A call to action: Environmentalism and our collective duty as Saudi citizens

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Earlier this year, I sat in the car on my way from Jeddah airport and could not help but notice the view from the window: a choreographed dance of colorful “desert flowers” over arid land, synchronized to the rhythm of the breeze wafting from our beautiful Red Sea coast - blue, green and pink dancing plastic. I thought about the pain of recycling and composting during my time abroad and related it to the clean streets I grew accustomed to. A striking contrast to what I saw as a painful sight, that of the littered streets in my ancestral city.

I questioned friends and relatives, and really anyone who would indulge me with their thoughts on environmentalism here in Saudi Arabia. To my surprise, more often than not, the people I engaged with had little or no knowledge of this subject - at least not at the depth that I subjectively believe is necessary to form opinions and make informed decisions. Many, especially those of the older generation, were quick to dismiss the “news” and “scientific facts” as conspiracy theories fabricated by the “West.” But this is not politics. According to a report published by the Saudi General Authority of Meteorology & Environmental Protection, the months between June and August 2018 witnessed an alarming rise in the average temperature over the Arabian Peninsula.

As a communication and information expert with an insatiable appetite for research, I decided to delve into a mini investigation about environmentalism here in Saudi Arabia. Some of the data I have come across were heartbreaking (Haj litter, sewage, chemical waste, water-flooded streets, etc.). But even so, the data supported my optimism about future change and the importance of dialogue.

As part of Vision 2030, the government of Saudi Arabia took a giant leap toward protecting the environment by reducing fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. In Makkah, government bodies have found successful ways to treat water waste produced by visitors of the Holy Mosque. In 2007, Saudi Arabia contributed $300 million to fund research on renewable energy and the environment. In 2017, the Public Investment Fund established the Saudi Investment Recycling Company to manage waste. In 2018, it signed a memorandum to build the largest solar plant worldwide. This commitment is in line with the country’s ambition to reduce carbon

dioxide (CO2) emissions by 130 million tons and diversify its economy and energy supply away from oil dependence by 2030. The Kingdom has also been an active signatory in the Paris Agreement and among the major participants in the most recent UN Climate Change Conference.

By all accounts, the government is making every effort to achieve the Paris Accord target. It has implemented new initiatives that include energy efficiency, renewable energy, water and natural resource sustainability programs, carbon capture and storage, in addition to awareness campaigns.

This raises the question, what is it that stands in the way of sustainable development and a green culture in Saudi Arabia? Why are there so many critics dismissing the country’s efforts to protect the environment?

The reality is that we are a consumerist society. I need not convey in words the truth behind this. Anyone can see, just by looking around, how our collective behavior supports this. It is no surprise then that the government’s efforts to achieve its goals are hindered by the challenging obstacles we as citizens put in place. As Saudis, we waste nine billion square meters of water each year - an ominous warning about a pending water crisis in our future. The average Saudi in 2019 consumes a little more than 260 liters of water a day, not accounting for visitors from abroad. And this is just a minor part of the waste and pollution that we produce daily. To aid the 2030 mission of reducing this to 150 liters per person a day, it is our civic duty to be proactive about effecting change.

The potential is there in the form of our youth. The number of college graduates in the MENA region is expected to reach 30 million by 2020 (World Bank Organization). However, in Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi Labor Market Update, in 2017 the rate of unemployment rose significantly from 2010. In 2017, male and female unemployment reached over 600,000 people. More critically, unemployed Saudi women with education levels higher than secondary school make up 80 percent of the total female unemployment rate, as opposed to their male counterparts with the same credentials who only constitute 30 percent of the total male unemployment rate. This is perilous since females are an untapped resource in driving the economy today.

By taking action through our social roles and traditional norms, we can reduce waste: in the form of plastic, water, food, electricity, and most importantly by modeling our behavior to our young. We as women are a powerful force for sustainable development and environmental protection. But that is not all. The current state of the environment presents an opportunity in the growing regional digital economy to harness this population’s skillset and create new avenues for work, combating unemployment.

Saudi Arabia is due to communicate its second nationally determined contribution to the Paris Accord by 2020. Thinking back to the desert flowers that met me when I first arrived, I call upon our citizens to participate in discussions on social media, to document, to read, to learn, and to teach. Let us be an example in the region, instead of its largest waste producer at 15 million metric tons annually. I particularly call upon women, who statistically are more likely to earn graduate degrees than their male counterparts (97.5 percent in contrast to 83.1 percent gross higher education enrolment respectively, according to the Saudi Government General Authority for Statistics), to take the initiative and use their expertise to come up with innovative ways that can benefit our natural world. We can now drive, both literally and figuratively, so let us drive toward a new cultural environment that advocates for our economy, our health, the health of future generations, and the health of our environment. Let us begin by shifting the narrative on climate change in the Arab world, by taking a proactive role in our society and engaging in social dialogue.

Months after settling into my new life here in Saudi, and during a grocery run at one of the local supermarkets, I watched a South Asian man earning his living by bagging my groceries. He placed a total of three items in each plastic bag. A little embarrassed but more disconcerted, I reached into my handbag for a reusable shopping bag, defying the sneering looks darting my way. I stopped the man and told him to empty the plastic bags and fill mine to the brim. He hesitated fearing that this would not warrant a tip. I gave him the tip reassuringly and attempted to summarize why using so many bags is a waste and a hazard to our environment. I did not delve into what I have seen on the roads, nor did I disclose the amount of plastic I once helped remove during a cleanup scuba diving activity here in Jeddah. That was not because I doubted his capacity to understand, but because I wanted to be an example through practice, and because I knew that a discernable cause for his behavior had to do with customers like me. So the next time you find yourself in a supermarket, or on the road, notice the dessert flowers, count the bags, and ponder and consider the many ways in which you, as an individual, as a family unit, and as an organization can be part of the positive transformation that we collectively can achieve.

Kinda Dahlan is an information and communication expert, and a digital humanist. She is a Ph.D. holder from the Department of Information Studies at University College London, UK. She currently resides in Jeddah, where she works as an Assistant Professor in Business Analytics at the University of Business & Technology (UBT).


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