How Saudi Arabia champions cutting-edge research into unique Red Sea marine environments — blue holes

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In a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast. (NCW photo)
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In a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast. (NCW photo)
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In a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast. (NCW photo)
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In a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast. (NCW photo)
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Updated 30 March 2024
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How Saudi Arabia champions cutting-edge research into unique Red Sea marine environments — blue holes

  • Expeditions carried out by the Saudi National Center for Wildlife and OceanX have revealed 20 blue holes
  • Future exploration will further map these extremely deep underwater formations and identify diverse species

RIYADH: While Saudi Arabia has long been feted for its ancient sites, distinctive culture and sweeping desert landscapes, recent strides in marine research and exploration could soon see scientists and tourists alike flocking to the Kingdom’s bluer regions.

In just the first year of a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast.

Blue holes, named for their vibrant color, have long been recognized as havens for a diverse array of marine life, attracting researchers eager to study their remarkable biodiversity and leisure divers drawn to their profound natural beauty.

 

 

Mohammad Qurban, CEO of NCW, said that the discovery of blue holes marked a significant milestone in the Kingdom’s exploration of marine ecosystems.

“The blue holes’ discovery in Saudi Arabia was a result of the groundbreaking exploration effort in collaboration with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology during the Red Sea Decade Expedition,” he told Arab News.

“Exploring the Wonders of the Red Sea: A Decade Expedition” is an unprecedented scientific research expedition launched last year by the NCW in partnership with OceanX and KAUST.




The OceanXplorer. (NCW photo)

Researchers are using advanced diving techniques, remote sensing technologies, remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles to examine the geology, hydrology, biology and chemistry of the blue holes to unravel the mysteries of these unique ecosystems.

“Scientific diving allows for direct observation and sample collection, while technology enables the mapping and study of blue holes’ deeper and more inaccessible parts,” Carlos Duarte, the expedition’s chief scientist and a distinguished professor of marine science at KAUST, told Arab News.

Duarte is credited with having identified a previously unexplored area of the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast, which extends north from Jazan to Al-Lith, as an area of potential interest for marine conservation.




Researchers are using advanced diving techniques to examine the biology and chemistry of the blue holes. (NCW photo)

“This is a labyrinth of coral reefs, which I explored during a few years using a KAUST research vessel,” he said.

“Venturing through this labyrinth is a daunting task, as it has very shallow areas adjacent to deep areas. On one occasion, the bow of the vessel was just above an emerging coral reef, but the depth sounder, which is located 15 meters toward the stern of the vessel, read 750 meters.”

Duarte said that he must have been right next to a blue hole without even knowing it, “as we did not have the necessary mapping underwater equipment at the time.




In a decade-long expedition led by Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Wildlife, 20 extremely deep underwater sinkholes, known as “blue holes,” were discovered along the Kingdom’s southern Red Sea coast. (NCW photo)

“Hence, I targeted this area in the design of the Red Sea Decade Expedition — the most ambitious exploration of the Saudi Red Sea to date, led by the National Center of Wildlife, where I served as chief scientist and we had the right platform, the advanced research vessel OceanX, to explore this region.”

As a result of this latest expedition, researchers believe they have identified the existence of two types of blue holes — blue rings and sunken lagoons.

Blue rings are cylinders of coral that rise from about 400 meters deep and are topped by a ring of coral extending to the surface, whereas sunken lagoons are formed by the collapse of carbonate platforms and can be as deep as 700 meters — or perhaps even deeper.




A closer view of a blue ring, composed of cylinders of coral that rise from about 400 meters deep. (NCW photo)

“We explored with an advanced vessel, submersibles, deep-water robots, a shallow-draft mapping vessel and a helicopter, coupled with advanced sequencing technology,” Duarte said.




Carlos Duarte

“The National Center of Wildlife is planning a subsequent expedition to explore and map the many blue holes that we could not explore, as conserving this natural treasure must be based on the best possible data.”

Duarte said that blue holes are worthy of particular attention by conservationists because of the many endangered marine species that depend on them.

“These are unique features, a few of which have been described elsewhere in the ocean, but not in the number and size of the blue holes in the Saudi Red Sea,” he said.

“We observed marine mammals seeking refuge inside these blue holes, which they seem to be using as a nursery, with their newborns protected in their interior.

“Blue holes contribute in a multifaceted way by uncovering geological processes driving the dynamics of carbonate platforms and expressing the limits of environments for marine life through the extreme conditions they present.

“They also provide evidence of the importance of physical shelter for vulnerable marine life, thereby informing conservation efforts.”




Researchers are also using remote sensing technologies, remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles to examine the biology and chemistry of the blue holes. (NCW photo)

What makes blue holes so fascinating, however, is their extreme depth, much of which is beyond the reach of even the most advanced underwater exploration methods. At those depths, some of the hardiest and least understood organisms flourish.

“At depth, they are deprived of oxygen, presenting unique biological communities that deserve further attention,” Duarte said.

“They are even mysterious for local fishermen, who do not venture inside this reef labyrinth, and their true nature can only be gathered from the air at low altitude, so even satellites cannot really accurately portray their nature.”

DID YOU KNOW?

• Exploring the Wonders of the Sea: A Decade Long Expedition has mapped more than 62,000 sq km of seabed and collected more than 800 samples.

• The expedition team reported numerous sightings of megafauna across the Red Sea, including sharks, manta rays and turtles.

• NCW is researching biological diversity and threats to these important marine environments in Saudi waters of the Red Sea.

Because of the rare characteristics of these environments and the precious species that depend on them, Qurban said that the NCW is implementing a dedicated conservation effort aimed at protecting blue holes.

“These efforts include establishing marine protected areas, regulating diving and fishing activities, and conducting scientific research to understand the ecological significance of blue holes better,” he said.

The environmental goals of these expeditions fall in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 social reform and economic diversification plan, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, and the Saudi Green Initiative, established in 2021.




With the discovery that precious species depend on the blue holes, the NCW is implementing a dedicated conservation effort to protect them. (NCW)

“The National Center for Wildlife is working toward preserving 30 percent of the Red Sea waters as protected areas by 2030, in addition to closely collaborating with local environmental agencies, marine conservation organizations, research institutions and stakeholders to develop and implement a holistic conservation strategy aimed at safeguarding blue holes.”

As for the future of Saudi marine exploration in the Red Sea, Duarte said that the latest blue hole discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg.

“They have been at an ‘arm’s length’ from us for millennia, but only now we were able to explore them,” he said.

“What we found is simply the beginning, as many remain to be explored and those we were able to explore may not be the most remarkable ones.”

 


Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions

Updated 20 May 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions

  • Hala Al-Tuwaijri cites “rapid advances, huge transformation” in women’s empowerment, particularly in the labor force
  • Describes “humbling responsibility” of handling human rights file, highlighting need for judicial reform

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “huge transformation” in relation to women’s empowerment thanks to comprehensive reforms to legal, civil, and social rights, Hala Al-Tuwaijri, the first woman to lead the the country’s Human Rights Commission, has said.

The Kingdom has seen rapid advances in the representation of women in positions of leadership, from Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the first female Saudi ambassador to the US, to Sara Al-Suhaimi, the first female chair of Tadawul, the Saudi stock exchange.

Indeed, Al-Tuwaijri’s own appointment as president of the Human Rights Commission with the rank of minister back in September 2022 is proof in itself of the tectonic changes underway in Saudi Arabia.

“Those are examples of women who made it to the top. (But) that’s basically the tip of the iceberg,” Al-Tuwaijri told Katie Jensen, host of the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.”

“What has actually happened in Saudi Arabia is a huge transformation, especially when it comes to the issue of women’s empowerment.”

Hala Al-Tuwaijri, president of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, said: “Yes, unfortunately, there is bias not only against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but generally against people from this region.” (AN photo)

In a freewheeling interview, Al-Tuwaijri discussed the progress she has witnessed since assuming office and addressed the criticisms of Western nations that scrutinize the authenticity of Saudi Arabia’s advancements in human rights.

Nowhere is the transformation in the rights of Saudi women more obvious than in the workplace. Thanks to a slew of reforms and new legal protections, women now make up a significant portion of the labor force at every level.

“The approach was comprehensive,” said Al-Tuwaijri. “We basically expanded all the legal, civil, social rights and looked at legislation, procedures and everything that was actually obstructing women’s progress was actually moved away.

“The biggest achievement, I think, is how women’s empowerment has changed the face of the country. Now you see women everywhere working in every field. The pipelines for women to join the labor force were all unclogged and therefore you see women joining the labor force.

“And this was translated in the data about women’s empowerment and especially women’s participation in the workforce.”

Perhaps the best examples of this transformation are the Saudi women making strides in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine — career paths that have traditionally been dominated by men.

Saudi scientist Rayyanah Barnawi (R) became the first Saudi female astronaut to go to space. With her in the picture is fellow Saudi astronaut Ali Alqarni. (@Astro_Rayyanah/File))

“I would use the cliche ‘the sky’s the limit,’ but after (first Saudi female astronaut) Rayyanah Barnawi went to space, I think that metaphor does not describe the ambition of Saudi women,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“I think that Saudi women have proved to be efficient and to be up to the positions that they’ve taken.”

Since 2016, the Kingdom has implemented a raft of reforms designed to empower women, from the lifting of the ban on driving and the relaxation of the male guardianship law to measures to combat violence against women and girls.

Although it is a challenging role, Al-Tuwaijri says her appointment to lead the Human Rights Commission reflects how seriously the Kingdom takes its obligations and its commitment to the shared values of the international community.

“This task of handling the human rights file anywhere in the world is a huge responsibility, a humbling one,” she said. “And also, it comes with a package of knowing you’re doing good for the people and for mankind in general. It has its own lofty values and principles as well.

“In Saudi Arabia, it’s no different. I come to work every day knowing that, yes, I’m doing my job on the one hand. But also, I know that this job includes the promotion and protection, the rights of people living in Saudi Arabia and also contributing to the international community and the new trends and approaches to human rights.

“So, the task is not a simple one. It’s not a straightforward one. It’s not that you have a goal and you have to accomplish it at a certain period of time. No, it’s ongoing. It’s dynamic. And it’s always changing, requiring a lot of exposure, communication with others.”

In a September 2023 interview with US broadcaster Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted to being “ashamed” of the Kingdom’s laws after a retired teacher was sentenced to death for a critical post on social media.

“Shamefully, it’s true. It’s something I don’t like,” the crown prince told Fox News, highlighting his government’s efforts to reform and modernize the judiciary.

“We are doing our best … we have already changed tens of laws in Saudi Arabia, and the list has more than 1,000 items. In the cabinet they have only 150 lawyers, so I’m trying to prioritize the change day by day.”

He added: “But we are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that. But (under) the jury system, you have to follow the laws and I cannot tell a judge (to) do that and ignore the law, because … that’s against the rule of law. But do we have bad laws? Yes. We are changing that, yes.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was interviewed by Fox News’ chief political correspondent Bret Baier on Sept. 21, 2023. (AN Files)

Asked about these comments, Al-Tuwaijri said the crown prince respects the authority of the Kingdom’s judiciary, but that reforms are necessary — measures that the Human Rights Commission is on board with.

“Yes, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince stated that. And I think it’s a verbal affirmation of the big initiatives that are taking place in terms of the transformation in the judicial system,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“Three laws have been issued recently, all of them controlling the lives of people in a positive way — where by controlling we mean there is more clarity in terms of the judiciary and predictability, of course.

“The fact that all of this is taking place while we are also progressing, putting forward initiatives, is more like fixing a plane while you’re flying. And this is precisely what His Royal Highness the Crown Prince indicated.

“But in the same interview you have mentioned, he also showed so much respect for the judiciary. And I think every country that respects itself and its status has to also respect the judiciary.”

The Human Rights Commission is participating in this reform process “so the human rights lens is always applied when it comes to issuing a new law or reviewing one or giving advice on a certain procedure,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“We have to make sure also that everything that’s happening in this journey of legal transformation is actually aligned with the human rights commitment.”

Although its reform agenda is driven by a broader domestic transformation plan under Vision 2030, the Kingdom engages with international agencies and human rights groups to ascertain where improvements can be made — provided they are based on fact rather than hearsay.

Highlights of the speech of Saudi HRC chief Hala Altuwaijri during Global Labor Market Conference, with the topic “Women in the Labor Market”. (X: @HRCSaudi_EN)

“In our mandate, we engage with all kinds of parties, whether it’s state, government organizations or non-government organizations,” said Al-Tuwaijri. “But the basis of this kind of engagement is cooperation, dialogue and constructive efforts.

“We do engage with all of these entities as long as the objective is to have a constructive dialogue that actually is on equal footing and, at the same time, understands the differences between us. This is basically how we function.”

She added: “And of course, we do monitor what the media addresses in terms of human rights issues, that includes everything. So, it depends on our relationship with these entities. We engage directly in cooperation and dialogue.

“And if we find that the reports are not based on facts but just meritless, hearsay or so, then we just focus on working on the ground and trying to continue our strategy and reach our goals and consider that (report) as one of so many reports that are actually politicizing human rights and not really engaging in a cooperative manner.”

In January, the UN held the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where Al-Tuwaijri emphasized Saudi Arabia’s determination to achieve the highest global standards in promoting and protecting human rights.

Illustration on Saudi Arabia's participation in the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in January 2024. (X: @HRCSaudi_EN)

Despite the significant strides Saudi Arabia has made, several Western commentators have characterized this commitment as a PR stunt. Al-Tuwaijri brushed aside the criticism, pointing to the Kingdom’s positive record.

The Universal Periodic Review “covers a period where there were, on the ground, more than 100 reforms, and those reforms (have been) published,” she said. “They are supported with evidence, with data, and that is an actual manifestation of the reforms.

“Yes, some people would always criticize and some people would be cynical about what happens. But we keep open in terms of cooperation with states, government organizations, non-government organizations about addressing these issues and discussing areas of improvement.

“And for people who doubt, (who say) that it’s a stunt or that we’re not telling the truth, I invite them to come and visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and meet actually with men and women from the Saudi community and listen to how much they have actually benefited from all of these improvements and changes and developments that happened on the ground.”

Asked whether the negative perception of Saudi Arabia among international rights organizations is influenced by political bias or unrealistic expectations, Al-Tuwaijri pointed to the positive feedback the Kingdom has also received.

 

 

“There were more than 135 comments given to the Saudi delegation in Geneva last January. And what was astonishing is that all 135 comments were introduced by acknowledgement of the improvement,” she said.

“It is obvious that compared to the previous report, there is great improvement that was acknowledged by the international community.”

She added: “Yes, unfortunately, there is bias not only against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but generally against people from this region. But we try to overlook the negative implications of that bias and try to see the good in these approaches or reports or criticism and see what we can take from them.”

Al-Tuwaijri acknowledged that changing such attitudes would be a gradual process, but one that woule be achieved through continued engagement with friends and critics alike.

“The purpose is to make people see for themselves what is happening in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “Because the narrative is never complete, actually, without people witnessing it with their own eyes.”
 

 


Two-state solution will solve problems in the Middle East, says Chinese envoy to KSA

Chang Hua expressed strong support for the establishment of an independent, fully sovereign state of Palestine. (Supplied)
Updated 19 May 2024
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Two-state solution will solve problems in the Middle East, says Chinese envoy to KSA

  • Chang Hua emphasizes strategic partnership, advocates for global stability

RIYADH: The newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chang Hua, said that the issue of Palestine must be resolved.

Speaking at his residence in Riyadh, Hua expressed strong support for the establishment of an independent, fully sovereign state of Palestine.

“This is a basic solution to solve all the problems in the Middle East,” the envoy said.

The seven-month war in Gaza has killed more than 35,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

“As a former ambassador to Iran and currently an ambassador to the Kingdom, I am honored to personally participate in establishing a mechanism — a joint Chinese-Saudi-Iranian committee. I will make more efforts to advance the mechanism to achieve further results.”

The resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran was established on March 10, 2023 in a deal brokered by China.

“China, as an important party to the Beijing Agreement, will continue to push Saudi-Iranian relations to progress continuously. We restore it to make joint efforts with Saudi Arabia in creating beneficial conditions to advance the implementation of the Beijing Agreement and enhance tripartite dealings.”

The ambassador added: “I think this mechanism could be a model for peace in the Middle East. In fact, in 2021, the minister of foreign affairs visited Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkiye on a tour in this region, and presented peace proposals to me within five points. We are still continuing this talk and we want to enhance stability and security in this region.”

Hua has decades of experience in the Middle East, having served as an ambassador in Yemen, Iran, and the UAE.

Addressing the relations between the two countries, the envoy said: “China and Saudi Arabia enjoy a comprehensive strategic partnership. In politics, the two sides have exchanged firm support on issues related to the other side’s core interests and major concerns.

“China views Saudi Arabia as an important power in a multipolar world, and places the development of relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority in its overall foreign policy, especially within its diplomacy in the Middle East.

“In addition, China and the Kingdom pursue an independent foreign policy. It calls on the two countries to preserve the international order based on the ‘United Nations Charter’ and international law. In the United Nations, the G20, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other international platforms and international and regional hot issues, China and Saudi Arabia have long maintained constant communication and close coordination, and we have worked together to promote global peace and stability and achieve development and prosperity.”

In December 2022, the first China-Arab Summit was held in Riyadh. “They (both sides) continue to work collectively to build the Chinese-Arab community with all its potential toward a new era. The Arab-Chinese summit is the first to amplify the driving force for the development of Chinese-Arab relations, but it is the forum in the new phase.”

The 10th session of the China-Arab Cooperation Ministerial Forum will be held soon. The Chinese side is prepared to work together with the Arab side to continue fostering the spirit of Arab friendship, strengthening and enriching China-Arab cooperation, thereby advancing the interests of the Chinese-Arab community at an elevated level for the future.

 


Saudi Arabia launches 1,000 Qur’an memorization sessions for Hajj season

Updated 19 May 2024
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Saudi Arabia launches 1,000 Qur’an memorization sessions for Hajj season

  • Qualified Saudi teachers will lead these efforts to enrich the experience of pilgrims

RIYADH: Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs at the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, has approved the launch of 1,000 sessions dedicated to Hajj pilgrims memorizing the Qur’an, Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

This initiative aligns with the presidency’s plans for this year’s Hajj season to disseminate the morals of the Qur’an and its moderate message globally. Qualified Saudi teachers, who have memorized the holy book, will lead these efforts to enrich the experience of pilgrims.

Al-Sudais said that this initiative reflected the Kingdom’s leadership’s commitment to teaching, memorizing, interpreting and enhancing understanding of the Qur’an. He said that the sessions in the Two Holy Mosques were designed to provide educational and pedagogical content, as well as methodological approaches to spreading the Qur’an’s message and guidance.

The Presidency of Religious Affairs also aims to broaden the scope of education within these Qur’anic sessions, incorporating recitations and holidays related to the Prophet Muhammad.
 


Saudi Arabia leads offers to help Iran after crash of helicopter carrying President Raisi

Video footage shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (L) with an unidentified memeber of his delegation on board a helicopter.
Updated 19 May 2024
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Saudi Arabia leads offers to help Iran after crash of helicopter carrying President Raisi

  • The Foreign Ministry said the Kingdom was following reports about the crash with “great concern” 
  • Qatar said it is ready to provide “all forms of support” for Iran’s search efforts after the helicopter crash

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia expressed its support for Iran and said it was ready to provide any assistance required after a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi crashed on Sunday.

The Foreign Ministry said the Kingdom was following reports about the crash with “great concern.” 

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government said in a statement it had instructed its interior ministry, the Red Crescent and other relevant bodies to offer help to neighboring Iran in the search mission.

Iranian search and rescue teams were scouring a fog-shrouded mountainside after the helicopter carrying the president and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian went missing in an “accident” on Sunday, state media said.

Fears grew for Raisi after contact was lost with the helicopter carrying him in East Azerbaijan province, reports said.

Raisi was visiting the province where he inaugurated a dam project together with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, on the border between the two countries.

“Today, after bidding a friendly farewell to the (visiting) President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, we were profoundly troubled by the news of a helicopter carrying the top delegation crash-landing in Iran,” Aliyev said.

“Our prayers to Allah Almighty are with President Ebrahim Raisi and the accompanying delegation. As a neighbor, friend, and brotherly country, the Republic of Azerbaijan stands ready to offer any assistance needed,” he added.

Qatar said it is ready to provide “all forms of support” for Iran’s search efforts after the helicopter crash.

The UAE foreign ministry said in a statement that the country stands by Iran and is ready to provide support in efforts to find the helicopter carrying Raisi. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said it was following developments in Sunday’s Iran helicopter accident with sadness and hoping for the president’s wellbeing, adding that action had been taken to provide all kinds of support to search and rescue activities.

The European Union said it had activated its “rapid response mapping service” to help Iran search for the helicopter.

Russia also said it is ready to extend help to Iran in connection with the crash. 

“Russia is ready to extend all necessary help in the search for the missing helicopter and the investigation of the reasons for the incident,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the Telegram messaging app.


Saudi environment minister meets with EU, Singaporean officials

Updated 20 May 2024
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Saudi environment minister meets with EU, Singaporean officials

  • During the meetings, Al-Fadhli discussed various aspects of cooperation in the fields of water and environment

JAKARTA: Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Environment, Water, and Agriculture Abdulrahman Al-Fadhli held several bilateral meetings at the 10th World Water Forum in Jakarta on Sunday.

He met with the director-general of the EU’s environment department, Florika Fink-Hooijer, and Amy Khor, Singapore’s senior minister of state for sustainability and environment affairs, among other officials.

During the meetings, Al-Fadhli discussed various aspects of cooperation in the fields of water and environment, calling on countries to contribute to achieving the goals of the World Water Organization.