How a Saudi rewilding scheme is bringing the Arabian leopard back from the brink of extinction

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Updated 24 February 2024
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How a Saudi rewilding scheme is bringing the Arabian leopard back from the brink of extinction

  • The Kingdom’s Royal Commission of AlUla has succeeded in breeding seven Arabian leopard cubs in the past year
  • There are thought to be as few as 120 of the iconic animals left in the wild, with approximately 20 of them in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Conservation experts from Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla have this year succeeded in breeding seven Arabian leopard cubs in captivity in the hope of increasing the population of the critically endangered species in the wild.

There are thought to be as few as 120 Arabian leopards left in the wild, with approximately 20 of them in Saudi Arabia, confined primarily to the isolated southwestern mountains of Asir and the Hijaz, making conservation efforts even more urgent.

“The captive population at the RCU facility is 27 healthy animals,” Stephen Browne, the commission’s vice president of wildlife and natural heritage, who works closely with the conservation program, told Arab News.

Breeding programs such as the RCU’s are considered essential to boosting the number of Arabian leopards in the wild, which have been declining because of human encroachment on vulnerable habitats and the poaching of their natural prey.

Browne said: “The last estimate had 200 animals (in the wild) a few years ago, so they have gone down very dramatically, very quickly, to barely a few animals.

“In many of the areas where they formerly occurred, like the UAE and Egypt, they are now extinct, and they are only found in very few isolated areas in western and southwest Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the very high rugged mountains of Yemen, and Oman.”

When conservationists are confident the animals will have a good chance of survival, they intend to release the RCU breeding program’s captive population into the wild. This will depend largely on changing human behaviors.

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On the potential threats to Arabian leopards in the wild, Browne added: “There’s a whole combination of factors, from hunting as retaliation for the loss of livestock to trophy hunting or catching them for the illegal wildlife trade.”

Hany Tatwany, a Saudi environment consultant, who previously worked at the National Center for Wildlife and later as president of the RCU’s Global Fund for the Arabian Leopard, noted that hunting was only one of the dangers the animals faced in the wild.

He said: “There are several reasons, but most of them are related to human behavior, such as overhunting the prey that the leopard eats or destroying the environment in terms of agriculture, urban expansion, and road construction.

“There is also the targeting of leopards to protect livestock, or, unfortunately, the leopards are hunted as a way of showing off.”

Leopards originated in Africa before spreading to the Arabian Peninsula and across Asia. By adapting to different climates, terrains, and altitudes, they evolved into distinct subgroups that became better suited to their respective habitats.

Browne pointed out that the Arabian leopard, for instance, had adapted well to cope with the hot, dry climate of the Middle East.

The elusive big cats are also well suited to rugged terrains and have been found at elevations ranging from sea level to more than 2,000 meters, making them highly adaptable and able to survive in arid and semi-arid environments.

DID YOUKNOW?

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have programs to breed and protect Arabian leopards. The Kingdom’s captive breeding center is in AlUla and is managed by the RCU.

After 13 weeks of pregnancy, leopards give birth to a litter of between two and four cubs, typically in caves. Cubs are normally born with closed eyes, which open after a week to nine days.

Human activity has depleted leopards’ larger natural prey such as gazelle, forcing the big cats to switch their diet to smaller animals and livestock, including goats and sheep.

While releasing a predator into the wild may seem counterintuitive to protecting wildlife, Tatwany said that every organism, wherever it featured in the food chain, served a vital role in a balanced ecosystem.

“Predators come at the top of the pyramid. The health of the ecosystem is also evaluated through predators, because with the disappearance of predators, imbalance occurs and many things change, either with the increase of fungi, for example, or the growth of other alternative species that lead to environmental imbalance,” he added.

Beyond their importance as part of a healthy and balanced ecosystem, the distinctive creatures also hold immense cultural significance. Browne said that saving them from extinction was a key test of humanity’s stewardship of the natural world.

“It has been mentioned in stories, poems, and works of art for thousands of years. If humans are losing an iconic species like the leopard or aren’t working toward protecting it, then why should they worry about mice, slugs, or scorpions?

“If people did not worry about leopards, if they are prepared to lose them, then they are prepared to lose the ecosystem,” Browne added.

 

Rewilding Arabia
Return of the leopard is at the heart of plans to conserve and regenerate Saudi Arabia’s landscapes and wildlife

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Best of the East: Saudi artists on show at Riyadh exhibition

Updated 28 February 2024
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Best of the East: Saudi artists on show at Riyadh exhibition

  • Series of ink drawings by veteran Abdulrahman Al-Soliman is a highlight of Art Biennale in Riyadh

RIYADH: Series of ink drawings by veteran Abdulrahman Al-Soliman is a highlight of Art Biennale in Riyadh

Work by several of the best artists from the Kingdom’s Eastern Province is on show at the international Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in Riyadh.

Among them is Abdulrahman Al-Soliman, who has been a force in the Saudi art world for decades. His series of ink drawings, titled “Palm, Bow and Fragments” (1990-91) is on show for the first time.

Born in 1954 in Al-Ahsa, Al-Soliman told Arab News he created the collection during the Gulf War more than 30 years ago. “I lived with the side effects of the Kuwaiti conflict and its liberation. I started organically, I didn’t know it would become a series,” he said.

“Since 1970, I have been making art. And this series on display at the biennale — some in color, some not — I rolled them up and put them aside. This is the first time anyone has seen them displayed.”

Another Eastern Province artist whose work is on show is Nabila Al-Bassam, who founded the Arab Heritage Gallery in Alkhobar in 1979. Al-Bassam is a mixed-media artist who uses traditional textile-making processes to produce and create multilayered collages. She is delighted to be among the artists on show.

“What stood out to me at the biennale was the works of Saudi women artists, I really was surprised,” she said.

“I’ve seen many beautiful works. The installations, the hangings — very, very interesting, made out of metal and things like this. There’s a lot to be excited about. They were large works and they were new works, completely new, modern and a new way of thinking.”

The younger generation is also exhibiting in Riyadh. Tara Aldugaither, 34, grew up in Dhahran and in 2020 founded Sawtasura — “voice of the image” — a community-based platform that collects and reimagines the musical histories of Arab women.

The biennale is taking place in the city’s JAX district and continues until May 24.


Saudi Cabinet calls for an end to escalation of military operations in Gaza

Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet held a meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday. (SPA)
Updated 27 February 2024
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Saudi Cabinet calls for an end to escalation of military operations in Gaza

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet called for an end to the escalation in military operations in Gaza and the dire humanitarian crisis that it is causing, Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

The Cabinet also reviewed the outcomes of the Kingdom’s participation in a two-day meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Rio de Janeiro and its vision regarding the group’s role in dealing with existing international tensions and restructuring global governance.

The Cabinet also reiterated the Kingdom’s support for regional and international efforts to ban all types of weapons of mass destruction as was expressed during its participation in the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

The Cabinet also praised the outcomes of a recent Arab Interior Ministers’ Council held in Tunisia and stressed the Kingdom’s constant keenness to support and enhance joint Arab action in all fields in a way that contributes to establishing the foundations of security, stability, and prosperity in the region.


Saudi artist, 78, presents solo exhibition in Riyadh

Updated 27 February 2024
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Saudi artist, 78, presents solo exhibition in Riyadh

  • For 50 years, Sami Almarzoogi quietly pursued his love for art alongside his medical practice

RIYADH: Saudi artist Dr. Sami Almarzoogi’s solo exhibition at L’Art Pur Foundation in Riyadh “Is This a Gold Bar?” demonstrates the benefits of never giving up on your passion.

Presented in collaboration with Hafez Gallery, the showcase presents Almarzoogi’s diverse body of work, encompassing paintings, drawings and mixed-media pieces, which delve deep into his exploration of materials, techniques and themes. He invites viewers to immerse themselves in the emotions he seeks to capture with each stroke of his brush.

‘Is This A Gold Bar?’ by Sami Almarzoogi (Inset, right) invites viewers to immerse themselves in the emotions the artist seeks to capture with each stroke of his brush. (Supplied)

“The exhibition’s title, arrangement, and presentation serve as windows into my inner world, where shadows give way to the unveiling of my creations in the light of day, beckoning viewers to embark on a captivating artistic odyssey,” the artist explained.

His art — drawing inspiration from nature, human figures, personal experiences, and decorative objects — defies categorization, encouraging viewers to ponder the emotional depth conveyed through color and form.

HIGHLIGHTS

● Sami Almarzoogi’s art draws inspiration from nature, human figures, personal experiences, and objects.

● ‘Is This A Gold Bar?’ is being showcased at L’Art Pur in collaboration with Hafez Gallery in Riyadh.

● Curated by Ayman Yossri Daydban, the exhibition signifies a pivotal moment in Almarzoogi’s artistic journey.

Curated by Ayman Yossri Daydban, the exhibition signifies a pivotal moment in Almarzoogi’s artistic journey. Daydban is a celebrated visual artist based in Saudi Arabia who brings a unique perspective shaped over three decades of artistic practice, ensuring a nuanced and stimulating presentation of the artist’s work.

Sami Almarzoogi invites viewers to immerse themselves in the emotions the artist seeks to capture with each stroke of his brush. (Supplied)

Almarzoogi was born in 1945 and spent over three decades unraveling the transformative potential of color and line. Through an intuitive exploration of motifs straddling the realms of figuration and abstraction, his work radiates with sensitivity, drawing prowess, and a profound understanding of color theory.

Almarzoogi said: “Drawing transcends mere equations of form, color, and ideas, or even complex formulations including feelings. It is, in fact, a sentiment taking shape in form, anchoring itself through colors, and blooming into a tapestry of ideas.”

Qaswra Hafez, Hafez Gallery founder

His creative process, he added, “is a reflection of diverse experiences and emotions, unfolding freely on blank canvases, unbound by symbols and interpretations. This natural approach to artistry transcends the confines of studios, beckoning an existential exploration enriched by observation, travel, and a universal spirit.”

Speaking about the journey captured in his works, he said: “In my artistic journey, the transition from darkness to doubt and ultimately light mirrors my personal growth, culminating in the radiant beauty of radiance.”

Sami Almarzoogi invites viewers to immerse themselves in the emotions the artist seeks to capture with each stroke of his brush. (Supplied)

His creative journey, initially interwoven with a distinguished career in anesthesiology, found its full expression upon his return to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s, following an enriching decade-long sojourn in Germany.

Qaswra Hafez, founder of Hafez Gallery, said: “In my 35 years involved in the arts one way or another, producing this exhibition gave me the most confidence measure. It’s not every day that you find a 78-year-old artist who has been working in silence for over 50 years and never had a solo. It was such a joy for me to watch (and) see the exhibition the first time.”

It’s not every day that you find a 78-year-old artist who has been working in silence for over 50 years and never had a solo. It was such a joy for me to watch (and) see the exhibition the first time.

Qaswra Hafez, Hafez Gallery founder

Kenza Zouari, communication manager at Hafez Projects, said: “Sami Almarzoogi’s life is a testament to the courage to embark on new journeys. After years in the medical field, he made the bold decision to pursue his lifelong passion for art and his relentless quest for exploration led him to dive into the world of colors, shapes and forms with the same dedication and precision he once had in the operating room.”

She added: “With brushes replacing medical tools, Dr. Almarzoogi kept on trying new styles and techniques with this insatiable hunger for experimentation. His transition from doctor to artist was not just a career change; it was a profound transformation that allowed him to fully explore and express himself.

Sami Almarzoogi invites viewers to immerse themselves in the emotions the artist seeks to capture with each stroke of his brush. (Supplied)

“Today, as we stand witness to his incredible body of work, we are reminded of the possibility within each of us to pursue our passions. Dr. Almarzoogi’s story is a powerful reminder that it is never too late to chase our dreams.”

Echoing this sentiment, Rania Rizk, director of the arts program at L’Art Pur Foundation, said: “We are thrilled to present the second solo exhibition, offering the Riyadh audience a glimpse into his extensive artistic journey and captivating narrative. Dr. Almarzoogi’s dedication to painting and drawing, quietly and authentically, alongside his medical profession, reflects his unwavering passion for art.

“His close friend, artist Ayman Yossri, as the curator, (ensues) the spiritual essence of the artwork shines through, enriching the exhibition with a deep sense of warmth and meaning.”

The exhibition at L’Art Pur is open to the public until Feb. 29 at 8 p.m.

 


Ardah performer finds strength in traditional Saudi dance

Ali Shaker Al-Ghamdi is a prominent performer of Saudi ardah who notes that the folk dance requires great physical effort.
Updated 27 February 2024
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Ardah performer finds strength in traditional Saudi dance

  • Ali Shaker Al-Ghamdi told Arab News: “I used to attend ardah performances and was obsessed with it, its rhythms, its fast pace. I participated for the first time when I was young, in my uncles’ village, Qarn Dhabi”

MAKKAH: Ali Shaker Al-Ghamdi is one of the most prominent performers of the southern Saudi ardah, a dance he described as showcasing strength while uniting communities.

Performed on special occasions such as Saudi Founding Day, the ardah highlights the Kingdom’s heritage through poetry and dance.

Al-Ghamdi had to undergo surgery after tearing a tendon in his foot while dancing at an Al-Janadriyah festival in Riyadh and feared being unable to perform again.

Ali Shaker Al-Ghamdi is a prominent performer of Saudi ardah who notes that the folk dance requires great physical effort. (Supplied)

He told Arab News: “I used to attend ardah performances and was obsessed with it, its rhythms, its fast pace. I participated for the first time when I was young, in my uncles’ village, Qarn Dhabi.”

While each region has its own distinct style of the folk art, the ardah performances share heritage, culture, and the spirit of heroism. The dance combines poetry to tell the stories of battles, wars, and courage passed down from one generation to another.

On how the ardah had changed over time, Al-Ghamdi said: “In the past, ardah was performed when a tribe felt it was being attacked by another. Whenever they heard the sound of the zir (a type of drum), they gathered and performed the war-related ardah.

FASTFACT

Performed on special occasions such as Saudi Founding Day, the ardah highlights the Kingdom’s heritage through poetry and dance.

“Their steps are synchronized as they raise their right and left arms together. Their movements are synchronized.

“It makes you feel like you are actually on the battlefield. Now it is a performance with a smile on the face and a symbol of manhood,” he added.

Al-Ghamdi, a physical education teacher in the Baha region, noted that the folk performance required great physical effort.

He said: “Thanks to God, I still maintain my fitness. I teach those who want to learn folk arts the Saudi ardah and the southern ardah.

“I still remember very well when I participated in one of Al-Janadriyah festivals in Riyadh and one of the attendees told me that I was fitter than the (Swedish) footballer (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic and that I should leave the show and join one of the big clubs. It was hilarious.”

Al-Ghamdi pointed out that no matter where he was, if he heard instruments, he felt compelled to join in. “It is as if my body and the instrument are in harmony and in a state of communication.”

He highlighted a performance where an elderly man from the audience, who appeared to have physical constraints, got up and joined in. “When he saw me, he stood up, danced, and interacted with me, leaving everyone blown away. I wondered what ardah could have done to him to move his body?”

 


Who’s Who: Wesam Al-Ghamdi, CEO at NEOM Green Hydrogen Co.

Wesam Al-Ghamdi
Updated 27 February 2024
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Who’s Who: Wesam Al-Ghamdi, CEO at NEOM Green Hydrogen Co.

Wesam Al-Ghamdi is CEO at NEOM Green Hydrogen Co., spearheading the growth and execution of the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, which is set to commence in 2026.

Once fully operational, the plant will also be managed under his leadership. Under his direction, the company will progress from its construction phase to full functionality for the supply of green hydrogen to the local and global markets for the heavy industry and transportation sectors.

Al-Ghamdi has also developed an environmental, social and governance factors strategy for the company to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

He brings over two decades of cross-functional senior leadership experience within diverse industry sectors in the Middle East region and globally, including in engineering, operations, and project management with companies like the Saudi Arabian Mining Co., or Ma’aden, SABIC and Shell.

During his tenure at Ma’aden, where he began working in 1998, he held several positions, each making a significant impact in the region. Most recently, he served as vice president of strategy and business development in the aluminum strategic business unit. In this role, he was responsible for long-term strategy development and divesture opportunities.

Al-Ghamdi is a graduate of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. He also has several technical certifications, including foundations of directorship from the Board Directors Institute, INSEAD/Ma’aden’s executive leadership development, GE’s executive leadership development, and Alcoa’s leadership development training.