Blog Crossroads | 18 Oct, 2023

What work in one corner of Saudi Arabia can teach us about restoring nature

It's often said that promoting development and conserving nature are at odds with each other, but efforts in a northwestern portion of Saudi Arabia could show how they can actually go hand in hand. Dr Stephen Browne lays out just how "comprehensive regeneration" works — and what lessons others can learn from it.

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The landscape around AlUla is a rich and diverse mosaic of human and natural heritage dominated habitats.
Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

It can seem that our planet is locked in a constant spiral of climate emergencies. Biodiversity loss, climate change, and environmental degradation continue to impact people and challenge wildlife, with more than 2,000 species under threat of extinction in the Middle East alone.

But we know the answer is within our reach, driven by practical solutions that harmonize efforts around the concept of comprehensive regeneration.

Comprehensive regeneration is an approach to catalyse development while at the same time prioritising the conservation of the environment.

It ensures a focus on restoring natural habitats with thriving ecosystems, celebrating and conserving our heritage, and carefully delivering new infrastructure and sustainable economic opportunities for our community.

In northwest Saudi Arabia, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) is emerging as a leader in the practice of comprehensive regeneration. We employ coordinated strategies to revitalise natural habitats, support people and wildlife, and strengthen economic systems while ensuring the protection of both cultural and natural heritage.

Our partnership with IUCN, and the recent report on work to be undertaken together, is an important tool in guiding the delivery of these strategies. We have positioned the region’s natural heritage as a partner and an asset — not in competition with our sustainable development aims.

Regenerating nature

AlUla County is located in northwest Saudi Arabia, encompassing AlUla and the oasis towns of Khaybar and Tayma. A place of ancient wonder, unique culture, and incredible beauty, it is home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra.

Spanning more than 22,000 square kilometers, AlUla County is twice the size of Cyprus. Here nature reserves, which make up more than 50% of the land, are being regreened and rewilded. This year more than 1,000 animals from four species — Arabian gazelles, Sand gazelles, Arabian oryx, and Nubian ibex — are being released, helping rebuild populations that dwindled due to environmental factors and people’s encroachment.  Successful regreening projects have planted more than 100,000 seedlings grown at our plant nursery — which also provides jobs and horticultural training to the community.

We’re taking a ‘grassroots to apex’ approach: Once balance has been restored, once native animals and plants are established and thriving, RCU will ultimately reintroduce the Arabian leopard. The success of this top predator will confirm a balanced ecosystem.

Comprehensive regreening stretches beyond our wilderness. We identified 58 native plant species for local ‘nature-scaping’ efforts in urban spaces, parks, and even hotel gardens and offices. Selected for their appearance, smell, and ability to withstand heat while needing minimal water, these species offer a beautiful way to green urban areas and reinvigorate the environment.

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The local community in AlUla has been engaged in a variety of ways, including through a tree-planting campaign.

Royal Commission for AlUla

AlUla’s shared environment

AlUla is home to rugged mountains, sweeping valleys, and lush oases. But its landscape has suffered the effects of degradation, desertification, and climate change.

Centuries of habitat loss, over-hunting, and poaching decimated animal populations. Poor agricultural policies, exacerbated by the depletion of the water table, damaged the ecosystem and communities. People’s lives and livelihoods, once intrinsically linked with the natural world, slipped out of sync.

To succeed with a project like comprehensive regeneration, we needed to reengage the union between our community and our environment.

For me, the training of AlUla residents to become wildlife rangers shows how uplifting our people and preserving our environment can come together. A desirable and highly skilled career in a new and, locally uncharted, field of work, over 150 wildlife rangers have already been trained.

They patrol and protect AlUla’s nature reserves. They educate people about the importance of sharing the landscape with wildlife, something that will become increasingly important when Arabian leopards are eventually reintroduced.

Rangers maintain a connection to nature, helping to strengthen both environmental and social sustainability. They support their families and uplift their communities.

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The AlUla Cultural Oasis has been a meeting point for centuries.
Royal Commission for AlUla

A cultural oasis

A place that truly puts comprehensive regeneration into practice is the Cultural Oasis — a heritage haven slowly returning to its former glory.

Rescued from degradation, it connects our community with Wadi AlQura — a lush green valley, referred to as the lungs of AlUla because of its flourishing date palms, citrus trees, and more. To visit the Cultural Oasis is to walk through history, past layers of human occupation interwoven into the culture and nature of AlUla.

Regenerating the Cultural Oasis is laborious, expensive, and ongoing. It would have been far easier to tear it down and start from scratch. Instead, we chose to conserve and revitalise mud brick houses using old, environmentally friendly techniques — creating jobs and reviving traditional crafts while attracting new businesses and visitors.

We chose to restore the land, even identifying trees that could be saved rather than replace them. We worked with farmers to introduce efficient agricultural practices, yielding greater harvests of produce to sell at rejuvenated local markets and community events such as the citrus and dates festivals. These annual festivals have grown into powerful, uniquely AlUla-centric economic drivers that showcase its rejuvenation to the community and visitors.

Home to small farms and eco-gardens with places for social events and festivals, the rehabilitation of the Cultural Oasis has caused a ripple effect across our community and economy, reclaiming part of AlUla’s communal past and natural heritage while inviting new opportunity.

The Cultural Oasis resonates with me. Its regeneration represents what we are aiming to achieve. It demonstrates the importance of respecting our environment natural and manmade to empower and uplift people and places together, in order to conserve and celebrate what makes them so special.

Our work in AlUla is not easy, and we face many challenges. These include the unpredictability that comes with a water-scarce environment. What’s also needed is a great deal of patience; the regeneration of biodiversity requires careful and correct timing and sequencing for our objectives to take hold and, eventually, flourish.  

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An Arabian Gazelle in the Sharaan Nature Reserve in AlUla.
Royal Commission for AlUla

Lessons learned

Our success shows our work is a task worth doing. It shows what comprehensive regeneration can deliver. Along the way, we’ve learned many lessons which can be adopted by others.

Learning and knowledge exchange must be proritised, locally and globally: Building transparency and accountability into programming and creating partnerships with leading institutions will greatly benefit your goals. It will help implement critical best practices and, importantly, help you to recognise and avoid pitfalls.

We found that learning from previous experiences and applying what we know creates positive impact. Initiatives such as using fencing to stop overgrazing — although not a long-term solution — delivered fast results and helped the local community to see firsthand the value of our plans, encouraging them to shift their behaviors accordingly.

Demonstrating quick wins and building community support is crucial; ensuring people feel ownership as our work progresses with an unobstructed, inclusive view of what is taking place.

Local elders have been able to show their grandchildren trees and plants they thought would never grow in the county ever again, reestablishing the community’s connections with nature.

Adopting a truly holistic strategy ensures that culture, nature, and development are all equally prioritised and integrated. Progress in one area must benefit another, with equal standing shared across different topics so nothing is an afterthought. Fair and considered consultation must be applied to multiple issues in order to build in important checks for nature and wildlife, heritage conservation, and more. These functions are essential parts of the process of development and, ultimately, of comprehensive regeneration itself.

A focused commitment and clarity towards achieving a long-term vision that transmits directly from senior leadership is essential: Setting ambitious goals to direct your work in a clear direction, with sufficient resourcing that breaks the short-term funding cycle, is key to unlocking transformative growth.

These topics and issues were top of the agenda at last week’s IUCN Leaders Forum, with momentum building as attention turns to COP28. We know we need action that matches the scale and urgency of the challenges we collectively face. We encourage IUCN members to look to the comprehensive regeneration model to inform their decisions, power their successes, and deliver the change our planet needs.

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