The Safer Oil Tanker: Diplomacy Averts Disaster

This is the story of a $20 billion disaster that did not happen.

Last month, while the United Nations General Assembly was meeting in New York City, I attended some programming on the summit’s sidelines together with my colleagues from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. Among them were meetings to learn more about the ongoing conflict and crisis in Yemen. While the situation in Yemen remains dire after 8 years of war, there is a recent bright spot for proactive international efforts: the successful operation to offload oil from the decaying Safer storage tanker. This enormous undertaking has prevented what could have been a colossal environmental disaster that exacerbated the situation in Yemen, and wreaked environmental, economic, and humanitarian havoc in the Middle East region.

Located on the southwestern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is beloved by those familiar with its varied landscapes and its warm, smart, kind, and generous people.  It is bordered by the Red Sea to its west and the Gulf of Aden to its south.  The Romans called it Arabia Felix—Fortunate (and Fertile) Arabia.  In the United States, one is most likely to find Yemen identified with the Queen of Sheba (also known as Bilqīs or Makeda, she is one of the few female figures who appears in sacred texts of all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), coffee (Yemenis are believed to be among the first to popularize the beverage), and the port of Aden (one of the most famous hubs in the world, connecting maritime traffic between Africa, Asia, and the Middle East).

Map of Yemen, 2012.

The past decade has seen Yemen embroiled in its fourth civil war in the post-World War II period. Its proximate cause was the response of the Zaidi Shiite-Houthis to the outcome of an all-inclusive National Dialogue Conference, which concluded in 2014. Displeased with the outcome of that political process, the Houthis’ militias, with resources and support from Iran’s government, seized Yemen’s capital of Sana’a in 2015.  That subversion of law and order in Yemen touched off a conflict that has resulted in what has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

One of the poorest countries in the Arab region even before the most recent stretch of violence, Yemen has been placed in a very precarious situation. Eight years of conflict, compounded by economic collapse, natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken a toll on Yemenis’ ability to live with the dignity and meaning that all people deserve. The UN reported several months ago that this year “a staggering 21.6 million Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance as 80% of the country struggles to put food on the table and access basic services.”

Relief map of Yemen, 2002.

The National Council has a long history of engagement with Yemen through its founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony. Appreciating the richness of its cultural heritage, its natural beauty, the incisive and joyful qualities of the Yemeni people, and its long history, the Council has taken twenty delegations of American educators to the country, enabled hundreds of U.S. students to live and study Arabic in Sana’a, and sponsored educational programs about Yemen in Washington, D.C. Most recently, the Council partnered with a Yemen-based non-profit foundation dedicated to enhancing youth capabilities toward promoting peace – the Adalah (meaning “Justice” in Arabic) Foundation For Legal Development – to bring the Council’s Youth Leadership Development Model Arab League Program to Mukalla, Hadhramout.

Individuals stand together after signing an agreement

A cooperation agreement between the National Council and Yemen’s Adalah Foundation was executed last year. The two non-profit groups collaborated to bring the National Council’s Youth Leadership Development Program / Model Arab League to Yemen. The program involves an experiential learning exercise where students have the opportunity to practice representing the needs and interests of someone other than themselves during the course of simulating a diplomatic summit.

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A Taste of Saudi Arabia’s Culture on the Upper West Side

My friends and colleagues from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations came to New York City from Washington, D.C., to participate in meetings and events on the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. As is traditionally the case, the very active week sees heads of state and government leaders converge on the city where proceedings at the UN are augmented by numerous events organized by diplomatic civil society and business communities. For New Yorkers such as myself, the annual global gathering – focused on peace, security, economic growth, sustainable development, the promotion of justice, and, generally, efforts in pursuit of lofty ideals – is visible as we navigate our daily lives.

This year, my colleagues and I were able to begin the week transcending the usual gridlock and madness with a unique Sunday evening invitation. It took us to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where we had the privilege to attend the Saudi National Orchestra’s debut performance in the United States, the “Marvels of Saudi Music,” at the iconic Metropolitan Opera House. The concert featured female and male performers, musicians, dancers, vocalists, and musical talent all hailing from the Kingdom. A lineup of traditional Saudi and Arabian Peninsula performances captivated our senses, and brought the sounds and musical traditions of the Arab region right to New York.

Arriving at the Lincoln Center. (Left to right) Mr. John Pratt, Chairman of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Board of Directors; Mr. Fahad Nazer, Spokesperson for the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C.; Colonel (Ret.) Abbas Dahouk, National Council Board of Directors Member and HyphenPoint LLC Principal; myself, National Council Board of Directors Member, and author and artist; and Mr. Patrick Mancino, National Council Executive Vice President and Director of Development.

The event was held under the patronage of His Highness Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, the Minister of Culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Performances included pieces from the Saudi National Orchestra, the Saudi Performing Arts Ensemble, and legendary American jazz musicians from the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars.

As Saudi Arabia implements its national development strategy known as Vision 2030, one objective is to develop a performing arts sector that can share Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage with the rest of the world. Simultaneously, space for more entertainment (and tourism) in the Kingdom – that includes AMC movie theaters, concerts, events, and world-class athletes in competition – is being created in a style, time, and manner consistent with a nation that is also a place of pilgrimage and prayer for 1.8 billion Muslims across the globe. The leadership of Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy and develop domestic industries that can meet the anticipated employment needs of its youthful citizens. 63% of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30.

Attendees at the event, in addition to Minister of Culture HH Prince Badr, included former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, and Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud; the first female Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud; and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister HH Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Their royal presence underscored the importance and seriousness of introducing these cultural aspects of the Kingdom to the United States. In addition, New York City Mayor Eric Adams was joined alongside others including journalist and senior Washington Post Editor, Lally Weymouth; Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody; longtime Wall Street Journal writer and author Karen Elliot House, among many others. Even President Biden’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Timothy Lenderking, and his team were in attendance to show their diplomatic and unofficial solidarity in appreciation of Arab culture and heritage.

During an intermission we had the privilege of seeing HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud. HRH will be a keynote speaker at the National Council’s 40th Anniversary Gala on November 16 in Washington, D.C. The Council has been very fortunate to have HRH make remarks at its annual gathering almost every year since 2006.

Welcoming remarks by Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb captured the spirit of the evening: “Art has the possibility of triumphing over adversity.”

The Saudi National Orchestra and Choir performed over the course of two and a half hours. The chorus was comprised of 18 men and 18 women in traditional dress, standing behind the orchestra. The orchestra included violins, some other stringed instruments, a variety of Saudi percussion instruments, and other instruments including the Oud, two beautiful Saudi wind instruments, and drums made out of desert materials. The sounds were new to many Western ears and a delight to the many in the audience who were students and working professionals from New York and the Arab region.

The program began with several folk art performances. They featured specific regions in the Kingdom and included dances by men wearing each region’s native costumes. The songs were familiar to those who knew the region.

Performances from the “Marvels of Saudi Orchestra.”

The orchestra and chorus departed after charming us all.

Performances from the “Marvels of Saudi Orchestra.”

The American Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars also took a turn gracing the stage. They performed several songs familiar to the Americans in the audience. Then, three leading musicians from the Saudi Orchestra joined the Dizzy musicians for a remarkable and memorable musical blending of the two cultures. Saxophonist Tim Ries praised the collaboration between the two countries. “We need no words, only the heart that beat together. We’ve become like family after only two days.”

Performances from the cross-cultural musical celebration at the Lincoln Center.

The addition of a Saudi Arabian soprano, Rimaz Oqbi, with a voice that reached the rafters, and perhaps the almighty, changed the presentation dramatically. Her operatic repertoire included songs in English, French, and Italian, with music that was delightfully familiar and that showcased the breadth of her talent.

The printed programs given to the audience were magnificent, covering the purpose of the event and the music (with translations in Arabic and English), and with descriptions of the folk art of the various regions. Even after leaving such a memorable event, through the publication audience members were able to amplify their understanding of the Kingdom and its efforts to reach out to the world.

American and Saudi Arabian musicians take a bow, arm-in-arm, after bringing joy to the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

The musicians who we enjoyed have already performed in Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and in Paris, Mexico City, and in Jordan. Many more appearances are scheduled and being planned across the globe and on the world stage.

As Saudi Arabian men and women closed the evening’s first act with an Arabized version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the consensus among us was that we had somehow managed to indulge in the magic of New York City while simultaneously being transported to Arabia, and shown some of the Kingdom’s hidden treasures. Watch for more to come from a part of the planet that is only beginning to reveal its rich heritage and culture.

 

 

With contributions from National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Board Member Susan Wilson Bynum.

NEOM ~ The Line

Our common understanding about cities is informed by how they developed. In lower density or rural areas, they tend to be small with less associated infrastructure and plenty of room for people to spread out. When cities are near water, they reflect it commercially—often geared toward facilitating trade and the movement of goods. As populations grow, cities expand outward and, as constrained by geography, often upward. As space becomes more valuable, cities eventually grow vertically. The wealthy will often occupy the high floors, with good views; the poor then live in their shadow.

As cities grow, the roads, sewers, and services must also expand, bit by bit. Transportation systems develop and evolve to move inhabitants as they need, utilizing new modes of transportation through streets and tunnels often built for something prior. Congestion, pollution, and complaints are inevitable byproducts of these familiar processes.

But what if there was a different way?

Saudi Arabia’s current population is 32 million. It is projected to reach about 45 million by 2050. Yes, it is a large country — it occupies 830,000 square miles, making it the fifth-largest country in Asia, second largest in the Arab region, and the largest in West Asia and the Middle East. Given its size, it is understandable that some people do not quite grasp that some of its existing infrastructure is at risk of having its capacity strained as growth continues. Fortunately, there is plenty of wonderful space for development.

Location of NEOM in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has two unique assets: great space and great wealth. And, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has a flair for bold projects. One noteworthy project’s ambition is signaled by its name: NEOM. The first three letters come from the Ancient Greek prefix neo, meaning “new.” The “M” is from Mustaqbal, an Arabic word meaning “future.” It is also the first initial of the Crown Prince’s name.

Map of NEOM.

In the West and in large cities around the globe, “biggest” and “newest” often mean a 100-some-story steel needle dominating the skyline. In Saudi Arabia, where NEOM’s first goal is “thinking differently about everything,” one particular project is, literally, a new city that aims to be 100% sustainable. It is being designed to be walkable and rely completely on renewable energy. “The Line,” as it is called, is envisioned to stretch over 105 miles (170 kilometers) on the Red Sea coast in the northwestern Saudi Arabian province of Tabuk.

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Jeddah ~ Al-Balad ~ “The Town”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River. Saudi Arabia is more than 3 times the size of the state of Texas.

globe centered on the Arabian peninsula with Saudi Arabia highlighted

Saudi Arabia shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Across a 16 miles (25 kilometer) causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain.

With over 35 million inhabitants, Saudi Arabia has 13 provinces all united by the Arabic language, but each with unique dialects, traditions, cuisines, landscapes, and heritage.

One cannot help but be moved by the imposing contours and beauty of the seemingly endless, ever-changing, windswept Arabian dunes, the sand-washed ancient cities, and the sparkling waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

saudi arabia relief map

Relief map of Saudi Arabia

There are no permanent rivers or lakes in the Kingdom.

The desert, often scorching hot by day, can become surprisingly cold at night. When it rains, the water gathers and is stored in the dampened sand. Little evaporation occurs once rain sinks below seven feet. It is believed that some plants today are still drawing moisture from rain that fell more than a thousand years ago.

There are still Bedouin tribes traditionally known for their bravery, chivalry, generosity, and hospitality in Saudi Arabia. Very few of them still live a nomadic life or depend solely on their animals for food. Most live near towns, hold jobs, send their children to school, and only camp in the desert during specific periods of the year.

Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

From Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger.

There are many cities as well as Bedouin areas on the Arabian Peninsula. Islam was born in two of those cities—Makkah and Medina. From there, the religion spread to a large swathe of the world, from Spain to China. As it expanded, it promoted a love of learning and science. Discoveries and developments from Arab and Muslim scientists provided the foundation for many of the ideas and concepts that were part of the European Renaissance and beyond.

In 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas. Through its Vision 2030 development plan it has made significant investments to develop infrastructure and promote its diverse collection of mountains, beaches, coral reefs, grasslands, and forests, let alone the largest sand sea in the world! Tourism and travel bridge people, time, and cultures, leading to deeper understanding.

When I was the Executive Vice President at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I traveled to Saudi Arabia several times.

I wanted to return.

I explored the Kingdom for 12 weeks in early 2022 with the purpose of writing and photographing the 13 regions of Saudi Arabia. I had the privilege of visiting Riyadh, AlUla, Madain Saleh, Tabuk, NEOM, Jeddah, Taif, Jubbah, Hail, Al Khobar, Dammam, Al-Ahsa, and Abha in the Asir Region.

This is about the seaside port of Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea.

Like all ancient and living ocean ports, Jeddah is a place of access, of mixing, and of exchange. It has a history reaching back into biblical times.

Jeddah was derived from the Arabic word for “Grandmother” in reference to Eve who, as the myth recounts, was buried in Historic Jeddah at a site known as the “Cemetery of Our Mother Eve.”

Jeddah faces out across the Red Sea towards Africa just 120 miles to the west: towards Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.

Historic Jeddah has a rich tradition of harvesting rainwater. Around the 6th century CE, Persians settled in the city. They constructed the first water supply system in the form of wells and cisterns inside and out of the city walls to secure enough continuous fresh water.

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Al-Ahsa: A Magical Oasis Rich in Natural and Cultural Heritage

Saudi Arabia is located on the Arabian Peninsula in southwest Asia. It shares land borders with Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; and maritime borders with Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan. Its geography is dominated by Rub’ al Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest continuous sand desert.

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

Saudi Arabia is the 13th largest nation in terms of land area. The Kingdom is four times the size of France, western Europe’s largest country.

On a geological timescale, the Arabian Peninsula is young. It separated from the main African continent approximately 25 million years ago, creating the Red Sea. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia’s desert has much in common with the Sahara. Indeed, the sands have the same orange coloration due to the presence of iron oxides.

I explored the Kingdom for three months last year with the purpose of writing about and photographing its natural beauty, history, and splendor. It was a rich and beguiling experience. Saudi Arabia is complicated, but fascinating and intriguing with its unique and special architecture, traditions, landscapes, and people. It is at once everything you have heard it to be and absolutely nothing like you have heard it to be.

map of saudi arabia with the eastern province highlighted in red

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

I spent some of my time staying on the beach in Al Aziziya in the Gulf.

sky turning orange over water with palm tree silhouettes in the foreground

Early morning is my favorite time. Watching the sun rise over the waters of the Gulf was never disappointing.

My friend Ahmed Almubarak and I went on a road trip to visit his family and explore Al-Ahsa.

Ahmed Almubarak and I en route to Al-Ahsa.

map of the Arabian Peninsula highlighting the location of Al-Ahsa

limestone cliffs on the roadside seen through a car window

Al-Ahsa is known for its natural limestone. Limestone is used to make cement.

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Among the Clouds in Taif: City of Roses

In 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas. Through its Vision 2030 development plan it has made significant investments to develop infrastructure and promote its diverse collection of mountains, beaches, coral reefs, grasslands, and forests, let alone the largest sand sea in the world! Tourism and travel bridge people, time, and cultures, leading to deeper understanding.

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River. Saudi Arabia is more than 3 times the size of the state of Texas.

Saudi Arabia shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Across a 16 miles (25 kilometer) causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain.

With over 35 million inhabitants, Saudi Arabia has 13 provinces all united by the Arabic language, but each with unique dialects, traditions, cuisines, landscapes, and heritage.

One cannot help but be moved by the imposing contours and beauty of the seemingly endless, ever-changing, windswept Arabian dunes, the sand-washed ancient cities, and the sparkling waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Taif is different.

map of Saudi Arabia with several cities labeled and Taif highlighted

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Celebrating Community in Asir: A Home for Shabana

عربی AR

beach with palm trees at sunset or sunrise

Al Aziziya beach on the Gulf.

 

The music of my morning was the birds singing on the beach in Al Aziziya.

The earth has music for those who listen.
Reginald Vincent Holmes

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

The Arabian Peninsula sits on its own tectonic plate – the Arabian Plate – that broke from the African plate approximately 25 million years ago. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. The rift between the the Arabian Plate and the African Plate created the Red Sea, which forms much of Saudi Arabia’s western border.

Saudi Arabia shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Its geography is dominated by Rub’ al Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest continuous sand desert.

There are no permanent rivers or lakes in the Kingdom. Its population is over 35 million. There is evidence of human habitation on the Arabian Peninsula as far back as 130,000 years ago.

Saudi Arabia’s land area is approximately three times larger than the state of Texas in the United States.

saudi arabia relief map

Relief map of Saudi Arabia

The area of modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of four distinct historical regions: Hejaz, Najd, Alhasa, and Asir. The Asir Mountain Range runs north and south parallel to the Red Sea on the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia.

Asir means ‘difficult’ in Arabic, reflecting the challenge involved in crossing the area’s mountains.

Administrative divisions of Saudi Arabia

The Asir Region

Asir has a short border with Yemen and a coastline on the Red Sea. It is the fourth largest region in Saudi Arabia and encompasses four thousand villages. There are more than 2.2 million residents. The Asir Region is the size of Austria.

The Asir Region has the highest average rainfall in Saudi Arabia.

Flying from the Eastern Province into Abha Airport in the Asir Region.

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الإحتفاء بالحياة المجتمعية في عسير: منزل لشعبانة

English

beach with palm trees at sunset or sunrise

شاطىء العزيزية الخليجي

 

وقد كانت تطربني تغاريد العصافير في الصباح على شاطئ العزيزية.

الأرض لديها موسيقاها لأولئك الذين يستمعون
ريجينالد فينسينت هولمز

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

تقع شبه الجزيرة العربية على صفيحة تكتونية خاصة بها – الصفيحة العربية – التي انفصلت عن الصفيحة الأفريقية منذ حوالي 25 مليون سنة. تحتل المملكة العربية السعودية 80٪ من شبه الجزيرة العربية. حيث تكّون البحر الأحمر نتيجة الصدع بين الصفيحة العربية والصفيحة الأفريقية، والذي يشكل جزءاً كبيراً من الحدود الغربية للمملكة العربية السعودية.

سبع دول تتشارك الحدود البرية مع المملكة العربية السعودية: العراق والأردن والكويت وعمان وقطر والإمارات العربية المتحدة واليمن. حيث يهيمن على جغرافيتها الربع الخالي (المعروف أيضاً باسم الربع الخالي)، وهي أكبر صحراء رملية متصلة في العالم.

لا توجد أنهار و بحيرات دائمة في المملكة. يبلغ عدد سكانها أكثر من 35 مليون نسمة. هناك أدلة على وجود البشر في شبه الجزيرة العربية لفترة تعود إلى تاريخ 130,000 سنة مضت.

تُعد مساحة المملكة العربية السعودية أكبر بثلاث مرات تقريباً من مساحة ولاية تكساس في الولايات المتحدة.

saudi arabia relief map

خريطة المملكة العربية السعودية

كانت منطقة المملكة العربية السعودية الحديثة في السابق تتكون من أربع مناطق تاريخية متميزة: الحجاز ونجد والأحساء وعسير. تمتد سلسلة جبال عسير شمالاً وجنوباً بموازاة البحر الأحمر على الساحل الجنوبي الغربي للمملكة العربية السعودية.

عسير تعني “صعب” باللغة العربية ، دلالة على التحدي الذي ينطوي عليه عبور جبال المنطقة.

Administrative divisions of Saudi Arabia

منطقة عسير

عسير لها حدود قصيرة مع اليمن وساحل على البحر الأحمر. وهي رابع أكبر منطقة في المملكة العربية السعودية وتضم أربعة آلاف قرية. هناك أكثر من 2.2 مليون نسمة. تُعادل مساحة منطقة عسير مساحة النمسا. لدى منطقة عسير أعلى متوسط هطول للأمطار في المملكة العربية السعودية.

رحلة جوية من المنطقة الشرقية إلى مطار أبها بمنطقة عسير.

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