AlUla Dates Festival spreads sweetness in ancient Saudi city

The AlUla dates market has recently seen an increase in demand, and the festival facilitates growth for local harvests into the international market by connecting local farmers to international visitors and investors. (AN photo by Abdullah Aljaber)
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Updated 23 October 2021

AlUla Dates Festival spreads sweetness in ancient Saudi city

  • The festival kicked off with the first date auction of the season early Friday morning

ALULA: The second edition of the AlUla Dates Festival is underway at the Kingdom’s famous ancient city. 

The three-week date festival takes place in the Al-Fusan area directly opposing the famous Elephant Rock, and is split into two segments: The dates auction and the dates souq, both only open during the weekends of Oct.15-Nov. 1. 

Many know AlUla to be a maze of history and breathtaking desert terrain, but not many people know that hidden between the curves of the desert terrains are over 2.3 million palm trees that produce 90,000 tons of dates annually. 

The AlUla dates market has recently seen an increase in demand, and the festival facilitates growth for local harvests into the international market by connecting local farmers to international visitors and investors.

Felix Riess, a strategy consultant visiting AlUla from Germany, said: “It’s a beautiful and historic place, it’s great to see the ambitions for AlUla. It’s currently at the crossroads of something very historical, towards something that keeps the history in mind while building for the future, it’s a great mix.” 

The festival kicked off with the first date auction of the season early Friday morning. As the sun rose, farmers unloaded their harvests off their trucks and onto the auction site. 

Crowds gathered around to take part in the dates auction, that happens three times during the festival. The bids differ from harvest to harvest depending on quality and size of crop. 

Not too long after the first announcement, the bids began rolling in. Chants of numbers and outbuildings were shouted through the air as boxes of dates were shifted around. 

The early dates auction is definitely a great place for buyers and sellers to connect, but it is also an exciting experience for families and tourists to witness. 

“What we saw today was a really authentic experience of how local wholesalers get the dates from this well known place in AlUla. It was very cool and I have never seen anything like this before and we enjoyed it,” Riess told Arab News.

Christian Keller, another German strategy consultant, added: “It’s always nice to see the combination of the old world and the new world and keeping up with it. Culture is about the people coming to AlUla and viewing it and the residents still valuing and carrying on what they have done years before, and now that you bring in new people like the tourist and visitors, they can experience it. Its culture was brought to life.” 

Following the dates auction, in the early hours of the morning, is the souq, which consists of separate booths of local farmers and bakers selling their wares. There are also sections dedicated to investment and international collaboration for information. 

The souq offers many family activities for locals to enjoy including the traditional Saudi Ardah dance to ring in the celebrations, as well as a children’s theater performances. 

These two events only take place once in the evening of the souq, but throughout the shopping experience guests will be able to listen to a live oud player in the center of the souq. 

The festival also serves another purpose alongside sharing culture. His Highness Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, governor of the Royal Commission for AlUla Governorate, aims to promote the important role agriculture plays in economic development of the region in line with the Vision 2030 goals. 

The event not only highlights the work of the AlUla’s farmers but also promotes and inspires commercial opportunities for farmers and buyers alike. 

Behind the festivities are dozens of hardworking AlUla natives who have spent generations harvesting dates. 

The festival creates a hub for exchanging expertise, and growing collaborations that will in part diversify the economy and create more job opportunities for young people in tourism, hospitality and the cultural sectors. 

AlUla is undiscovered history in its purest form. Visitors have the opportunity to experience the beauty and tradition of the area, from the festival to the desert to the nearby Old Town. 

The Old Town is a treasure trove filled with all things AlUla from historical and handmade crafts to souvenirs to take back to loved ones. 

One of the more infamous stores located in the Old Town is Desert Designs.  

“We have had a very positive response from the international public, we have had a lot of good responses from Japanese, American, Chinese, Europeans. All sorts of people seem to like our store and the items we provide,” Radi Bukhari, Desert Designs general manager, said.

“We take old silver Bedouin pieces, give them a new life and then we frame them for appreciation. We take Saudi culture and try to give it new life and appreciation not just for foreigners but for Saudis as well,” Bukhari said.


Saudi Arabia extends residencies, exit-entry visas

Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia extends residencies, exit-entry visas

  • The extension, issued by the Minister of Finance, is part of the Kingdom’s efforts to address the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • It will be carried automatically in collaboration with the National Information Center, without the need to visit the passports directorate

The Saudi Passport authorities started automatically extending the validity of residency permits (Iqama) and exit and re-entry visas without charges until March 31, 2022, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.

The extension, issued by the Minister of Finance, is part of the Kingdom’s efforts to address the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will be carried automatically in collaboration with the National Information Center, without the need to visit the passports directorate or the Kingdom’s missions abroad.

The validity of residency and exit re-entry return visas will be extended for residents who are outside the Kingdom in countries from which travel was suspended due to a COVID-19 outbreak until March 31, except for those who have already received one dose of the vaccine inside the Kingdom before they departed.

The validity of visit visas will also be extended until March 31 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for visitors who are outside the Kingdom in countries from which entry has been suspended due to the virus.


Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia can be a leading oil exporter while also fighting climate change, says deputy minister for environment

Updated 24 January 2022

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia can be a leading oil exporter while also fighting climate change, says deputy minister for environment

  • Appearing on the video interview series, Dr. Osama Faqeeha points out that the problem lies not in hydrocarbons but emissions
  • He says Saudi Green Initiative target will be achieved with due consideration for environmental sustainability

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia can retain its role as the leading exporter of oil in the world while pursuing an ambitious strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change, one of the Kingdom’s leading environmental policymakers has told Arab News.

Dr. Osama Faqeeha, deputy minister for environment, water and agriculture, said that the issue for the Kingdom and the world was to deal with polluting emissions from hydrocarbon production, while exploring other uses for oil products and renewable alternatives.

“I think we don’t see the problem in the hydrocarbons; we see the problem in the emissions,” he said, pointing out that “petrochemicals, plastic, medical supplies, clothing and other things are made from hydrocarbons; the emissions are the issue — namely, CO2 emissions.”

Faqeeha, who is closely involved in implementing the measures of the Saudi Green Initiative unveiled last year, was appearing on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading policymakers and business people.

He also spoke of the ambitious plan to plant 10 billion trees in the Kingdom, the campaign to protect its environmental eco-system and biodiversity, and efforts to improve the air quality in the capital Riyadh and other big cities.

Faqeeha said that the environmental campaign launched in the SGI was part of a comprehensive strategy to tackle the challenges of climate change and global warming.

“In this situation, Saudi Arabia has launched the Circular Carbon Economy approach, which is really to treat CO2 like any other waste, by basically taking it and recycling it in various ways.

“We have to realize that there is no single approach that can single-handedly address the global climate change challenge.

“We need renewable energy, we need the Circular Carbon Economy, we need recycling, we need to stop this deforestation, preserve habitats, reduce marine plastics. We have to focus on all of this,” he said.

The plan to plant 10 billion trees in Saudi Arabia over the coming decades, a striking feature of the SGI, is acknowledged as a challenge given the Kingdom’s desert climate and relatively low level of rainfall.

“Definitely this is a very challenging, ambitious target. As His Royal Highness the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman) announced, the time frame will be over the next few decades. Our focus really is on environmental sustainability. We intend to achieve this target with due consideration for environmental sustainability.

“To achieve this, first of all we will focus on using native plant species in the Kingdom. Believe it or not, there are more than 2,000 documented species of flora in the Kingdom that have adapted to the dry and arid climate in Saudi Arabia.

“So, really these plants thrived in this environment and (fully) adapted to it,” he said.

The tree planting program — already under way — would focus on four main areas: Restoring natural flora in mountains and valleys; an “urban greening” program for the big cities; plantation in agricultural areas to support food production and rural communities; and tree planting along major highways to counter sand encroachment and enhance the experience of travelers.

Renewable water sources would also be used in the tree-planting program, to avoid endangering precious groundwater. Treated wastewater and rain harvesting were among the techniques available to environmental policymakers, as well as greater use of maritime resources.

Dr. Osama Faqeeha appears on Frankly Speaking. (Arab News)

“Saudi Arabia has thousands of kilometers of coastline on the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. There are two species of native mangrove trees that grow in sea water, so we intend to focus on those species as well,” he said.

One issue that has provoked debate in the Kingdom is the traditional practice of cutting natural wood to make campfires, held responsible for some of the desertification the SGI is pledged to eliminate.

“Local people enjoy picnics and the outdoors, they like to light wood fires for family gatherings, and these are local traditions that we really cherish. However, it came at a high expense of the local vegetation.”

The new environmental law has imposed severe penalties on such practices, but Faqeeha said that there were incentives for alternatives to wood fires so that these traditions would not be affected.

The World Health Organisation has criticized Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East for low standards of air quality, but Faqeeha took issue with some of the WHO findings.

“I’d like to highlight a distinction between air pollution and degraded air quality. Sometimes you have a degraded air quality not because it’s polluted by human activities. The WHO uses particulate matters as the main parameters to measure air quality,” he said.

“That’s a very good parameter for (places such as) Europe and the US, where you have extensive vegetation cover, and the main source of particulate matters are power plants, factories and other human activities. We call such particulate matters anthropogenic particulate matter or PM.

“Here in Saudi Arabia and in the region as a whole, particulate matters are dominated by natural causes, mainly coming from dust storms. Definitely air quality becomes degraded during dust storms — no one claims that it is healthy to go outdoors and inhale dusty weather.

So, that’s really what they (WHO) are referring to. It is degraded air quality because of the natural particulate matters emanating from dust storms.”

The ministry was working on comprehensive measure to reduce dust storms and improve air quality, Faqeeha said.

At the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow last year, some experts warned that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries would suffer more than other parts of the world from the health effects of global warming, including extreme heat, diseases and air pollution.

Faqeeha acknowledged this was an issue that policymakers were confronting. “Definitely, climate change and global warming is a major global challenge that we are taking very seriously.

“In terms of the outlook for temperature, there are very few studies. In the entire region we don’t have a climate center for climate studies and that’s why the Crown Prince announced the creation of the Regional Center for Climate Studies here, which will be championed by the National Center for Meteorology in Saudi Arabia. Its job is to do national and regional studies on the mid- and long-term outlook for climate change,” he said.

One big focus of Saudi environmental strategy, he added, is the push to reverse the trend to land degradation and desertification, a major contributor to the generation of polluting greenhouse gas emissions that costs around trillions of dollars globally.

“Land degradation is the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases. In fact, land degradation is the cause of about more than 50 percent of biodiversity loss, which is a large contribution. Also, it has a huge impact on agricultural lands and food security,” Faqeeha said.

Measures to reverse land degradation were a major achievement of the G20 summit under Saudi Arabia’s presidency in 2020.

Faqeeha also outlined the Kingdom’s new strategy toward waste management, which he views as an area ripe for private sector involvement and foreign investment.

“Private sector participation is an important enabler to achieve the objectives of the national environmental strategy,” he said.

“We have many international companies that are coming, who feel the regulatory environment now is highly conducive to their participation.”


23 million people used Saudi Arabia’s electronic Absher services last year

Updated 23 January 2022

23 million people used Saudi Arabia’s electronic Absher services last year

  • The “Absher Individuals” interactive guide was set up to offer easy access to services, providing explanations to more than 300 services

RIYADH: Absher, the interactive online platform provided by the Saudi Interior Ministry, announced that the platform served 23 million users who carried out more than 85 million operations last year. The platform’s technical support received more than 1.5 million calls over the year.

In 2021, Absher contributed to raising the quality of life of citizens, residents and visitors, facilitated access to more than 330 services and linked viewers with more than 80 government and private entities.

Moreover, 1.5 billion transactions were carried out via the “Absher Individuals” platform, with more than 50 million logins to the “Absher Business” and more than 1.3 million logins to “Absher Government.”

The platform’s operators launched 36 new services and expanded the provision of the automated responder “Masroor” to answer beneficiaries’ queries more quickly.

The “Absher Individuals” interactive guide was set up to offer easy access to services, providing explanations to more than 300 services.

One of the most prominent services launched in 2021 was the Online Plate Auction service, the digital wallet service. The platform’s portfolio contains more than 25 million digital identities.

The shift from paper to electronic transactions has saved more than 599 million sheets of papers. This shift also reduced CO2 dioxide emissions by 1.6 billion metric tons and saved more than SR17.3 billion ($5 billion).

The online Absher service was introduced to increase productivity and promote more efficient work practices within government departments, while raising customer satisfaction levels. A smartphone app was added in 2015.


Saudi Arabia’s ambitious space program provides foretaste of exciting collaborations to come

Updated 23 January 2022

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious space program provides foretaste of exciting collaborations to come

  • The Saudi Space Commission was launched in Dec. 2018 under the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform agenda
  • The state-funded body has struck cooperation agreements with the European Space Agency, UK, France and Hungary

JEDDAH: More than half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the surface of the moon. Since this historic milestone, governments, scientists and now entrepreneurs have set their sights on more distant and ambitious goals.

From Jeff Bezos’ forays into space tourism with Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s dream of establishing colonies on Mars to NASA’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and the UAE’s Hope probe mission to Mars, space, it seems, is once again all the rage.

The Apollo astronauts’ momentous moonwalk of July 20, 1969, marked the culmination of more than a decade of breakneck scientific advance, fueled by the fierce Cold War-era contest between the US and the Soviet Union known as the “space race.”

Decades later, and with the benefits of vastly superior technologies, private sector finance, and a global profusion of scientific and engineering talent, a new space race led by the world’s emerging economies and wealthiest individuals is now underway.
 

Saudi Arabia is well placed to capitalize on falling costs of launching rockets, advances in technology, and a growing public interest in space exploration. (Supplied)

A recent entrant in this new space race is the Saudi Space Commission, or SSC, launched three years ago by royal decree — its mission: To accelerate economic diversification, enhance research and development, and raise private sector participation in the global space industry.

Since its launch in December 2018, the Kingdom’s state-funded space program has struck deals with the European Space Agency, the UK, France, and Hungary to further cooperation.

The agency has also signed agreements with aerospace giant Airbus, joined the International Astronautical Federation, and launched illustrious scholarship programs to allow Saudi students to attend the world’s best universities offering courses in space sciences and aerospace engineering.

Although its space agency is relatively new, the Kingdom has a long history of involvement in satellite technology, much of it emanating from the King Abdul Aziz City of Science and Technology in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia also played a key role in the Arab League’s formation of Arabsat, a satellite communications company, which launched its first satellite in 1985.

“The beauty is that you’re not starting from zero,” Col. Chris Hadfield, retired Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

“Even NASA, when they were formed in the late 1950s, they weren’t starting from zero. NACA, which was the predecessor to NASA, had been around since the 1920s, when the government recognized that aeronautics was coming.”
 

In Col. Chris Hadfield’s view, the SSC should now set out to clearly define its goals for the future of Saudi space exploration. (SPA)

Hadfield is well known for his hugely popular video segments depicting life aboard the ISS, which famously included a zero-gravity guitar rendition of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity."

A heavily decorated astronaut, engineer and pilot, his many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He was also named the top test pilot in both the US Air Force and the US Navy, and was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Hadfield has flown three space missions, building two space stations, performing two spacewalks, crewing the Shuttle and Soyuz, and commanding the ISS.

Now retired, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, an adviser to SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, board chair of the Open Lunar Foundation, and the author of three international bestsellers. His TED talk on fear has been watched 11 million times.

In Hadfield’s view, the SSC should now set out to clearly define its goals for the future of Saudi space exploration.

“The real key is to have a clear purpose for what the space agency is trying to accomplish, aims that are in line with serving the people of Saudi in the short and long term,” he said.

The ISS remains a potent symbol of human fraternity as well as the huge technological and scientific possibilities on offer when societies work toward a common end.

The space station’s history began on July 17, 1975, when Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and American astronaut Deke Slayton shook hands in microgravity, having docked their spacecraft high above the French city of Metz.
 

Col. Chris Hadfield said it is this kind of human fraternity, together with an enduring sense of duty, that will empower further innovations and new milestones in space exploration. (Supplied)

The handshake was the byproduct of a 1972 agreement between the two nations to cooperate on the Apollo-Soyuz Test project. The US built a docking module for the Apollo shuttle that was compatible with the Soviet docking system to allow a flawless rendezvous.

Their meeting became a powerful symbol of unity, which paved the way for the joint Shuttle-Mir program and later the ISS itself.

Building a space agency is no easy feat. As a multidisciplinary domain, the industry demands a wide range of skills and expertise. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the sector and already has several achievements to its name.

In February 2019, the Kingdom launched its first domestically developed communications satellite — SGS-1 — from the Guiana Space Center. The launch was the result of a partnership between KACST and US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced plans to invest $2.1 billion in the space program as part of its Vision 2030 reform agenda, the Kingdom’s long-term plan to diversify its economy away from oil and embrace a wide array of next-generation industries.
 

Prince Sultan bin Salman (closest to the camera) is the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space. (Supplied)

“In the time we live in now, space is becoming a fundamental sector of the global economy, touching every aspect of our lives on Earth,” Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space, said at the time.

“Space business and the space economy are expected to grow into the trillions of riyals as we go forward. We believe there are a lot of opportunities that exist in the space sector and we, in Saudi Arabia, intend to tap these opportunities at all levels.”

In order to excel in space, the Kingdom will need an army of technical specialists in areas as diverse as cybersecurity, avionics and robotics, together with experts in propulsion, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“If you look right across the world’s governments, there’s some subset that is working in the areas that are naturally space related, like telecommunications, atmospheric physics, weather forecasting or the military side of threats; there’s always the high ground advantage,” Hadfield told Arab News, highlighting the benefits of building a domestic space industry.

“It’s scientific in just trying to understand the Earth better. If you can go around (Earth) 16 times a day, if you can set a geostationary satellite that is looking at the whole (Arabian) peninsula, that whole part of the world, there is a huge amount of information to be gathered that is really difficult to gather from the surface.

“Then there is the technological development side. If you’re going to challenge yourself to build a satellite or build rocket ships or train people to fly to space or be part of the space station, start setting up a permanent human habitation on the moon, that’s a big technological challenge and that is good for the country from the academic side right through to the manufacturing side.”

But more than the obvious economic, scientific and strategic benefits, Hadfield believes investment in space technologies also provides societies with a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations.
 

Hadfield believes investment in space technologies also provides societies with a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations. (Supplied)

“Apart from the scientific research and the technical development, it is raising people’s eyes beyond the horizon,” he said.

“Space exploration has a significant role in inspiring people to visualize a different future, to attempt things with their own lives, to train themselves to gain a new set of skills and turn themselves into somebody different in pursuit of being an astronaut that otherwise they might never have done with themselves. That, to me, that’s an important component.”

Saudi Arabia is well placed to capitalize on falling costs of launching rockets, advances in technology, and a growing public interest in space exploration. Its willingness to work with other space agencies is also a foretaste of exciting collaborations to come.

Reflecting on his own career in space, Hadfield said it is this kind of human fraternity, together with an enduring sense of duty, that will empower further innovations and new milestones in space exploration.

“It’s a life of service,” he said. “Service to agency, service to country and service to others.”

 

When a Saudi went to space
Prince Sultan bin Salman speaks exclusively to Arab News about his 1985 NASA mission and how he became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space
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World’s top tenor Bocelli wows AlUla crowd again

Updated 23 January 2022

World’s top tenor Bocelli wows AlUla crowd again

  • The Italian flautist Andrea Griminelli also joined Bocelli for a mesmerizing duet

ALULA: Singing at AlUla is “one of my favorite experiences,” the world’s favorite tenor said after another memorable concert in the ancient desert city.
Andrea Bocelli performed to a packed auditorium on Friday in the iconic mirrored Maraya venue, and millions more watching live on TV and online.
“It is always an incredible experience to sing in the middle of the desert in AlUla,” he said. “Coming from the noise and chaos of the big city, it is an educational experience for me to find myself in this idyllic and peaceful place away from the world.”
It was Bocelli’s fourth performance at Winter at Tantora, the Kingdom’s original music and cultural festival. He was accompanied on stage by Italy’s Asti Symphony Orchestra and sopranos Christine Allado, Serena Gambero and Clara Barbier Serrano.
The Italian flautist Andrea Griminelli also joined Bocelli for a mesmerizing duet that sparked rapturous applause and had the audience calling for more.
Winter at Tantora, one of four festivals under the AlUla Moments banner, continues until Feb. 12.

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world
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