The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it is officially called occupies the vast majority of the Arabian Peninsula with a total land area of approximately 2,150,000 square kilometres. As such, it is the largest sovereign state in Western Asia. In 2019 its population was around 35 million people. It is estimated that 50 per cent of this population is under the age of 25 years making it one of the world’s youngest populations.
Towards the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia was experiencing “moderate” quality air, according to the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The average figure was 73 US AQI as published on the IQAir.com website. The concentrations of the PM2.5 pollutant was over twice the WHO recommendations at 22.1 µg/m³. This “Moderate “figure was seen throughout the year with recorded levels between 12.1 and 35.4 µg/m³ (micrograms or microns per cubic metre). The world ranking of polluted cities placed Saudi Arabia at number 37 out of the 98 which were measured.
In accordance with the World Health Organisation's guidelines, the quality of air in Saudi Arabia is considered to be unsafe. Latest data indicates that the country's annual average concentration of PM2.5 is 88 µg/m3, which considerably exceeds the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m3.
The main contributors to this poor quality air are emissions from both vehicles and industry and from the naturally occurring dust storms. These dust storms are at their worst during spring and can last from March through to May.
Outdoor air pollution is a mixture of chemicals, particulate matter, and biological materials that react with each other to form tiny hazardous particles, the worst being PM2.5 because of their microscopic size. The other particulate matter is known as PM10 because it has a slightly larger diameter than PH2.5.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended guidelines for these pollutants which should have an annual average of less than 10 µg/m³ for PM2.5 and 20 µg/m³ for PM10.
Urbanisation increases ground, water and air pollution as urban areas demand more and more desalinated water. Unfortunately, the desalination process is extremely inefficient and creates a large amount of “greenhouse gases”. The process of oil extraction adds to the poor air quality through the emission of large volumes of carbon dioxide (CO2). The city of Jeddah and other major cities are faced with problems caused by the large number of vehicles using the road. This leads to very high carbon emissions. Saudi Arabia has a very high standard of living and in order to keep to these standards, large amounts of fossil fuels are burned in private transport. Because Saudi Arabia is among the world’s top oil producers, the price of gasoline is very cheap. Its young population can afford to buy expensive cars with big, powerful engines as a status symbol. The cost of running them means nothing to them.
There is no public transport system in many of the cities which encourages individuals to use their private cars to commute. Because of this high level of usage, dangerous levels of metals are found in urban soil. These metals are harmful to plants and humans. Plant growth is inhibited because of it and become poisonous if ingested because of the high metal content.
Wood is a primary resource commonly used in rural areas because of its widespread availability and its convenience. Wood burning for cooking and heating purposes contribute to air pollution.
Due to the growing population, more and more land is required for food production which leads to deforestation, very often uncontrolled and illegal. However, The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture initiated a week of environmental awareness. The events took place in over 13 provinces where almost a quarter of a million native trees were planted as replacements.
Renewable energy is something that Saudi Arabia is considering, although there are currently no incentives to lower the use of fossil fuels. The government subsidises oil consumption but high oil use has encouraged new policies regarding renewable energy sources. Power outages happen at times of peak load and is commonly feared by the residents. The continued reliance on oil is not sustainable. This realisation encouraged scholars to plan ahead and find a way of helping Saudi Arabia transition towards renewable energy. The country is currently ranked sixth in the world that demonstrates solar energy potential.
Solar energy is something being considered when their climate is taken into consideration. Saudi Aramco which is also known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company has plans to develop a solar energy sector to achieve the goal of producing 41 GW of renewable energy. With a level such as this, it would be placed as a leading solar energy exporter. In 2019, 17 MW were being produced but they are working towards reaching that goal. Hydroelectricity and other water-based power production are currently under discussion. During last year (2019) Saudi Arabia signed agreements which would incorporate 400 MW of wind-generated power into its grid. The building of the largest wind farm in the Middle East is under construction in Dumat Al-Jandal which is in the Al Jawf region. $500 million has been allocated to build this new installation. Once operational, it is hoped that it will supply up to 70,000 homes with sustainable electricity and show a reduction in carbon emissions of 880,000 tons annually.
It is foreseeable that Saudi Arabia will reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and encourage renewable energy use in the near future.
The city of Riyadh has invested a considerable amount of money in expanding its public service network. The Riyadh Metro project should become operational in 2020/21. Environmentally-friendly busses are also planned for the city centre. The city needs to encourage more usage and offer incentives to those who use vehicle sharing services and carpool programmes as alternatives, along with a greater use of electric vehicles.
Riyadh has implemented four of five main principles aimed at improving the city environment (compactness, integration, social inclusiveness and resilience to climate change), which will classify it as a sustainably planned city, although there is still a high reliance on cars. Creating more pedestrian zones and encouraging people to walk more will also bring benefits to the quality of air.
Cities such as Riyadh need to optimize their use of sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower to meet their energy consumption needs.
In December 2020, the Saudi Arabian city with the cleanest air was Ghran in Makkah Province with a reading of 89 US AQI, the concentration levels for PM2.5 were 30.2 µg/m³ which is three times higher than the level recommended by the WHO. Because Ghran has no ground-level monitoring stations, these figures are based on satellite information.
Vehicular and industrial emissions are the major anthropogenic sources of air pollution. With vehicular emissions contributing up to 50% of the hydrocarbon emissions in the country.
Saudi Arabia almost encourages road transport; this is demonstrated by the considerably low cost of gasoline which was US$ 0.16 per litre in August 2012. With prices as low as this, new car buyers will not consider how economical their new car could be, only how fast it will go! The country was estimated to have 4 million cars on the road and 2.1 million commercial vehicles on the road in 2013. More than half of the vehicles on the road are over 5 years old, and approximately 22 per cent are more than ten years old. Vehicles of this age lack the new technology that makes many of the newer cars cleaner and more efficient.
The country’s growing youth population, rising disposable income levels, its favourable financing policies, and greater public and private sector investments, have all contributed to Saudi Arabia’s increased vehicle demand. Private car ownership was high with 336 cars per 1000 individuals in 2012. This figure will be considerably more in 2020.
Air pollution from industrial installations emanates from the following; crude oil production, petroleum refining, basic petrochemicals industries, ammonia, cement manufacturing, fertilizer, plastics, metals, commercial ship repairs, commercial aircraft repairs and the construction industry. In 2012 Ambient Air Standard was published and made mandatory which places limits on emissions which individual companies are made responsible for.
The best strategy for traffic management, inspection and maintenance programmes needs to be tackled at source.
The restriction of traffic to city centres of either private traffic or heavy traffic considerably reduces the high levels of pollutants in the air. If it is unfeasible to restrict large areas of the city, then smaller traffic-free areas would make a small difference. Car restricted urban areas should be coupled with more parking facilities, preferably underground, in order to optimize access to dense traffic areas, such as the city centres. An efficient public transport network will encourage more people to leave their cars at home and travel into the city by public transport.
Large manufacturing industries need to be encouraged to utilise other ways of moving their finished products instead of using lorries to move them to the airport or port for forwarding. The distribution of goods to local shops in cities remains a problem, which could be solved by the delivery on small scale trucks with efficient energy-saving electric motors.
Removing subsidies and increasing taxes in order to reduce fuel consumption would increase government revenue and provide finance to improve public transportation services.
The improvement of the efficiency and cleanliness of existing vehicles which would help reduce fuel consumption and air pollution is necessary. Catalytic converters and fuel-saving technology need to be fitted in order to decrease air pollution and the exploitation of non-renewable fuels. Unleaded and natural gas are already being used in many countries and increasing their use leads to lower polluting emissions.
Saudi Arabia is a country that is largely dependent on its production of oil. However, this oil and urban activities in Saudi Arabian cities are responsible for its polluted air. Whilst air pollution affects everybody, it is often the poorer people that suffer the most. This group do not always have access to good medical care as it can be relatively expensive. Surprisingly enough, it is estimated that 20 per cent of Saudi Arabians live in poverty.
Regardless of the general quality of air in any country, the quality within the city environs is always worse. The Saudi Arabian City of Dammam is one such city where air pollution is a severe problem. As with most cities, the main cause is the emissions from road vehicles. The General Department of Traffic uses period vehicle checkpoints to monitor the emissions of random vehicles. There are also plans to pave roads and create new bridges and underpasses to help improve traffic flow. Vehicles waiting at busy junctions can produce a lot of air pollution with their engines idling. Many drivers are loathed to turn off the engine, though as that would stop the air conditioning which is almost essential in the hot Middle Eastern countries.
These changes have already shown some positive effects such as the reduction in volatile organic compounds (VOC), carbon monoxide (CO) and the fine particulate matter or PM2.5. Taking carbon monoxide as an example, levels in industrialised areas dropped from 16ppm to 2ppm and volatile organic compounds fell from almost 0.8 ppm in 2010 to slightly above 0.2 in 2015.
Overall, the air quality in Dammam City is improving because of the government measures. This was reinforced through findings made by the Taibah University.
Having proved successful in one city, there should be no reason why it cannot be equally successful in other cities, too.