What can ancient wisdom teach us about sustainability?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Amr Al Madani, Chief Executive Officer, AlUla


  • Integrated sustainability means using past, present and future techniques on projects that respect both nature and society, and technology and local culture.
  • Projects like AlUla’s Cultural Oasis in Saudi Arabia are trying to integrate lessons from the past to create a more sustainable future for areas in need of development.
  • These ancient techniques are being updated with new technology and innovative thinking to address sustainability issues such as desertification.

Sustainability is often viewed through a futuristic prism, yet what we often miss is that ancient wisdom can hold important lessons. The struggle to be more sustainable is a relatively new phenomenon, but inspiration can be drawn from ancient farming and water management techniques. Innovation and technology can help us adapt these techniques to meet our present-day needs.

Situated in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, the AlUla valley has seen at least 200,000 years of human history. One of the reasons people gathered here for millennia was because of the relative abundance of water in an otherwise arid environment. When long-term climate patterns meant less rainfall from the 5th millennium B.C., however, our ancestors in AlUla had to find ways to use this resource with minimal waste.

First, they dug wells. Then they developed an ingenious technique called qanat. Fortunately, Abdullah Nasif, an AlUla native and professor of archaeology at King Saud University, collected information on the qanat in the 1970s before their abandonment.

The technique involves digging a well at an elevated point in the landscape where the water table is easily reached, such as the base of a hill. Then, using a row of vertical shafts for access, digging an underground horizontal channel leading to settlements and fields at lower ground. Gravity is the channel’s engine.

Integrated sustainability means not only integrating the economy with nature and society but also integrating the past with the present, the present with the future, and technology with culture.

This point was made by William McDonough, a pioneer in this area, during the April 2021 session of Crossroads – a discussion forum that brings together industry leaders in art, nature, culture, tourism and heritage.

The important thing is to see this whole set of issues as a kind of ecosystem and organism. It’s important because everything affects everything else, and the benefits are tremendous. —William McDonough, Architect and Sustainable Development Expert

Indeed, the greening of AlUla is only one example on a global list of projects designed to capture a new balance in development. Other initiatives include the Great Green Wall of Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, Liuzhou Forest City in China, and the Saudi Green Initiative.

From responsible to sustainable development

AlUla’s commitment to integrated sustainability is outlined in the AlUla Sustainability Charter. Its 12 principles guide AlUla’s development to create a new path focused on protection and preservation. The charter sets out an innovative and integrated approach that marks a shift from responsible development to sustainable development.

Key elements include:

  • A zero-carbon policy supported by circular economy principles (net carbon-neutral by 2035 for local emissions, excluding air travel and food imports).
  • Increasing the share of renewables for water heating and power generation.
  • Cradle-to-cradle solutions to expand on the use, recovery and reuse of safe and healthy products and materials.
  • An inclusivity framework which ensures that AlUla’s people, as the guardians of ancestral values, techniques, and traditions, are central to the long-term success of AlUla’s development as primary beneficiaries and partners.

Infrastructure agreements signed in October 2021 with infrastructure firm AECOM and the French consortium Egis, further this commitment to sustainability and community inclusion. For example, AECOM’s Sustainable Legacies strategy will work hand-in-glove with AlUla’s Sustainability Charter.

The AlUla Sustainability charter sets out an innovative and integrated approach that marks a shift from responsible development to sustainable development.—Amr Al Madani, Royal Commission for AlUla

Creating a sustainability oasis

One of our flagship projects, the Cultural Oasis, is a prime example of converting the charter into action. The project aspires to revive AlUla’s legacy as a prosperous agricultural heartland where for centuries farmers grew oranges, lemons, figs, pomegranates, chickpeas, barley and wheat. Our research shows that the advent of modern farming methods in the 20th century caused the water table to descend, greatly reducing the scale of farming.

Research and innovative solutions will rehabilitate the land and reverse desertification of the area. The Royal Commission for AlUla has already started to deliver programmes as part of the Cultural Oasis project, including wadi clean-up; the Orange Path project, where guests can walk through a natural setting to a citrus market; the Incense Road Market activation; and the Madrasat AdDeera (AlUla Arts and Design Centre) programme, which promotes the production of local handicrafts.

Part of an integrated approach means ensuring the community is on board and actively seeing the benefits of implementing more sustainable agricultural and environmental practices.—Amr Al Madani, Royal Commission for AlUla

Integrating the community

Part of an integrated approach means ensuring the community is on board and actively seeing the benefits of implementing more sustainable agricultural and environmental practices. In this regard, economic sustainability is critical. For many years, AlUla has had a stubbornly high unemployment rate (44.9% in 2019, for example, according to figures from the Kingdom’s General Authority for Statistics). Advancing sustainable practices can be challenging as a result, particularly if people believe there will be a cost to their livelihoods.

In AlUla, our approach works on all fronts to deliver a balanced approach to sustainability and we have already seen the first shoots of growth. According to Saudi Central Bank data, point of sale transactions in AlUla County have risen from 0.86 million in 2018 to 5.22 million in 2020, and value-added tax collections during the same time span have risen from 21.9 million riyals ($5.5 million) to 45.3 million riyals ($12 million), according to the General Authority of Zakat & Tax.

By 2035, our target is that AlUla will have two million visitors a year, will have made a cumulative contribution of 120 billion riyals ($32 billion) to Saudi GDP, and created 38,000 jobs. These goals are ambitious, yet achievable. And the ripple effects on environmental and social sustainability will surely follow.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

AlUla is not unique in its desire to pursue a more sustainable development trajectory, and we continue to learn about the evolving challenges as we work to transform the region into a thriving cultural oasis. AlUla’s advantage is that it is a relatively blank canvas on which to test new approaches to sustainable development, while also being surrounded by ancient wisdom. When you merge ancient wisdom and innovative technologies, boundless results can be achieved.

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