Quest for new technologies
While Saudi Arabia holds the world's largest oil reserves, the kingdom is also taking active steps in the development of new technologies for exploiting and utilising renewable sources of energy.
As part of a three-part programme to introduce solar energy, a programme has been launched by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to build a solar-powered water desalination plant that could help stabilise future power and water supplies inside the country.
Water desalination is critical to providing clean drinking water around the world. Today, Saudi Arabia produces 18 per cent of the world's desalinated water. By building desalination plants that run on solar energy, the kingdom can reduce operational costs and, in turn, reduce consumer costs.
Prince Dr Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad, KACST vice-president for research institutes, says: 'The solar energy programme will reduce the cost of producing desalinated water and of generating power for use in the kingdom, an oil-dependent nation, which has launched a national energy efficiency programme.' Saudi Arabia is a prime location to harness solar energy because of its year-round sunshine.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also continues to invest heavily in developing and expanding its information communications technologies sector. Broadband users in the kingdom have risen 10-fold since 2005 and are expected to nearly double from 3.2 million users last year to 5.9 million by 2014.
According to London-based independent research firm, Business Monitor International (BMI), Saudi Arabia has the biggest IT market in the Gulf region, with a forecast value of US$3.6 billion this year expected to rise to US$4.9 billion by 2015. BMI says government-driven investments in transportation, property construction, water facilities and power plants, could drive opportunities for IT vendors.
However, while Saudi Arabia embarks on comprehensive infrastructure and development initiatives, the kingdom is also characterised by a varied natural environment and by huge environmental potential that extends across its shores, mountains and deserts.
For the adventurous, the extreme geography offers numerous opportunities for climbing, hiking, hang gliding and off-road driving across desert dunes. The ancient trade routes may have been streamlined and dispersed but, from souks (commercial areas) to high-end malls, the culture of trade is alive and well in the kingdom.
Sometimes thought of as having mainly vast expanses of desert, Saudi Arabia also has large reserves of mountainous areas, oases and ocean parks. For instance, Tabuk in the north west of the country has an outstanding water and island environment, excellent beaches, some of which are sandy, with clear blue water and with excellent potential for swimming and diving.
Areas around the Red Sea, including Al-Wajh Bank and the Islands off Al-Wajh and Umm Lajj, are said by diving enthusiasts to contain some of the most beautiful underwater destinations in the world. The region is the location of a huge barrier reef, often compared as Saudi Arabia's equivalent to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The area is also an important habitat for Dugong, and nesting sites for Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles.
Uninhabited marine islands and landforms, that fringe the sea, consist of mangrove thickets, sea grass beds, algal beds and salt marshes that provide protected breeding grounds for numerous birds, including nesting colonies of Sooty Falcon, Crab Plover, White-eyed Gull, Lesser Crested Tern and White-cheeked Tern.
For the culturally inquisitive, every year, Saudi Arabia celebrates more than 600 literary occasions, hosts numerous festivals for traditional Saudi arts and more than 40 dramatic arts festivals. Featuring exquisite samples of arts and crafts, the Janadriayah festival is considered one of the most important and biggest events.
Other festivals highlight Saudi Arabia's association with breeding some of the finest horses in the world, while others focus on natural wonders such as the festival of flowers in Riyadh and Al Jubail, festival of Al Taif roses and traditional scents. Other festivals are based on Arabic arts, and city festivals such as Jeddah Festival, Abha, Buraidah, Onaiza and Hail.