Sustainable change in Saudi with Dina Hasan Al Nahdy
Chris Seekings meets regional environmental champion Dina Hasan Al Nahdy and finds out how one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations is carving out a greener future.
Sustainability expert, CEO of a successful environmental services company, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) consultant and chairman on a national committee. Already an impressive list of accomplishments, Dina Hasan Al Nahdy is even a Guinness World Record holder. Her remarkable achievements coincide with her homeland of Saudi Arabia repositioning itself within the environment and sustainability sector after decades as a major oil producer.
Al Nahdy has been at the forefront of that transformation, and, after telling her of my upbringing in the Middle East, followed by some ribbing about my flawed Arabic, our conversation begins with me asking what she thinks Saudi will look like in coming years, and whether its dependence on oil will ever diminish.
“Well, diminish is a strong word. I don’t think that will happen,” she admits. “But our government has a vision that is well strategised – it realises that we cannot depend on oil forever, and we are working very hard to diversify.” She tells me the country is now concentrating its efforts on scaling up its use of renewable energy, and that the government wants a “very large percentage” of its power to be sourced in this way.
Much of this plan is laid out in the country’s ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, which aims to increase non-oil revenue sixfold by the end of the next decade, and hike its non-oil exports up from the current 16% of GDP to 50%.
In terms of energy sources, Saudi wants to create a vast pool of solar energy in the north of the country. However, this will not come without a cost to the public. “Our utility bills are going up, because the government was previously very generously covering the costs,” she explains. “But that is a good thing in my eyes, as it means the whole community is realising there was a problem we were not taking care of before.”
It has also reaped benefits for her own business, ENTEC, which has been offering environmental services since 1995. Al Nahdy tells me that when she used to approach an organisation, there was little interest because it was too expensive, but new energy and water efficiency has changed all that.
“Today is a totally different story,” she tells me. “From private businesses to ministries and the regular community, they are all realising the importance of minimising our usage, and recognising the shift to renewable energy.” As she explains, the volume and size of green projects in Saudi has increased dramatically. “We are busier than ever implementing water treatment plants, carrying out environmental baseline assessments, LEED-certifying factories, and providing international training courses.”
Part of diversifying the country’s economy involves several ‘mega-projects’, one of which has already been inaugurated – the $4bn Red Sea Project. Saudi sees tourism as a big part of its future, with this project planned to feature various resorts spanning 125 miles of the western coastline, including 50 untouched islands, natural reserves, inactive volcanoes and heritage sites. “There is a lot of natural beauty in that area, and this project will absolutely have to be done on an environmentally friendly basis.” She goes on to tell me how sustainable tourism will be an important feature of the project, citing a particular coral in the area, renowned worldwide for its beauty, as something that needs to be preserved. “This is going to create so many jobs, creating a giant boom in this type of sustainable business, in implementing the project itself and then maintaining it.”
There are seemingly many contradictions between a deeply conservative country, which each year attracts millions of Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca, and one that sees itself as a potential top international tourism destination. However, Al Nahdy says that she does not envisage any issues: “The authorities and government expect this to be one of the top 10 tourist areas in the world. I am sure they would have taken that into consideration.”
Al Nahdy’s success appears in sharp contrast to the many stories that emanate from Saudi about women’s role in society. Indeed, it was only last month that Saudi women were finally given the right to drive after almost three decades of campaigning. I ask her whether she had experienced many difficulties getting to her position? “Of course it was a struggle. There was a time when I couldn’t go to a ministry myself and sit in a meeting with men, and I would have to send one of my male head managers instead,” she says. She also reveals how difficult it was just to get the registration of her company in her name, as it was considered very strange for a woman to be in this field of work. “But today is a totally different situation,”
she insists. “Twenty years ago it was a struggle, 10 years ago it was difficult, but women are now able to do the same as men, they can go to business meetings and sign contracts, so things have changed dramatically – thank God,” she laughs.
Al Nahdy is keen to highlight how the struggle for gender equality is a worldwide problem, not one exclusive to Saudi. “When I met Angela Merkel, she asked me about women’s situation in Saudi. I said, listen, German women are still not getting equal salaries to men, this is a worldwide issue – and she agreed.” While Al Nahdy is a firm believer that women have a right to equality, she adds: “I don’t differentiate between female and male, what matters to me is the competence of the person and their performance, not their gender or nationality.”
It was Al Nahdy’s parents who got her interested in the environmental sector, teaching her at a young age to care about the environment and to preserve rather than waste. With a background in finance, she supervised and controlled all strategic and business aspects of her company, securing a local strategic partner, which has seen the firm grow in size and scope. She then went on to receive an honorary doctorate from the UN in environmental sustainability.
Despite her work on a whole series of environmental projects, Al Nahdy says that raising awareness in the general population is key to lasting change, but knows it will take time. “Behavioural change is not easy anywhere in the world. We have had a whole community that has been used to things like wasting water, and now they need to re-train themselves so it starts to become a self-discipline,” she says.
It is this that led to her instrumental role in an initiative that not only raised environmental awareness in Saudi but made the whole world sit up and take notice.
In 2013, Al Nahdy devised a plan to get everyone in the community involved in a project that would highlight the importance of sustainability and their responsibility to help protect the environment. The result? A 10,235m² hand painting of Saudi Arabia across the largest environmentally friendly canvas on earth – setting a Guinness World Record. The initiative was called the hand-in-hand project, symbolising the collective effort needed to protect the environment – not that it was all smooth sailing. “Initially, it was supposed to be 8,000m², but then I heard someone else was working on the same record! The people at Guinness wouldn’t tell me what size the others were working on, so I bumped it up to 10,235m², and, since then, our record hasn’t been broken.”
More than 1.2 million people took part in the project from all walks of life – from royalty to children – each segregating waste before making their mark on the canvas, with all the materials environmentally friendly. “At the end of the day, to take care of and preserve an environment takes everyone. That’s why we called it hand-in-hand – it’s not one-sided, it’s not one person, or one entity; it needs to be the whole community.”
Although awareness is increasing in Saudi, Al Nahdy is always looking to others that can share their expertise in areas such as environmental training, consultancy, and water treatment technology. Throwing down the gauntlet, she says: “If there are any freelancers or companies that see themselves as capable of coming here and providing services that will fulfil our needs, that’s what we’re looking for.”
I have found this interview enlightening, and it has left me hopeful for Saudi, but does Al Nahdy see herself as an advocate for change? “I am an Aquarius, so I am all about change and freedom,” she jokes. “I see tremendous change, but everything takes time, and it must be subtle and stable, without losing our traditions.”
Dina Hasan Al Nahdy is CEO of environmental services company ENTEC and chairman of the Environment Committee, Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry
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