Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands offer rich biodiversity and ecotourism potential

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Farasan island mangroves and aquamarine waters are teeming with wildlife. (Reuters)
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A car crosses the long, photogenic Al Maadi bridge, connecting the islands of Farasan Al Kubra and Farasan Al Sughra off the coast of Jazan. (Saudi Tourism Authority photo)
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The Farasan Islands is also home to plenty of wildlife. (National Center for Wildlife photo)
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An ancient mosque has withstood the test of time in a deserted village in the Farasan islands. (Shutterstock)
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Farasan Island Corniche public sitting area. (Shutterstock)
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Aerial view of a boat touring the lush mangroves and waterways of the Farasan Islands off the coast of Jazan. (Saudi Tourism Authority photo)
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Saudi Arabia has more than 1,300 islands spotted across its coastlines. (Saudi Tourism Authority photo)
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An aerial view of a boat touring the turquoise waters and limestone reefs of Farasan Islands off the coast of Jazan. Saudi Tourism Authority photo)
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Updated 10 June 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands offer rich biodiversity and ecotourism potential

  • Farasan is made up of more than 170 islands and islets off the Kingdom’s coast of Jazan
  • These hidden gems of the Red Sea are host to ancient sites and diverse marine habitats

RIYADH: Located in the pristine turquoise waters of the Red Sea, roughly 50 km west of the Saudi port city of Jazan in the southwest corner of the country, is an archipelago made up of about 170 islands known as the Farasan Islands.

Long the subject of fascination, not least for their natural beauty but also their rich history dating back to the ancient Romans and the time of Ottoman rule over the Arabian Peninsula, the Farasan Islands are considered a rising star by the Kingdom’s tourism industry.

“Saudi has more than 1,300 islands spotted across its coastlines,” a spokesperson for the Saudi Tourism Authority told Arab News. “As part of Vision 2030, Saudi is working on a number of ambitious island projects with sustainability at the heart of preserving these natural wonders.”

An ancient mosque has withstood the test of time in a deserted village in the Farasan islands. (Shutterstock)

A paradise for divers, the archipelago’s coral islands offer precious opportunities for the study and appreciation of marine biodiversity.

The coastlines and islands of the Red Sea are characterized by a variety of ecosystems, including red and black mangroves, seagrass beds, coral, saltmarshes and macroalgal reefs.

The islands are composed of reef limestone, rising to elevations of between 10 to 20 meters above sea level. The highest point among the islands reaches some 75 meters above sea level.

Aerial view of a boat touring the lush mangroves and waterways of the Farasan Islands. (Saudi Tourism Authority photo)

The coastlines surrounding the islands are covered in pristine white sand made from powdered coral and seashells, while their waters are home to a variety of fish and other sea creatures, including whales, dolphins, green and hawksbill turtles and manta ray.

On dry land, the local fauna includes the largest population of Idmi gazelle in the Kingdom, sooty falcon, white-eyed gull, osprey and Red Sea Noddy birds, among others. Additionally, the islands are home to numerous rare and endemic species of plant, including endangered red mangrove trees.

Farasan Islands are home to wildlife, such as the Idmi gazelle, numerous birds as well as rare and endemic plant species. (National Center for Wildlife photo)

In 1996, the “Juzur” Farasan, as the islands are also known, were declared a protected area by royal decree, thereby recognizing them as one of the Kingdom’s most treasured natural assets.

The Farasan Islands Protected Area includes more than 84 islands, the largest of which is the Farasan Al-Kabir, or Greater Farasan, followed by the Saqid, or Lesser, Farasan and Qummah — all of which are inhabited by people working in fishing and producing millet and maize.

Officials managing the protected area are building on extensive research and fieldwork to preserve both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as animal and plant species, many of which originate from the Tihamah coastal plain of western Saudi Arabia.

A visitor examines seashells at one of the popular beaches in the Farasan Islands. (Saudi Tourism Authority photo)

Included in the protected area program are educational talks and campaigns to help raise awareness about the importance of preserving the area for fishermen, farmers, schools, local leaders and young people.

The area is part of the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Additionally, the Saudi Wildlife Authority has developed a plan to oversee and maintain the rich biodiversity of the islands. 

In March 2021, the International Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves welcomed the first nomination dossier from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of “Juzur” Farasan as a biosphere reserve.

Aerial view of a boat circling round the waterways of the Farasan Islands off the coast of Jazan. (SPA file photo)

The nomination was approved by the International Coordinating Council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme on Sept. 15, 2021, during the commission’s session held in Abuja, Nigeria, marking the first time the MAB-ICC had met in Africa.

Underway are several projects to develop the area for ecotourism, including its various natural and cultural heritage sites and numerous archaeological sites that reflect the history of the area. Several civilizations, including the Romans, visited and occupied the islands.

In August 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Heritage Commission announced the discovery of several structures and artifacts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries following extensive excavation work by a joint Saudi-French team.

Several civilizations, including the Romans, visited and occupied the islands. (Shutterstock)

The pieces included Roman folded armor made of copper ingots and armor known as “lorica squamata,” which was frequently used during the Roman era between the 1st and 3rd centuries.

Archaeologists also found an inscription of garnet for “Genos,” a renowned Roman figure in the Eastern Roman Empire, and the head of a small stone statue.

The Saudi-French team has made several exploratory trips since 2005, and has uncovered architectural and archaeological remnants dating as far back as 1400 BC. Such discoveries underline the importance of the ancient ports that once controlled the marine trade routes of the Red Sea.

Such archaeological discoveries also demonstrate the importance of the Farasan Islands and the mainland in ancient times as a crucial meeting point for trade and cross-cultural exchange.

Now, with the Kingdom’s borders open to global investment and visitors and with numerous giga-projects underway, the Farasan Islands have the potential to become one of Saudi Arabia’s top tourism destinations.

Riyadh-based British expatriate Ciara Philips vacationed in Farasan last year. Supplied

While upscale hotels and resorts are still under construction as part of the Red Sea Project, a trip to the Farasan Islands can be an enriching journey of leisure and discovery in a still largely untouched region of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi is something of the last frontier in terms of tourism and I certainly felt that last year when I went and wanted to take a weekend trip outside of Riyadh,” Ciara Philips, a British expatriate, told Arab News.

“I chose the Farasan Islands and booked FlyNas flights to Jazan, leaving after work on Thursday and arriving back early evening on Saturday. The flight schedules worked perfectly.”

Philips, who moved to Riyadh at the end of 2020 to accept a job in cultural strategy, said that she found it difficult to find “concrete information about the islands, other than what is on VisitSaudi and blog posts from other intrepid expats.”

Several projects are underway to develop Farasan Islands for ecotourism. (National Center for Wildlife)

At the last minute, just a day before setting off, she found a weekend trip with Masarat Tours. In Jazan she met a local guide and spent two days with him and two girlfriends who had traveled from Jeddah.

Together they went to a small fishing harbor where they explored the mangroves by boat and various tiny islands inhabited by birds, crabs and other native species.

“It was magical,” said Philips. “Totally Robinson Crusoe. I had bought a snorkel and mask the day before and explored the warm, still waters, finding all sorts of brightly colored shoals of fish. There were pelicans swimming in the sea and the shells on the beach were enormous.”

Several projects are underway to develop Farasan Islands for ecotourism. (National Center for Wildlife)

Over the course of her two-day trip, Philips says that she saw barely anyone besides her friends and their guide — an ideal break from the busy, sweltering and dusty streets of Riyadh during July.

“I learned a few more words of Arabic, but better still was the truly contemplative time exploring the seas and the many uninhabited islands of Farasan,” she said.

As Saudi Arabia continues to diversify its economy, these pristine islands, so sparsely populated and so rich in nature and wildlife, constitute an ideal resource in the Kingdom’s quest to become a global hub for sustainable tourism.


Four Riyadh heritage sites that define Saudi Arabia’s national story

Wadi Hanifah. (Ali Mubarak)
Updated 22 September 2023

Four Riyadh heritage sites that define Saudi Arabia’s national story

  • Wadi Hanifah, Diriyah, Masmak Fortress and Qasr Al-Murabba all played a central role in the capital’s birth and development
  • From the site of defining battles to the cradle of the first Saudi state, Riyadh’s architecture bears silent witness to its rich past

LONDON: Numerous natural, archeological and architectural wonders have come to define Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s national story. Below are short sketches of four of the more prominent ones.

Wadi Hanifah 

Of the many ancient seasonal waterways fed by the slopes of the 800 km-long Tuwaiq mountain range that cuts through the Najd plateau, it is Wadi Hanifah that has played the most significant role in the history of Saudi Arabia. 

In 1446 Ibn Dir, the ruler of Hajr, a town on the site of modern-day Riyadh, offered land on the fertile banks of the wadi to his cousin, Manaa’ Al-Muraide, leader of the Marada clan of Al-Duru tribe of Bani Hanifah. 

The clan originated in central Arabia, but generations ago migrated east to settle near Qatif on the shores of the Gulf, at a place they named Diriyah, after their tribal name. 

Wadi Hanifah. (Supplied)

Al-Muraide accepted Ibn Dir’s invitation and led his people back to their roots, naming their new home Diriyah after their old settlement and transforming the land into a productive oasis, nourished by the fertile soil of Wadi Hanifah. 

Ever since the wadi, for centuries a silent witness to epoch-defining triumphs and tragedies, has flowed through the story of Saudi Arabia, nourishing the land and its people. 

Today Wadi Hanifah, restored and rejuvenated to its former glory, is at the heart of the transformation of Diriyah into a global tourism destination focused on the culture and heritage of this historic region.


Diriyah rose to prominence in about 1720, when Saud ibn Mohammed of Al-Muqrin assumed the leadership of the town, founding the House of Saud and paving the way for the foundation of the First Saudi State in 1727 by his son and successor Imam Mohammed. 

Under Mohammed and the three subsequent rulers of Diriyah, the power, wealth and influence of the state grew rapidly, until by 1811 it ruled an area larger than that of the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

Diriyah Gate’s escarpment walk. (Supplied)

In 2010 the mud-brick At-Turaif district of Diriyah, home of the forebears of the Saudi royal family, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

In 2019 King Salman laid the foundation stone of the Diriyah Gate project, a 7 sq. km development built in the unique Najd style of mud-brick architecture, which now is nearing completion as a global cultural and lifestyle destination, hosting museums, galleries, restaurants, shops, homes, public squares, hotels, recreational spaces, educational institutions.

Masmak Fortress 

After the defeat of 1818, Saudi fortunes ebbed and flowed for the next 84 years, until, in 1902, a 26-year-old prince grew tired of his life in exile in Kuwait. 

Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, who would achieve worldwide fame as Ibn Saud, the man who would go on to found the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, led a small party of warriors west to Riyadh, attacking Masmak Fortress, driving out the rival Rashidi forces and reclaiming his family’s rightful heritage. 

In a photograph taken in 1912, the mud-brick turrets of the fort loom large behind the city walls, looking out over nothing but the open land beyond. Today the fort is in the very heart of the city. 

The walls have gone, swept away in the 1950s by the rapid growth of the Saudi capital, but the fort remains as a museum and a precious protected symbol of the hard path and heroic endeavors that led ultimately to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Qasr Al-Murabba 

Completed in 1938, the “Square Castle” has a particular historic significance in the story of Riyadh. 

Following the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the Qasr Al-Hokm, where King Abdulaziz had masterminded his decades-long campaign of unification, was no longer large enough to serve as the base for the government of the new nation. 

The decision was made to create a new, purpose-built seat of government and the Qasr Al-Murabba was built on land 2 km to the north of the old city. 

It was the first development of any size outside the city walls, and paved the way for the first major expansion of Riyadh beyond its original confines. 

It was also the last major mud-brick building to be constructed in a capital on the verge of the modern era shortly to be ushered in by the discovery of oil. 

In 1933, King Abdulaziz granted the Kingdom’s first concession to Standard Oil of California, forerunner of Aramco, and on March 4, 1938, the year the Qasr Al-Murabba was completed, a test well drilled at Dammam struck oil in commercial quantities for the first time. 

Today Al-Murabba stands at the heart of the King Abdulaziz Historical Center, a cultural campus comprising the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, or Darah, the King Abdulaziz Grand Mosque, and the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, all housed in buildings created using traditional Najdi architectural style and materials.


Riyadh: From ancient city to Expo hopeful

1446: Manaa’ Al-Muraide, leader of the Marada clan of the Al-Duru tribe, settles on the fertile banks of Wadi Hanifa. 

1720: Saud bin Mohammed Al-Muqrin assumes leadership of Diriyah, northwest of present-day Riyadh. 

1727: Mohammed bin Saud Al-Muqrin founds the First Saudi State with Diriyah as its capital. 

1746: Riyadh established by Dahham bin Dawwas. 

1818-1821: Diriyah attacked and destroyed by Ottomans, ending First Saudi State. 

1824: Riyadh becomes capital of the Emirate of Nejd when Turki bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al-Saud founds the Second Saudi State. 

1865: Masmak Fort built under the instructions of Abdulrahman bin Sulaiman bin Dabaan, the prince of Riyadh. 

1891: Second Saudi State toppled by Ottomans, Riyadh taken over by Rashids. 

1902: Ibn Saud commands raid on Masmak Fort, recaptures Riyadh, founds Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

1910: Population: 14,000. 

1919: Royal family relocates to Riyadh. 

1930: Population: 27,000. 

1932: Riyadh becomes capital of newly unified Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

1936: Construction of Qasr Al-Murabba commissioned by Ibn Saud. 

1945: Qasr Al-Murabba completed. Red Palace commissioned. 

1950: Old city wall dismantled. 

1957: King Saud University opens. Nasiriyah royal residential district built. 

1962: Population: 169,185. 

1963: Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, later King Salman, becomes governor of Riyadh Province. 

1974: Population: 666,840. 

1978: Riyadh TV Tower built. 

1981: Riyadh railway station opens. 

1983: King Khalid International Airport opens 35 km north of Riyadh. 

1985: Tuwaiq Palace built. 

1986: Diplomatic Quarter Mosque constructed, winning Arab Cities Award for Architecture in 1990. 

1987: Population: 1,417,000. King Fahd International Stadium and GCC headquarters built. 

1995: Masmak Fort museum opens. 

1997: Population: 3,100,000. 

1999: National Museum of Saudi Arabia established. 

2001: Population: 4,137,000. 

2010: Population: 5,188,286. At-Turaif district in Diriyah listed as UNESCO World Heritage site. 

2012: Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman Al-Mogbel becomes mayor of Riyadh. 

2013: King Abdullah Environmental Park inaugurated. 

2019: Royal Commission for Riyadh City established. King Salman lays foundation stone for Diriyah Gate project. 

2020: King Salman Park announced as part of Green Riyadh. City hosts G20 summit. 

2023: Riyadh makes formal bid to host World Expo 2030.

Saudi foreign minister holds talks with French and Polish counterparts in New York

Updated 22 min 13 sec ago

Saudi foreign minister holds talks with French and Polish counterparts in New York

  • During the meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, they discussed ways in which relations between their countries might be enhanced
  • Prince Faisal bin Farhan also held a meeting with Brunei’s second minister of foreign affairs

NEW YORK: Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, met his French counterpart, Catherine Colonna, on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday.

They reviewed the relationship between their countries and ways in which it might be enhanced and developed in a number of fields, along with the latest international developments of mutual interest, the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry said.

The ministers also talked about opportunities for economic cooperation under the Saudi Vision 2030 development and diversification agenda, and the importance of supporting efforts to achieve common interests such as sustainable development, prosperity, and well-being, officials added.

In a separate meeting, Prince Faisal and Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rao, discussed bilateral ties and opportunities for economic cooperation under Vision 2030.

The prince then held talks with Brunei’s second minister of foreign affairs, Dato Erywan Yusof, during which they discussed ways to strengthen and develop relations and cooperation in various fields.

Also present at the meetings were Faisal Al-Ibrahim, the Kingdom’s minister of economy and planning, Abdulaziz Al-Wasel, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, and Abdulrahman Al-Daoud, director general of the Foreign Minister’s Office.

Saudi Foreign Ministry celebrates 93rd National Day at UN General Assembly in New York

Updated 4 sec ago

Saudi Foreign Ministry celebrates 93rd National Day at UN General Assembly in New York

  • Foreign ministers, representatives of international organizations and other members of the diplomatic corps attended the ceremony

NEW YORK: The Saudi Foreign Ministry announced on Friday that it held a ceremony to mark the Kingdom’s 93rd National Day on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The ceremony, which was held under the patronage of Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, began with a royal salute.
He then delivered a speech in which he welcomed the guests, recalled the history of Saudi Arabia, its establishment by King Abdulaziz, and its achievements under the current leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The ceremony was attended by foreign ministers of friendly countries, representatives of international organizations and members of the diplomatic corps.



Arab leaders send congratulations to Saudi leadership on eve of Kingdom’s 93rd National Day

Updated 1 min 13 sec ago

Arab leaders send congratulations to Saudi leadership on eve of Kingdom’s 93rd National Day

  • Heads of state and other officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Jordan pass on warm greetings to King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and their people
  • Arab Parliament’s speaker said ‘we remember the epic unification carried out by the late founding king, which was a starting point … passed down through generations in the Kingdom’

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad on Friday congratulated Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on the occasion of the Kingdom’s 93rd National Day.

King Hamad sent a telegram in which he highlighted the depth of the historically close fraternal relationship between the two kingdoms and their peoples, and affirmed his country’s constant, keen desire to continue to strengthen and develop their strong bonds and fruitful cooperation, in light of the strong strategic partnership that binds them.

He praised the Kingdom’s efforts, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to boost development and economic prosperity in the region in a way that promotes security, stability, peace and prosperity, to help build a better future for generations to come.

Bahrian’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad sent two telegrams, to the Saudi king and crown prince, in which he congratulated them on National Day, which marks the founding of Saudi Arabia by King Abdulaziz on Sept. 23, 1932, and expressed his country’s desire to continue to build on their existing cooperation.

Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, sent a message of congratulations to King Salman, in which he noted the depth of the relationship between their countries and the firm positions taken by the Kingdom on issues affecting all Arab and Islamic nations, including Kuwait.

He also expressed pride in the outstanding development of the Kingdom in a number fields during the king’s reign, which he said had raised the nation’s status and profile internationally.

He expressed his best wishes for further progress and prosperity for Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the king and with the support of the crown prince.

Kuwait’s crown prince, Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, and Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah sent similar messages congratulating the king and praising the development and achievements of the Kingdom at all levels.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, sent a similar message of congratulations to King Salman, as did the country’s deputy emir, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad, and its minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim.

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman congratulated King Salman on the occasion of National Day, and expressed his sincere best wishes for the ruler’s good health, happiness and long life, together with further progress and prosperity for the Saudi people. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also sent a telegram to the king in which he expressed his sincere congratulations.

Adel Al-Asoumi, the speaker of the Arab Parliament, which is the legislative body of the Arab League, congratulated the Saudi king and crown prince, saying: “On this day, we remember the epic unification carried out by the late founding king, which was a starting point and a construction process that was passed down through generations in the Kingdom to build a modern state based on strong and solid foundations, during which the Kingdom took the lead in many fields.”

National Day marks the culmination of a process of construction and development through which the Kingdom has achieved a comprehensive economic renaissance that has helped to raise the standard of living of its citizens, he added.

Al-Asoumi also noted the mega projects in development in the Kingdom that are helping to place the country among the ranks of developed nations, as well as the great efforts made by the Saudi leadership to strengthen its position and maintain security and stability in the region as part of its effective regional and international role.

Paraguay backs Saudi Arabia’s bid to host World Expo 2030

Updated 23 September 2023

Paraguay backs Saudi Arabia’s bid to host World Expo 2030

  • President Santiago Peña Palacios announced his country's support on the sidelines of UNGA78

RIYADH: Paraguay has thrown its support behind Saudi Arabia's bid to host World Expo 2030, joining the growing list of countries backing the Kingdom's quest, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said early Saturday.

President Santiago Peña Palacios announced his country's stance after a meeting with Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir on the sidelines of the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, the ministry said in a statement.

"President Palacios noted that this support comes as a result of the distinguished relations between the two countries," said the ministry statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Minister Al-Jubeir has, in turn, conveyed the Kingdom's appreciation for Paraguay's support.

Riyadh is competing with Rome and South Korea's Busan city to host World Expo 2020. 

Member states of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, or BIE, will choose the host country for World Expo 2030 at their 173rd General Assembly scheduled in November. 

Should the BIE chose Riyadh over Busan and Rome, the Saudi capital would become the second in the MENA region to host such prestigious event. Dubai was the first when it hosted Expo 2020.

The prospective Riyadh Expo 2030 promises to become the “first environmentally friendly exhibition that achieves zero” carbon emissions. 

The goal to host a zero-carbon emission expo also aligns with Vision 2030’s commitment to clean energy and sustainability.