As drought ravages the Middle East, Saudi environmental activist Abdullah Abduljabar sees a silver lining for deserts: Saxaul trees produce seeds only as they become drier, opening a window to plant even more in the kingdom’s vast wilderness of Qassim.  

For centuries millions of these trees, commonly known by their Arabic name Al-Ghadha, provided firewood, animal feed and respite from the desert heat for the Bedouin forefathers of modern Saudis.   The roots bind the sands and help constrain sandstorms.   Abduljabar, vice-president of the Al-Ghadha environmental association, said his organisation is planning to plant 250,000 of the drought-resistant trees this year in Unaizah in the central Qassim region.  

“The saxaul is a legacy of the people of Unaizah… one of its benefits is that it holds down the sands,” Abduljabar said.   Planting saxaul trees is part of green initiative by the Saudi government aimed at reducing carbon emissions, pollution and land degradation.   The kingdom aims to plant 10 billion trees in the coming decades as part of an ambitious campaign unveiled by its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year. The country also plans to work with other Arab states to plant an additional 40 billion trees across the Middle East.  

Many Middle Eastern countries are suffering from rising temperatures and longer and more frequent droughts, placing pressure on water supplies and food production.   The saxaul can survive for months without a drop of water and thrives in particularly harsh environments where temperatures can soar to 58 degrees Celsius (136 F).

The Gulf is one of the hottest places on earth.   The Unaizah park last year was recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest saxaul botanic garden, stretching over 172 sq km (66.41 sq miles).   On a recent visit, an expanse of saxaul trees stretched to the horizon, enlivening the desert as wind blew through their needle-like leaves.  

“The saxaul tree has many qualities, one of the most important ones is that it doesn’t need a lot of water,” said Al-Ghadha association president Majed Alsolaim, as he walked in the park while holding the Guinness certificate in his hands.   “That’s why people in Unaizah have taken care of it (in order for it) to become an environmental symbol for this region.” (Reuters)