Raed Albasseet, Group Chief Environment and Sustainability Officer at The Red Sea Development Company discusses sustainability, tourism and the beauty of Saudi Arabia’s landscapes
As Saudi Arabia continues to move forward and expand its tourism industry we are slowly learning of the country’s immense beauty and inspiring destinations. One of those is the Red Sea Coast. This vast area of natural beauty is home to one of the world’s largest and most beautiful untouched coral reefs. As the country plans to share this with the world it is being careful to do it in a controlled and sustainable way that protects the areas but also keeps them alive for generations to come.
The Red Sea Development Company are working on one of the world’s most ambitious projects creating a global tourist destination that puts sustainability and preservation before anything else. The Red Sea Development Company has adopted a holistic approach to its projects that will help to protect the planet and its people as well as share the beauty of The Kingdom with the world.
Raed Albasseet, Group Chief Environment and Sustainability Officer at The Red Sea Development Company is challenged with ensuring the company’s projects The Red Sea destination and AMAALA, follow their initial goal. Despite creating a tourist destination Raed is keen to preserve the nature and marine life in the areas and ensure a sustainable future for the area. We find out more about this and the importance of considering sustainable solutions at all stages of the development of the country.
Tell us a little about The Red Sea Development Company and your involvement in the project.
The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) is the developer for The Red Sea destination and AMAALA – two of the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism developments. At our core, we are setting out to establish a relationship with development and tourism, and the natural environment. We are bringing exquisite, unique experiences for the world’s most discerning travellers, while placing a special emphasis on sustainability to ensure the natural beauty of both destinations is intact – and even enhanced – for future generations.
I joined TRSDC in 2018 and oversee the company’s sustainability agenda in its entirety. I provide wide-ranging advice and expertise across the master planning, design, construction, and operational phases of both The Red Sea destination and AMAALA, and have contributed to growing a world-class team of professionals that are committed to industry-pioneering sustainability targets.
Throughout your career, you have undoubtedly seen a lot of projects. What is different or special about The Red Sea destination and AMAALA?
What makes our projects unique is a relentless pursuit for regeneration. When we define The Red Sea destination and AMAALA as the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism developments, we truly believe that they are the blueprints for a renewed and revitalised tourism industry. Every decision we make is motivated by a passion to go beyond usual definitions of sustainability and adopt a holistic approach to protecting both the planet and its people. Instead of depleting and extracting the wealth of natural capital that surrounds our sites, we are enhancing and enabling nature to continue to thrive. We are maintaining the environmental, cultural, and economic integrity at every step of the way – whether by delivering carbon neutral operations, committing to a 30 per cent net conservation benefit by 2040, or by only developing less than one per cent of our entire site area.
What can you tell us about some of the processes TRSDC is putting in place to ensure the protection of animals and species in this area?
Our unwavering commitment to sustainability extends to the natural wildlife, biodiversity, and marine ecosystems that surround our sites. The Red Sea coast is blessed with incredibly diverse wildlife ecosystems, plus one of the largest coral reef systems in the world, and our approach to protecting these natural treasures utilises cutting-edge environmental research combined with sustainable practices.
We have expert research teams that explore and understand these ecosystems to help inform how to best conserve and protect them. For example, our team of multidisciplinary scientists and developers, together with our friends at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), carried out the most comprehensive marine spatial planning simulation ever undertaken to detect important habitats as well as the rare and endangered species that call this place home.
We recently launched the results from our Environmental Baseline Survey, which is the largest of its kind to be undertaken by a development company and is of a scale that matches activities by government agencies on a national level. The survey was a result of an eleven-month-long monitoring study along the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast and revealed the rich biodiversity of the area as well as documented multiple species including those that are endangered such as dugongs, several shark species, and an array of birdlife including the regionally endangered sooty falcon. This analysis will act as the baseline for honouring our ambition to deliver meaningful net conservation benefits by 2040, through the protection and enhancement of key habitats crucial to biodiversity.
We are also deploying more than 2,500 smart sensors throughout our coral reefs, turtle nesting sites and the wider lagoon to actively monitor changes and provide an early warning system if the ecosystem is under stress.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most beautiful untouched areas in the world – how do you balance sharing this with the world but also protecting the sites?
To ensure sustainable use, we are restricting the number of guests to our destination to the level we are sure we can safely accommodate without damaging the environment. We will limit the number of visitors to The Red Sea destination to one million annually by 2030, and visitors to AMAALA will be capped at 500,000 per year by 2030.
As a result of our landmark marine spatial planning, we have also chosen to leave 75 per cent of The Red Sea destination untouched, including nine islands which we have designated as special conservation zones – such as Al Waqadi Island. This breathtaking island would have made a perfect resort location. But when our assessment revealed that it was a favourite nesting ground for the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea turtle, there was no question that it had to be protected.
Can you tell us about some of the areas in Saudi Arabia that you believe everyone should visit during their lifetime?
Saudi Arabia has so much to offer visitors, from its breathtaking coastlines to UNESCO heritage sites, historical landmarks, modern cities, plush nature with rich biodiversity, and above all, heartfelt hospitality. The Red Sea coast is truly an undiscovered treasure with spectacular coral reefs, bustling marine ecosystems, and thriving communities. Exploring and experiencing all its extraordinary features is definitely worth adding to every person’s bucket list.
In this issue, we are celebrating Saudi National Day. What does this day mean to you and what makes you proud to be a Saudi?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has come a long way since its inception – a journey that is indeed worth celebrating and sharing with the rest of the world. Through the outstanding vision of our leadership, the Kingdom has significantly progressed in a way that has consolidated our position as a global powerhouse. This extraordinary transformation empowers us to fulfil our potential and rise to the greatness we are destined for, both as individuals and as a nation. To be Saudi today is to be an example of limitless possibilities, unrivalled innovation, and vivacious ambition.
As the country opens up to more tourists, what responsibilities do you feel in your role to ensure the sustainable development of the country?
We believe there is an alternative to accepted standards – to regenerate the places in which we live, work and travel. And we feel the responsibility of taking on that alternative every single day. The key to this lies in our commitment, knowledge-sharing, and capacity-building. This is our strongest tool to unlock mainstream adoption of responsible and meaningful innovation, and this is a sentiment that echoes across the organization. Each employee, partner, and even our third-party stakeholders are eager to share our collective experiences with the wider industry and inspire them to take a step in the right direction.
In doing so, an important segment we shouldn’t forget is local communities. True sustainable development lies in highlighting, preserving, and enabling local communities. As such, we have discarded a traditional cost-based approach and embraced a broader perspective that defines value in terms of inclusive job creation, progressive skill-learning across the industry, and co-benefits for the entirety of the value chain. We have already employed more than 2,000 locals in the area – including local farmers to enhance capacity and educate them on sustainable agriculture, and members of the local community to serve as environmental stewards. In parallel, we are proactively partnering with socio-economic, industrial, and institutional stakeholders across the country to facilitate the growth and diversification of the Saudi economy and workforce.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do today?
I see our biggest challenge – and our most exciting opportunity – in the magnitude of what we are trying to achieve. Never before has a development of this scale set out to step up above the industry norms at every turn. We started off on a completely blank canvas, and today we are establishing world-class destinations where regeneration is engrained deep within the DNA of planning, design, and delivery.
What is something you would still like to achieve or to see happen in your sector?
I feel the tourism sector still has huge potential to grow and improve. There is much to be done to preserve the many resources on which it is founded, to future-proof the sector in the face of environmental, social, and economic risks, and to unlock its potential as a meaningful contributor to inclusive economic development, cultural exchange, and job creation globally.
One aspect that I feel must be immediately reevaluated is the restoration and appreciation of cultural resources and natural ecosystems. Capacity constraints are often disregarded in a push to meet increasing demand, resulting in overcrowding and the consequent damage to natural resources, rural communities, and biodiversity.
We are building an innovative archetype for tourism and development, with sustainability at its core, and hope others will be inspired to follow our lead.
On a broader scale what is your take on the need for sustainable solutions in the world and what can we all be doing to help and what is a message you would send to our readers?
The need to recognize the value, power, and urgency of sustainability has never been greater. This challenge is too big to be addressed by one sector or one group of stakeholders alone. Everyone has a role to play – from designers and developers to suppliers, operators, and most importantly, the guests. We can only chart true success when we harness our collective strengths and make the most of our combined expertise, technology, and resources for sustainable growth.