction toward stopping these practices.”

The Kingdom called on all European governments in which these extremist violations occurred, to urgently address all these practices that contribute to fueling hatred and conflict between followers of religions, the ministry said in a statement.

Rasmus Paludan, a far-right activist who holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship, already infuriated the Muslim world by staging a Qur’an-burning protest in Sweden on January 21. On Friday, Paludan replicated the stunt in front of a mosque as well as the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen and vowed to continue every Friday until Sweden is admitted into NATO.

Several regional and international organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim World League, Arab Parliament and Gulf Cooperation Council, also issued statements strongly denouncing the incident, along with Pakistan, Jordan, Turkiye and Oman.


Saudi Arabia’s Qemam festival becomes an annual showcase for the world’s mountain tribal cultures

Updated 28 January 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Qemam festival becomes an annual showcase for the world’s mountain tribal cultures

  • Asir’s historical palaces hosted bands and dance troupes from across the world for the week-long event
  • Traditions of highland communities were highlighted by the second edition of the festival for performing arts

ABHA: For centuries, mountain tribes have maintained their traditional way of life in some of the world’s most isolated places, preserving a distinctive linguistic and cultural heritage that is rarely seen or heard by wider society. 

That is why Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Asir region recently hosted the second annual Qemam International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts, inviting 14 international groups and 16 Saudi ensembles to share their unique dance and storytelling traditions.

A international musical ensemble performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

The week-long event, which closed on Jan. 27, is thought to be the world’s first festival dedicated to performing arts from mountainous regions, featuring acts from Morocco, China, South Korea, Switzerland and India, among other places, to explore their common themes of artistry.

Performances were held at Asir’s Malik Historical Palace, Al-Mushait Palaces, the Castles of Abu Nuqata Al-Mutahmi, Basta Al-Qabil, Abu Shahra Palace in Al-Masqi, Shamsan Castle and Bin Adwan Heritage Village.

 

 

Festival-goer Abdullah Al-Shehri rarely finds opportunities to expose his 4-year-old, Fahad, to his family’s Moroccan heritage. He was therefore thrilled to attend a performance of the Berber ahidouss dance by a visiting Moroccan folk troupe.

“This festival calls for people to see something new. There’s definitely much to see,” Al-Shehri told Arab News.

Abha was the first city in the Kingdom to win the Capital of Arab Tourism title in 2017. The Qemam festival is only the latest event in the region’s cultural calendar that is proving a draw for domestic and foreign tourists alike.  

“I think the program will make Saudi Arabia an international center for mountain performing arts as it’s going to be an annual event and attract more and more participation from around the world. Hopefully, it will attract more tourism as well,” Sultan Al-Bazei, CEO of the Theater and Performing Arts Commission, told Arab News.

Last year’s festival saw a gathering of troupes from all of the Kingdom’s mountainous areas, from Tabuk in the north to Najran in the south. This year saw an expanded program, creating a cross-cultural dialogue between mountain cultures worldwide.

A international troupe performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

“This will make it a unique opportunity for researchers to study the similarities, if there are any, or the differences between the performing arts of the mountain areas around the world,” Al-Bazei said.

“We think that most of the body movements have similarities of some sort. It’s very important for people to see other cultures, how they celebrate with dances and songs of their own.”

At the festival’s opening ceremony, the various international troupes performed together as part of a cross-cultural parade.

“During this parade, some of the groups were dancing together, sometimes to the tunes and rhythms of the others, which actually makes the point that culture and art bring people together,” Al-Bazei said.

International troupes took part in the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts opening and parade. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Anthropologists and performers view folk dancing as a form of storytelling using a universal language. 

“It’s like art. For us, it lives in our blood. It’s not only history. This is life, and if you come to our performance, you will see that every dancer’s eyes are happy. It’s our happiness to dance,” Bachana Chanturia, artistic director of the Georgian National Ensemble, told Arab News.

The group was first established in Sukhumi under the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in 1931 with the name Apkhazeti. It later relocated to Tbilisi, Georgia, after the 1992 war.

Composed of 70 members, the group uses music and dance to showcase Georgian history. In contrast with most traditional dance companies within the region, the ensemble innovates traditional folklore by incorporating new trends, concepts, and modes of storytelling.

 

 

At the Qemam festival, the group performed a 20-minute show at the Shamsan Historical Palace consisting of three dances — shvante, chamba and vazha — earning perhaps the biggest round of applause of the entire festival.

Using quick, dynamic motions, the mixed-gender dance troupe’s performance tells the story of the Svanetians, a people of the highland region of Svaneti in northwest Georgia, near the border with Russia — a Caucasus area characterized by snow-capped peaks and deep gorges.

A international ensemble performs during the Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

The group’s performance then transitions into a traditional Abkhazian dance, telling a thrilling story of a competitive horse race over the mountains, complete with equestrian clothing.

The dance is an emblem of love, courage, respect for women and competition through the imitation of mountain wildlife. The routine ends with the Vazha mountain sequence originating from Georigia’s Khazbegi region.

In Georgia, artistic performances are woven into the fabric of the community. From the age of 5 or 6, children are taught to dance, sing and play musical instruments and are later encouraged to join one of the many professional dance groups.

Musicians from various parts of the world take part in the Qemam International Festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

From the mountain city of Baysun, Uzbekistan, the song and dance ensemble Navbakhor brought the traditional Soul of Baysun dance to the peaks of Abha.

“It’s a special dance where they imitate some instruments, (wear special) hats, and each movement has an idea. It’s not just a dance, it’s a philosophy of the region of Uzbekistan,” Alibek Kabdurakhmanov, who heads the ensemble, told Arab News.

Under the Uzbekistan State Philharmonic, the group works to popularize the musical and choreographic arts of the country. Its members wear bright traditional clothing made from colorful shades and embroidered with gold thread.

According to Kabdurakhmanov, the group’s aim is to encapsulate the energy and universal message of peace embraced by the people of Baysun.

A Saudi artisan showcases her work as part of the festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Kabdurakhmanov commended the Saudi Ministry of Culture for establishing the mountain performing arts festival and for prioritizing the preservation of cultural heritage.

“I think you will do very important things,” said Kabdurakhmanov. “When Uzbek nationals visit for the first time, they will see your history, your traditions, your culture, and take some part of you and bring it back to our country.

“I think it’s the most important part of development, and people in Saudi Arabia will see other cultures. It’s good for integration.”

A Montenegrin group presented a dance titled, “The dance from old Montenegro,” representing the region’s mentality, communicated through bird-like movements between mountain peaks.

A Montenegrin troupe performs “The dance from old Montenegro.”  (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

Led by artistic director Mirsad Ademovic, members of the Montenegrin Cultural and Artistic Association Ramadan Sarkic wore national costumes from all over the region, including several museum pieces.

Montenegro itself is a multicultural nation, home to many Albanians and Bosnians. The incorporation of various identities has been crucial to maintaining peace in the Balkan region, Ademovic told Arab News.

He says the festival offered an opportunity for Montenegro and Saudi Arabia to connect through the art of storytelling.

Saudi artists perform the traditional sword dance as they lead the parade during the opening day of the Qeman International Festival in Abha. (Huda Bashatah/Arab News)

This year’s event featured Saudi folk dances including the ardah, a form of performative martial arts widely performed in the Asir region and inspired by historical battles, now reimagined as a tool for storytelling.

“Folklore is greatly appreciated by many viewers and visitors, conveying to them the remarkable nature of the region and its past,” Abdullah Al-Shaher, the ardah group’s coordinator, told Arab News.

“Such festivals preserve the Kingdom’s heritage in general and pass it on to future generations and invite everyone to be a member of the participating troupes to pass on what they inherited from their ancestors.”

 


Study on Saudi workplace wellness identifies key challenges, suggests solutions

Updated 27 January 2023

Study on Saudi workplace wellness identifies key challenges, suggests solutions

  • Report by Tuhoon, a Saudi tech startup founded in 2021, incorporates feedback from 4,000 employees
  • Culture surrounding mental health in the Kingdom appears to be improving despite limited available data

DUBAI: Although mental health issues present a significant challenge to productivity, a benchmark survey in Saudi Arabia has revealed yawning gaps between the services that human resources departments claim to provide and what employees believe is actually on offer, with employees largely unwilling to discuss workplace stress.

For the report, entitled “State of Wellness at the Workplace,” researchers talked to 4,000 employees in the Kingdom’s public and private sectors to assess where challenges arise in the workplace and how to fix them.

The study, which was compiled by Tuhoon, a Saudi tech startup founded in 2021, was carried out in collaboration with the Saudi National Center for Mental Health and the Ministry of Health. 

“The surveys were filled out anonymously, which made workers more receptive to talk about their issues,” Tuhoon CEO Fares Ghandour told Arab News.

“We found females are more willing to talk on a personal level but they opt out of discussing their mental health in the workspace as they do not wish to be perceived as weaklings. We also found workers above the age of 45 are less likely to talk about their mental health than younger generations.”

Tuhoon recently launched a smartphone app designed to help users improve their mental health, manage stress and get better quality of sleep through personalized, culturally relevant audio content.

This content includes meditation and mindfulness exercises, sleep stories, masterclasses, book summaries, deep-focus music, and emergency playlists. It is curated by doctors, clinical psychologists, and certified meditation and self-awareness coaches.

The study indicates that more than 80 percent of Saudi workplaces have no budget to support the mental health of their employees, despite the rising number of workers reporting a decline in their well-being.

The report says that the lack of mental health monitoring has taken a significant toll on the cultural and economic performance of many organizations, and the private sector is perceived as offering less assistance than the public sector.

According to the report, most workplaces are failing to prioritize the mental health of employees. It says that 78 percent of organizations do not measure their workers’ mental health at all, 82 percent have no dedicated resources for mental health services, and 52 percent do not provide health insurance cover for mental health.

It also says that at least four out of five employees experienced at least one mental health problem in the past year. The most common symptoms were anxiety, burnout and stress, as well as depression, relationship challenges and loneliness.

The available data on the issue of wellness in Saudi workplaces, including details of programs and benefits employers offer their workers, remains limited but the culture surrounding mental health does appear to be improving.

However, the Arab world in general lags in this regard which Ghandour says is why he founded Tuhoon.

“I have been investing in tech businesses for nine years,” he told Arab News. “I decided I wanted to build and invest in something I am passionate about, and the mental health cause is dear to me.

“I approached Dr. Naif Almutawa, a clinical psychologist, and Aymane Sennoussi, who became co-founders, and I put my time, energy and effort into making Saudi Arabia and the Arab world a happier and healthier place.”

Mental health problems are among the leading causes of disability worldwide, with depression topping the list. They can affect people regardless of age, culture and socioeconomic status.

The World Health Organization estimates a quarter of the global population will suffer a mental health issue at some point during their lives, and that about 12 billion working days are lost each year to depression and anxiety at an annual cost of $1 trillion in lost productivity.

The Tuhoon survey of Saudi workplaces posed the question: “How would you rate your mental health over the past 12 months on a scale, from 0 to 4?” It found that 24 percent of respondents ranked their mental health as below average.

Almost a quarter of respondents ranked their mental health below average, with 44 percent of Saudi women and 32 percent of Saudi men in the workplace prone to burnout. (Shutterstock)

Among the respondents, women were 62 percent more likely to develop a mental health problem than men, while 44 percent of women in work were found to be prone to burnout and anxiety compared with 32 percent of men.

The research also revealed that 57 percent believed work-related stress affected their mental well-being.

Of the 50 human resources departments that were surveyed, 59 percent said their organizations did not provide mental health insurance coverage, and 82 percent said their companies did not have an employee assistance program. EAPs are designed to help workers resolve professional and personal problems that might be affecting their productivity.

The results of the Saudi surveys compare with the findings of a 2022 workplace report entitled “Mental Health in America” in which one-third of HR professionals said their organization provided no mental health services to employees, 27 percent said their organization was not sure of the proper benefits to provide, and 18 percent said their organization was unsure of what plan or insurance to offer workers.

In the UK, according to a 2022 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, there is weak leadership on the issue of mental health in the workplace, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Figures show that only 29 percent of employers are able to spot early signs of mental health problems in their workers. Less than half (42 percent) of employers said that their leaders focus and encourage positive mental health by actions and behavior.

Good mental health is viewed as a key measure of prosperous and successful nations and organizations.

The Kingdom’s public sector scored higher (45 percent) than the private sector (36 percent) in terms of the proportion of employers that offered health insurance coverage that includes mental health services. Ghandour believes this is because the public sector plays such a major role in the Saudi economy, and so employees are looked after relatively well in an effort to maintain high productivity levels.

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According to studies by the Arab Barometer research network, however, more than half of residents in the Arab world find it hard to find decent mental health services. And globally, organizations struggle in the execution of HR policies designed to support mental health.

In 2019, the Saudi National Mental Health Survey found that 34 percent of people had experienced a mental health issue at some point in their lives, with blue collar-workers more open to reporting the challenges they faced than their white-collar counterparts.

It also found the most prevalent mental illnesses in the Kingdom were separation anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, social phobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Better-educated Saudis were more prone to such conditions.

Some 80 percent of respondents afflicted by a serious mental illness said they had not sought any treatment, while 8.9 percent said they had gone to a religious adviser or non-medical healer for help.

Experts say that to promote a healthier work culture, employers need to prioritize well-being, work to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and provide mental health coverage for employees.

Tuhoon believes workplaces need to start viewing mental health as a collective issue rather than an individual problem. It recommends nine cost-effective steps to improve workplace mental health and, as a result, boost productivity.

These steps include workshops to raise awareness of the issue, and webinars on topics such as stress management, dealing with burnout, and increasing connectivity between workers. It also suggests offering additional days off to increase morale, training managers to spot mental health problems in workers, and creating a more welcoming and trusting work environment.

I decided I wanted to build and invest in something I am passionate about, and the mental health cause is dear to me,” said Fares Ghandour, CEO of Tuhoon. (Supplied)

Furthermore, Tuhoon urges employers to promote workplace behaviors that reduce burnout by encouraging workers to take time off if needed, offering a more flexible work environment, promoting a healthy balance between work and personal life, and creating a “check in” culture.

Additional recommendations include encouraging employers to use mental health assessments as a tool to measure stress and challenges, and to connect workers with helpful resources if needed.

Tuhoon says mental health “first aid” courses could also provide staff with the skills they need to detect the early signs of stressors and provide solutions and rapid responses to help distressed workers.

This could further reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. Appointing “mental health ambassadors” would also contribute to more open and supportive conversations in the workplace.

Regarding the well-being of women in particular, Tuhoon urges employers to adjust workplace policies and encourage female employees to report harassment and sexual assault through the provision of a proper platform for doing so. Salaries and promotions must also be fairly determined regardless of gender.

Finally, employers and employees are encouraged to show gratitude in the workplace and introduce mechanisms through which workers feel able to talk about things or people they are grateful for inside and outside of work.

Tuhoon believes this could lead to enhanced job satisfaction, fewer sick days, the promotion of a positive and more trusting work environment, and increased productivity.