As CEO of a growing Saudi Arabian environmental consultancy, Dina Hasan Al Nahdy’s trip to London last month was significant not least because she met with a number of UK companies in order to secure partnerships to undertake work in the Middle East. She opens up to Environment Analyst about the unique challenges faced along the way and her aspirations for the future.
Al Nahdy's entrepreneurial instinct tells her that given the emergence of an environmental policy framework in her home market, there are significant opportunities for British environmental consultancies to export their expertise. She smiles when asked by EA how she would describe environmental issues in Saudi Arabia, stating: "It is like the UK was in the 1970s, but my country is awakening to those issues. And it's about time."
Al Nahdy is CEO of a 52-strong company named Entec Environmental Technology. The firm was established in 1995 by Al Nahdy’s father - a geology professor with the foresight to see that environmental issues would one day soon become much more important for the kingdom. In 2007 Al Nahdy turned her father’s establishment into a private sector company and began commercialising it with a strategic local partner - Sepco Environment.
Over the last two decades, the company has grown steadily, opening offices in Jeddah and Riyadh from which it now serves clients across Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East region. It has worked with some of the world’s largest multinationals - including UPS, Alstom and Unilever - providing a range of environmental consulting, water infrastructure design, and environmental training and awareness services. In 2016, the company generated revenues of $20m.
Its EC offering sees Entec active in the areas of environmental impact assessment studies, green building (LEED), baseline surveys and environmental management systems, as well as energy efficiency solutions. Another division provides design and project management for the delivery of wastewater treatment plants, industrial and municipal wastewater services and desalination plants. The other two divisions seek to improve the communication of environmental issues and train companies and governmental staff in appropriate environmental management techniques.
Al Nahdy has undoubtedly had to work hard to get her company to where it is today, not least because she is a female CEO in a country with a less-than-favourable gender equality record. But there are other factors which are likely make her business extremely attractive to would-be foreign partners.
Environmental reform in Saudi Arabia
As a country Saudi Arabia is going through a revolution in environmental protection with fundamental changes to how it approaches regulation, energy provision and water supply. A lot of this stems from the government’s realisation the nation will not always be resource abundant.
Saudi Arabia is blessed with some of the largest reserves of crude oil in the world - some 266 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (according to the US Energy Information Administration), which is second only to Venezuela and over ten times the US’s own proven reserves. As a result over two-thirds of Saudi’s annual export balance is from petroleum receipts accounting for some $122bn.
For many years the government used its oil export receipts to pay for around 99% of its citizens’ energy and water bills, but low oil prices and a strain on government coffers has forced a change.
"In many ways, it has always been a positive and a negative," says Al Nahdy. "On one hand you had low energy & water bills. But at the same time there was no incentive for investment in renewable energy projects or energy efficiency measures. There was no incentive for water efficiency because we get most of our water from sea water desalination."
However, the government has recently started to limit the amount of energy and water it is happy to pay for, and as a result utility bills are going up. This in turn has led to greater awareness of resource efficiency; but it’s slow progress and communication of the issues is key to behavior change in the community. In fact this year Entec was awarded a contract from the General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection (GAMEP) to help improve the department’s public visibility - simply because few outside of the environment sector know what they stand for.
GAMEP has existed for more than 40 years and is seen by Al Nahdy as the "godfather" of environmental protection in Saudi Arabia - responsible for many important laws. And while it has tried to address key issues, the measures have been little enforced. According to Al Nahdy this is because the GAMEP had no jurisdiction in other ministries and as such was mainly focused on environmental permitting for industrial applications. Of course other organisations have developed their own rigorous environmental standards such as Aramco and the Royal Commission that were based on the GAMEP international rules and regulations, but it has been piecemeal.
To address this void in policy the Saudi Arabian government has launched the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, marking a key shift in the country’s approach to environmental protection. It has a host of separate directorates on water affairs, environment, agriculture and land & survey alongside a number of committees.
Al Nahdy sits on the environmental committee for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce which is helping to encourage the private sector to carry out environmental improvement programmes such as remediation and pollution mitigation - something environmental consultancies could cash in on. It is also attempting to align some of the aims of various ministries to align in reaching the 2030 vision environmental goals, and strengthen the private sector by encouraging merges and alliances.
Another new development which is expected change the fortunes of Saudi Arabian businesses - and foreign subsidiaries operating in the country - is the crown prince’s recent Saudi Vision 2030 which sets the long-term direction of travel for the kingdom across a number of social and economic parameters. The ultimate goal is for Saudi Arabia to become the heart of the arab and Islamic world; the investment powerhouse; and a central hub connecting the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.
The vision includes environmental sustainability requirements with ambitions to improve waste recycling, reduce pollution, optimise water use and protect nature reserves. In order to meet the 2030 vision, a 2020 transition deadline has given public agencies key performance indicators they need to meet to demonstrate progress to the vision’s goals.
Al Nahdy explains: "While we had the GAMEP for 40 years and that was fine, the 2020 transition gives us key environmental KPIs and we can see it is a major opportunity. It marks a 180 degree shift in the whole country’s direction. Ten years ago people would ask why do we need renewables or energy efficiency when we have all this oil. But not now - the country is awakening to its need to preserve the environment and diversify income."
But the 2030 vision also details sets out some game-changing infrastructure programmes which could also provide a host of opportunities to environmental consultancies. One example is the Red Sea Project which aims to convert 125 miles of Red Sea coastline into one of the world’s premier tourism hot spots and beach destinations. It will cover 34,000 square kilometres – an area bigger than Belgium – and see 50 untouched islands converted to economic use. But introducing pristine habitats to a deluge of international tourism will clearly have significant environmental implications.
"They will need to take a lot of environmental precautions on this project. We are talking about heritage areas, inactive volcanoes, one of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs with 150 types of coral and a thousand types of fish. They want to make it one of the top ten green destinations in the world and so there will be plenty of work for us," says Al Nahdy.
She expects this project to yield a raft of baseline environmental studies, with environmental management systems, EIAs, marine assessments and green building design all likely to feature. But to deliver a project of such magnitude Al Nahdy has recognised she will need partners and additional expertise to cement Entec’s claims to the tender documents.
To win these kind of projects, and to continue the company’s growth story, Al Nahdy is working to sign international partnerships which allow Entec to deliver on this and other schemes across the Middle East region. She has ambitions for Entec to become the premier environmental consultancy in Saudi Arabia by 2020 and the number one in the Middle East as a whole by 2030.
The company has already signed international alliances with organisations in Germany, Spain, India and the UK, including the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE) and Spanish energy efficiency experts Enertika.
While in the UK last month Al Nahdy also penned an MoU with the UK manufacturers’ organisation EEF and started negotiations with the sustainability professionals and environmental management trade body IEMA to get Entec’s training offerings IEMA-certified. The latter deal may also help improve IEMA’s ambition of becoming more global in outlook itself.
But consultancies too were on her hit list. Al Nahdy indicated that she had secured meetings with a number of companies including Cheshire-based RSK - who themselves have made big inroads into the Middle Eastern market in recent years (EA 01-Jun-16). Such a partnership could unlock a raft of opportunities for both companies, with Entec standing to benefit from RSK’s remediation know-how and Entec bringing its existing local client relationships to the table.
"The consultancies I have met here in London all share one key attribute: they want to win work overseas because business is described as difficult in the UK," said Al Nahdy. "I am most interested in partnering with the smaller firms because they have the knowhow and the skills - they also have the desire to grow."
At the same time, many of the larger international players are also attempting to muscle-in on some of these emerging opportunities. Last month AECOM signed an MoU with Dubai-based Red Sea Housing Services to deliver affordable housing solutions. Under the deal it will take care of design, engineering, planning and project management, while Red Sea will build and deliver modular building units. The annual financial review for WorleyParsons last year alluded to strong opportunities in the Saudi Arabian market (EA 09-Sep-16), while the region is also on the watch-list for Royal HaskoningDHV (EA 28-Apr-16).
Al Nahdy’s desire to grow the business her father founded is unrelenting - and it seems her resolve and motivation has been fashioned by a country which has in the past made it difficult for women to develop careers and lead businesses. Opportunities for women are still limited in a country which is ranked 141 out of 144 by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report. But Al Nahdy insists she does not see inequality anymore and around the negotiating table she does not see gender but deals and collaborative opportunities.
Al Nahdy is well aware of the stigma which is sometimes attached to the way females are treated in her country. Campaigns such as Manal al-Sharif’s Right2Drive has done much to elevate the issue of Saudi women's rights internationally. But Al Nahdy believes many of the headlines are alarmist and represent an outdated vision of Saudi Arabia.
"Yes, 15 years ago things were a little more difficult. I would have to send a male director ahead of me to business meetings because some government sectors would not allow women to enter. But now we have been liberated and we are allowed to do everything we want to and need to do. Women can now sit in ministries and occupy high ranking positions. We are able to reach our goals and have an equal chance to succeed."
Her position as CEO of a homegrown Saudi business has attracted the attention of those in the highest places. Al Nahdy has met German chancellor Angela Merkel on a visit to Saudi Arabia after Europe’s most powerful woman asked to meet a delegation of local business leaders. Al Nahdy is also being recognised by the UN later this month in Cairo, where she will receive an honorary doctorate for efforts in environmental sustainability.