Nature and Biodiversity

How Saudi Arabia is unlocking the power of the blue economy

Investing in the blue economy can protect oceans while ensuring inclusive and sustainable growth.

Investing in the blue economy can protect oceans while ensuring inclusive and sustainable growth. Image: Unsplash.

H.R.H. Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud
Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the USA, Embassy of Saudi Arabia
Faisal Alibrahim
Minister of Economy and Planning, Ministry of Economy and Planning of Saudi Arabia
Carlos M. Duarte
Director of the Red Sea Research Center and Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The blue economy offers Saudi Arabia an opportunity for the country’s economic diversification.
  • Advanced technologies, data and analytics provide new opportunities to harness solutions like renewable energy to help preserve the natural ecosystems in the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia is best known for its holy cities, its vast undulating desertscapes, and the energy contained within them. But, as the Kingdom diversifies its economy away from one that is based on oil, it is harnessing and protecting the wealth of its surrounding seas.

From the more than $3.2 trillion set to be injected into its economy by the end of this decade, Saudi Arabia is directing finance towards its new blue economy to protect its oceans while ensuring inclusive and sustainable growth.

Under Saudi Vision 2030, blue economy investments will flow into Saudi’s coastlines which run for 2,640 kilometres across the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea – connecting neighbouring Gulf states and providing a major route for energy exports through the port of Dammam – as well as the more than 300 islands and hundreds of islets that punctuate its waters.

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Saudi’s coastline is the eighth largest community of coral reefs in the world, covering around 6,600 square kilometres, as well as 204 square kilometers of mangrove forests, and hundreds of kilometres of seagrass meadows. It is also home to more than 20 newly-discovered “blue holes” in the Red Sea.

This offshore treasure trove of resources means that the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 (Life Below Water), while being the SDG that receives the least attention and investment globally, is a key area of the Kingdom’s sustainable development efforts. As such, Saudi Arabia has implemented stringent and comprehensive policy and regulatory frameworks to enforce the protection of its environmental and its ecosystems – including air, land and sea, human and wildlife habitats.

Innovative solutions to protect ocean ecosystems

While developing a new blue economy in the Kingdom is based on the traditional use of the ocean for shipping, fishing and leisure – today, advanced technologies, data and analytics provide new opportunities to harness solutions like renewable energy to help preserve the natural ecosystems in the Red Sea.

To realize Saudi Vision 2030, the Kingdom has embarked on dozens of “gigaprojects” to diversify the economy and create world-class destinations for technological innovation, tourism, entertainment, improved quality of life and inclusive economic opportunities.

Many of these huge projects focus on core fundamentals of the blue economy, namely regenerative tourism and maritime logistics. Amaala, which is part of Red Sea Global, and Sindalah which is part of NEOM, represent the largest regenerative tourism investments in the world and have the ambitious aim to go beyond environmental protection to enhance their natural assets. The scale of these ambitions requires massive investments in renewable energy, sustainable materials, innovative design, and ecosystem restoration.

Billions have also been invested in more traditional maritime domains through the King Salman International Complex for Maritime Industries and Services, which when completed will be among the largest shipyards in the world. OXAGON, also a part of NEOM, will define a new paradigm of sustainability for an industrial port city.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

This buildout of the Saudi maritime economy, coupled with transformative investments in innovation and technology, are positioning Saudi Arabia as a leader in the development of the new blue economy – a blue economy which uses ocean data and insights to create a sustainable, knowledge-based economy.

Each of these projects has a distinct focus on using the most advanced technology available, including environmental monitoring technologies, zero-emissions desalination, regenerative aquaculture, shipping digitalization and advanced coral farming. As such, a tide of new opportunities are rolling into the country: opportunities to grow and innovate as we restore our vital ecosystems.

To bridge the gap between the technologies at our disposal and where they are needed, many Vision 2030 projects have created bespoke start-up accelerators, venture builders, and investment funds. In parallel, an innovate research and development ecosystem has risen to meet the challenge of a changing world.

For instance, the recently established Research Development and Innovation Authority (RDIA) will increase competitive funding for R&D by 600% – a clear demonstration that the Kingdom is willing to address the challenge of shrinking investments into new ideas and ventures at a time when innovation is most desperately needed to tackle our converging climate crises, from food and water insecurity to biodiversity and ecosystem protection.

Committed to Sustainable Development Goals

The exploitative nature of the old ocean economy cannot be repeated. In the new blue economy, marine ecosystem development and preservation must abide by SDG14 which calls on parties to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has made historic commitments to SDG14. Under the Saudi Green Initiative, Saudi Arabia has committed to protecting 30% of its terrestrial and marine area by 2030, aligning with the “30x30” target agreed to in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

During the Kingdom’s G20 Presidency, the G20 nations approved the creation of the Global Coral R&D Accelerator Platform Foundation (CORDAP Foundation). With an initial $100 million investment from the Saudi government, CORDAP intends to be a moonshot to prevent the projected loss of 70-90% of coral reefs expected to occur within the next decade because of unabated climate change.

Likewise, NEOM – the Kingdom’s futuristic special economic zone – and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) are partnering to establish the world’s largest coral garden.

Another key enabler of Saudi’s blue economy ambitions is the WAVE initiative. Powered by Future Investment Initiative (FII), WAVE aims to drive ocean regeneration within a generation by bringing together key players from across government, the private sector and civil society.

WAVE will provide a platform to activate public-private partnerships, launch new global programmes, glean insights from our oceans, raise awareness and engagement, and catalyze blue-tech innovation.

Accelerating ocean innovation

In addition to this, during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in January 2024, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Economy and Planning, which oversees the Kingdom’s UN SDG alignment, is signing a partnership with the Forum to accelerate ocean innovation globally. With the support of MEP and the collaboration with WAVE, the Forum’s UpLink platform will develop innovation ecosystems of top innovators, investors and partners to advance the scale up of the solutions needed to protect the global ocean.

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Momentum for ocean action is building in Saudi Arabia. More finance and focus on the new blue economy will prove vital to setting the world on a course to achieving a healthy, thriving ocean. And, with the maritime economy projected to reach $3 trillion by 2030, unlocking the potential of the blue economy can return a five-fold yield, with a $5 return for every $1 invested. This is an opportunity that Saudi Arabia and the world cannot miss to drive both development and sustainable economic growth in parallel.

For Saudi Arabia, international partnerships are crucial to protecting our environment. Not just to restore healthy natural ecosystems, but to ensure that they thrive, and continue to support the profusion of marine life and wildlife that Saudi is home to today.

The growth and resilience of our future economies depends on our ability to bridge the oceans between us and focus on the opportunities within them. For Saudi Arabia, through Vision 2030, our focus on global collaboration, environmental protection and sustainable, economic development will enable us to safeguard our people, our planet and our shared prosperity. This is not an optional pathway for growth and development, it is an essential journey we must take together.

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