Hydroponic farming boosts prospects of sustainable agriculture in Saudi Arabia

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The Middle East is the world’s most water-stressed region, and the Arabian Peninsula in particular must make good use of smart ways maximizing its resources, main. (Supplied)
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Ryan Lefers (left) and Mark Tester co-founded the Red Sea Farms, one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising startups. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Hydroponic farming boosts prospects of sustainable agriculture in Saudi Arabia

  • Setup allows minute control over conditions like temperature, pH balance and exposure to nutrients and water
  • Method using recycled water is ideal for Saudi Arabia, one of the most water-stressed countries

JEDDAH: Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil and with limited amounts of water. As a farming method it has a number of benefits: It helps to develop fibrous roots for improved nutrient absorption, reduces the risk of roots rotting and promotes the rapid maturity of plants.

By using innovative design that requires minimal space, hydroponics gardens can grow fruit, vegetables and flowers in half the time of traditional agriculture, using 90 percent less water.




Saudi Arabia, which covers 80 percent of the peninsula, will use sustainable agricultural techniques, such as hydroponics, to cut water waste by 50 percent by 2030, above. (Supplied)

Historical records reveal that the first recorded uses of hydroponic systems were in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the floating gardens of the Aztecs, and gardens in ancient China.

In modern times, a NASA-sponsored experiment on the Mir space station in 1997 used aeroponics to grow bean seedlings in zero gravity, raising the prospect of sustainable agriculture in space. Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics in which the plants are fed using a mist sprayed onto their roots, rather than being suspended in water.

In recent years, the popularity of hydroponics has gained momentum, as existing farmers and people without any experience in traditional farming seek to take advantage of advances in technology and the potential benefits they can bring.

Low rainfall, limited availability of freshwater from rivers and lakes, and dwindling, non-renewable groundwater reserves mean that the Middle East is the most water-stressed region on earth. Meanwhile, regional demand for water is soaring — and likely to continue to rise given population growth and economic development — resulting in some of the highest per-capita water consumption rates in the world.

Across most of the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most arid regions on earth, there is precious little rainfall and much of what there is runs off into desert sand or quickly evaporates. An area covering more than 1,000,000 square miles contains almost no perennial rivers or streams, and its southern section is covered by one of the largest deserts in the world.

Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula and is one of its driest countries. Water resources are scarce and climate conditions severe. The conditions cause groundwater salinization, which is a common problem affecting the Kingdom’s agricultural sector.

Last October the representative from Saudi Arabia, as part of the Group of 77 developing countries and China, told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) of the 76th session at the UN General Assembly that the Kingdom was taking steps to build sustainable agriculture, improve consumption patterns to reduce waste by 50 percent by 2030, encourage innovation, and empower women and young people working in the agriculture sector.

INNUMBER

70 percent increase in food production will be required by 2050 to meet caloric needs of a global population of 9.8 billion.

68 percent of that projected 9.8 billion global population will live in urban areas by 2050.

With an eye on future food challenges, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture is exploring the option of localized vertical-farming technologies, and has allocated $27 million to develop them.

The challenges the Kingdom’s policymakers face are no different from those confronting their counterparts in many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa: How to prevent the situation from getting worse and, more precisely, how to equip farmers to resolve the problems they face.

According to agricultural scientists, substantial investment in adaptation will be required to help maintain current farming yields, and achieve increases in production and food quality to meet demand. Vertical farming facilities that use hydroponics is one possible solution to the challenges, especially in countries with arid and semi-arid climates.




UAE's Al-Badia Farms in Dubai uses an indoor vertical farm with innovative hydroponic technology to grow fruits and vegetables all year round. (Karim Sahib / AFP)

In recent years, several agribusinesses in Saudi Arabia have started using hydroponics systems, after conducting intensive research, collecting data and devising suitable mechanisms, with the aim of keeping pace with the Kingdom’s soaring population and food requirements.

A key feature of hydroponics is the use of recycled water, which comes with its own challenges. Although water recycling is a relatively simple process, the costs involved, from initial investment to annual maintenance, are not trivial because the resultant quality of the water must be high enough for growing plants, according to Turki Alduhayan, the CEO of Green Mast, an agribusiness in Riyadh.




Water recycling is a key feature of hydroponics, although the process also comes with its own challenges. (Supplied)​​​​

“We send our water samples on a weekly basis to labs in Holland and the analysis report provides us with the water properties absorbed by the plants,” he told Arab News.

“This way we can control the water consumption and we save a lot, but ensuring high water quality is no easy feat. We are recycling water and saving money but it requires a lot of following up and evaluation to stay consistent.”

Alduhayan said he has learned what works through trial and error, having had to make decisions and comparisons, ranging from the type of soil to use in greenhouses to testing a plant’s endurance and its ability to survive in a hydroponics farm. He said he once tested a particular variety of tomato plant that yielded fruit for up to nine months and grew to a height of 14 meters.

Based on his experiences, Alduhayan said that hydroponic systems are an attractive option for many farmers in Saudi Arabia for a number of reasons.

FASTFACT

The first recorded uses of hydroponics date back to the hanging gardens of Babylon, the floating gardens of the Aztecs, and gardens in ancient China.

Delivering produce from farm to table is easier said than done, he explained, when one considers the logistical and transportation challenges involved in ensuring shipments remain at a suitable temperature, stay fresh and are delivered to suppliers on time.

“This is one of the biggest obstacles and challenges facing hydroponic companies,” Alduhayan said. “Saudi Arabia is the size of Europe and it is expensive to transport produce to areas that are very far from the place of origin. There’s more to the business than just growing crops and produce. Even so, Saudi Arabia has come a long way in just a few years.




The Middle East is the world’s most water-stressed region, and the Arabian Peninsula in particular must make good use of smart ways maximizing its resources, main. (Supplied)

“MEWA has shown its support for hydroponic farming in the Kingdom but there needs to be more strict regulations to ensure that the proper protocols are followed through. Further support from the ministry, buyers and transportation service providers can, and will, help farmers in the long run. In the three years since I started my business, my costs are a fraction of when I first started.

“You can rest assured that if you buy cherry tomatoes, for instance, from a hydroponics farm they will stay fresh longer than you would normally expect of such a fruit.”

Red Sea Farms is another Saudi company that uses an environmentally sustainable saltwater-based agriculture system. This technology enables farmers to grow food and cool greenhouses using saltwater in larger quantities, and better levels of quality, than traditional farming systems, and to supply produce for a much longer growing season.




Red Sea Farms co-founder Mark Tester says the company uses an environmentally sustainable saltwater-based agriculture system. (Supplied)

Mark Tester, co-founder of Red Sea Farms and the associate director of the Center of Desert Agriculture at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, said that while hydroponics systems are not suitable for bulk commodity crops such as wheat, they can provide a rapid return on investment for a wide variety of other crops.

“From the perspective of the government, greenhouses provide a golden opportunity to maximize the value from the (ultimately unsustainable) groundwater being extracted, giving the best return possible for this valuable resource,” he told Arab News.

“With Red Sea Farms’ technologies, the environmental footprint of production is reduced even further, which is good for the environment considering the reduced water usage and carbon-dioxide emissions, lower costs and higher income for the farmer.”

Another proven benefit of hydroponics farming is that it eliminates the need for large-scale use of pesticides and herbicides.




Tomatoes from a hydroponics farm are said to stay fresh longer than those produced using the traditional method of farming. (Supplied)

“Because hydroponics in greenhouses enable good control of both air and water, it also provides the chance to minimize exposure of plants to pests and diseases, thus enabling us to minimize the use of pesticides,” Tester said. “This saves the farmers money, is better for the environment and means healthier food for consumers. Everyone wins.

“The benefits of innovative farming systems become increasingly valued and increasingly valuable, even in places with ideal conditions for agriculture such as in Western Europe.

“The use of greenhouses is massively expanding. So even in the south of the Kingdom there is clearly a very important role for greenhouses to play in agriculture and the healthy, sustainable production of our food.”

As more agribusinesses in Saudi Arabia embrace modern, innovative methods, the appeal of hydroponics is expected to rapidly grow thanks to the many advantages it offers.

More broadly, growing crops using hydroponics and greenhouses is increasingly looking like a smart bet, especially for future generations in countries with arid and semi-arid climates, which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, land degradation and extreme weather events.


Saudi Arabia tells UN meeting on food security ‘global cooperation is vital’

Updated 19 May 2022

Saudi Arabia tells UN meeting on food security ‘global cooperation is vital’

  • Deputy Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Khuraiji said the KSA’s foreign policy attaches great importance to enhancing security and stability

RIYADH: A Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs official confirmed Wednesday that the Kingdom had taken crucial steps to enhance food security, put forward strategies to promote food growth and face climate change and water scarcity. 

Waleed Al-Khuraiji, Saudi deputy minister of foreign affairs, said these measures contributed to improving food security indicators in the Kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

During the Global Food Security Call to Action meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday, Al-Khuraiji said that the food security challenge proves that sustainable recovery depends on international cooperation.

He said despite progress in the development process, achieving the 2030 SDG (social development goals) had become extremely difficult, as global expectations and indicators show a deviation in the path towards achieving the second goal of the program, which includes the eradication of hunger.

“Among the global health challenges are the spread of pandemics, as the spread of the COVID-19 revealed to us the fragility of the international system in combating a virus that is not visible to the naked eye, which led to severe consequences that affected societies and economies,” Al-Khuraiji said, adding  that this affected people’s lives, their livelihood and declining economic indicators.

He said Saudi Arabia led a global response to the pandemic that accompanied the Kingdom’s G20 presidency, as it supported global efforts to confront this pandemic with $500 million, in addition to providing $300 million to help countries’ efforts to address the pandemic.

“The Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 focused within sustainable development efforts on building a sustainable agricultural sector, strengthening sectors that support food systems, developing systems and improving agricultural productivity, and worked to strengthen research and innovation capabilities to ensure sustainable progress in food security,” Al-Khuraiji said.

In this regard, he said Saudi Arabia presented crucial initiatives to the region and the world, and had created a road map for facing environmental challenges. These intuitive include the Saudi Green Initiative the Middle East Green Initiative, and the circular carbon economy initiative.

Al-Khuraiji said the  Kingdom’s foreign policy attached great importance to enhancing security and stability, supporting dialogue and peaceful solutions, and providing conditions that support development and achieve people’s aspirations for a better tomorrow, weather in the Middle East or the world.

He added Saudi Arabia had always reiterated its commitment to helping the disadvantaged and countries hit by natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

“The Kingdom is the largest donor of humanitarian and development aid at the Arab and Islamic levels, and is one of the top three donors at the international level,” he said. 


Saudi-US defense delegations review ties, discuss future cooperation

Updated 19 May 2022

Saudi-US defense delegations review ties, discuss future cooperation

  • Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid says the meeting was organized upon Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s directives

RIYADH: Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of defense, on Wednesday met the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The pair reviewed the Saudi-US partnership, and ongoing and future strategic military and defense cooperation between the Kingdom and US.

Prince Khalid expressed Saudi Arabia’s appreciation for the close cooperation between the two countries' defense bodies to achieve the two sides’ common interests and enhance security and peace regionally and internationally.

 

 

He also said that the meeting was organized based on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s directives.

Prince Khalid and US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, then, co-headed the Saudi-US joint strategic planning committee meeting.

The Saudi and US defense delegations join a photo session after their meeting in Washington on May 18, 2022. (SPA)

The meeting discussed regional and international developments, and a number of issues on defending common interests and global security and stability.

The meeting was attended by Gen. Fayyadh bin Hamed Al-Ruwaili, Saudi Chief of General Staff, and other Saudi and US senior officials.


Who’s Who: Majed Al-Sulami, humanitarian and development affairs chief at KSA’s UN mission in Geneva

Updated 19 May 2022

Who’s Who: Majed Al-Sulami, humanitarian and development affairs chief at KSA’s UN mission in Geneva

Majed Al-Sulami is a diplomat at the permanent mission of Saudi Arabia to the UN, where he is head of the humanitarian and development affairs department in Geneva.

His responsibilities are in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organization for Migration, International Committee of the Red Cross, UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and humanitarian assistance in areas affected by conflicts, armed disputes and natural disasters.

Al-Sulami attained his bachelor’s degree in English literature from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. He also received a master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy affairs from the University of Ghana, and another master’s degree in business administration for executives from Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK.

Al-Sulami also served as the chargé d’affaires at the Saudi Embassy in Ghana, and the deputy head and head of the consular section between September 2011 and 2013.

He was also the deputy head of the media section at the Saudi Embassy in London between September 2013 and 2017.

Al-Sulami also served as director of the specialized meetings at the permanent mission of Saudi Arabia to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation between September 2017 and 2020.

His participation included the 47th and 48th sessions of the OIC’s permanent finance committee, the 13th and 14th sessions of the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission and the workshop held by the OIC’s commission with the UN.

Al-Sulami was a political committee member for preparatory meetings and foreign ministers’ meetings and the OIC conference held in Makkah in 2019.

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Experts from 29 nations gather in Jeddah for international sports sciences conference

Updated 18 May 2022

Experts from 29 nations gather in Jeddah for international sports sciences conference

  • ‘This conference is a novel idea, especially since Saudi Arabia has been recently bidding to be at the forefront of the developed world and sports,’ said Adnan Al-Humaidan, the university’s president
  • Delegates will discuss a number of topics, including sports governance, women’s sports, digital transformation, and ways in which sport can attract investment and support the economy

JEDDAH: Academics, researchers, specialists and lecturers from 19 countries gathered at the University of Jeddah on May 18 for the start of Sports Sciences: Economy, Health, Lifestyle, which is said to be the first international conference of its kind.

The two-day event, held under the patronage of the minister of education, began with a welcome speech by Adnan Al-Humaidan, the president of the university.

“This conference is a novel idea, especially since Saudi Arabia has been recently bidding to be at the forefront of the developed world and sports,” he said.

He said that the decision of the university to organize the conference reflects the aim of the Kingdom to be an international leader in sports sciences, to help contribute to achieving the goals of the nation’s Vision 2030 development and diversification plan.

Delegates will discuss a number of topics during the conference, including the relationships between sports, health and the quality of life program as part of Vision 2030, and the issue of governance in sport and its role in tackling corruption within sporting organizations.

The event will also explore women’s sports, the use of artificial intelligence and the digital transformation of the sports industry, and the role of sport in generating financial and human investments and supporting the national economy, and the contributions of software and technology to the development of sports.

Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US and a member of the International Olympic Committee, delivered a keynote speech during the first session of the opening day, which was devoted to a discussion of the experiences of Saudi, Arab and international women in sport. 

Speaking via video link, she said: “Saudi women are making tremendous strides in the world of sports, starting with individual participation and progressing to official representation in regional and international competitions. And I am proud to see them right now in every sport and holding top positions in the various local sports federations.

“Today, sport emerges as an important component of the socioeconomic development of a country. Therefore women must be part of that development, not only to be athletes but also to seek other top positions in sports.

“As women increasingly participate in sport and occupy more leadership roles within the sporting sector, they influence the meaning of sport and the place of women in it.”

Other speakers during the opening session included Maha Juffali, president of the Saudi Special Olympics Federation, and Lina Al-Maeena, a pioneer of women’s sports in Saudi Arabia who broke new ground 18 years ago when she founded the Jeddah United women’s basketball team.

Other sessions considered the role of the sports media in promoting the adoption of a more healthy lifestyle, and how best to benefit from international and Arab experiences in the field of sports sciences.

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Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze

Updated 17 May 2022

Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze

  • The thick blanket of sand made iconic buildings in Riyadh, such as Faisaliyah Tower, Kingdom Center, and other skyscrapers in the King Abdullah Financial District almost impossible to see
  • Cautioning motorists because of the the heavy sandstorm, the traffic department advised drivers to drive slow and exercise restraint, as well as keep their headlights on

RIYADH: An intense sandstorm engulfed several areas in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, hampering visibility due to the widespread dust, slowing road traffic and forcing authorities to issue a weather warning.

The sandstorm battered Riyadh, enveloping the Saudi capital’s skyline with gray haze. The thick blanket of sand made iconic buildings in Riyadh, such as Faisaliyah Tower, Kingdom Center, and other skyscrapers in the King Abdullah Financial District almost impossible to see from a distance of a few hundred meters.

Electronic signs along Riyadh’s highways warned drivers to reduce their speed because of the lower visibility.

Cautioning motorists because of the the heavy sandstorm, the traffic department advised drivers to drive slow and exercise restraint, as well as keep their headlights on.

The General Directorate of Civil Defense also advised Riyadh residents to avoid going to various outskirt spots in sands to avoid accidents during the blinding sandstorm.

There have been no flight delays or cancellations in Riyadh because of the sandstorm.

Issuing the daily weather forecast for the Kingdom, the National Center of Meteorology on Tuesday said: “The surface dusty winds will be active in the Eastern Region and some parts of Riyadh Region, reducing horizontal visibility, while the dusty wind will continue to occur in some parts of Qassim, Hail, Madinah, Makkah and Najran regions, extending to eastern parts of Baha and Asir regions, reducing horizontal sight.”

The report added that partly cloudy skies will be seen in some parts of Tabuk, the Northern Borders and Jawf regions.

The NCM added that surface wind movement in the Red Sea will be northerly to north-westerly at a speed of 25-45 kilometers per hour on northern and central parts, and westerly to north-westerly on southern parts at a speed of 15-35 kilometers per hour. Surface wind movement in the Arabian Gulf will be westerly to north-westerly at a speed of 25-45 kilometers per hour.

In Riyadh, the dusty weather has made it tough for outdoor workers, and residents have struggled to keep sand out of their homes.

Abdul Qadeer, a Bangladeshi construction worker, told Arab News: “The heavy sandstorm that started late last night and engulfed the city and its outskirts in gray haze this morning has made it really tough for us to continue working outdoors due to widespread dust.”

Though not infrequent for May — the sandstorm is the third to hit the Kingdom this month — Tuesday’s storm created unfavorable conditions, with the maximum temperature in Riyadh recorded at 38 degrees Celsius and the minimum at 24 degrees Celsius. The relative humidity was recorded at 11 percent.

Parts of Saudi Arabia typically experience sandstorms at the end of winter and advent of summer between March and May, with varying intensity.

Besides the Kingdom, Tuesday’s sandstorm has affected other countries in the region, including neighboring Iraq, which recorded its eighth sandstorm since mid-April, a phenomenon fueled by soil degradation, intense droughts and low rainfall linked to climate change.