It was March 2009, and I was homesick, so I decided to visit my family in Saudi Arabia for spring break while studying at a university in California. I decided to surprise my family because I knew if I had told them, they would have talked me out of it, given that it was just for one week and probably not worth the 24-hour flight!
I did it anyway, and off I was on my journey to the capital, Riyadh.
An hour before landing, we received a frightening announcement from the pilot: “We are losing visibility of the airport and the runway for unknown reasons, so our landing will be delayed.”
At first, I was furious because I was losing family time from my already very short visit. Then a few moments later, I started reflecting on what the pilot had said - “unknown reasons” - what did he mean by that?
I opened the window shade, and boom, there it was. A giant orange cloud was coming after us!
To be fair, I was not expecting to see greenery from the window, given that I was flying over the Arabian Desert, but I had never seen anything like what I saw that day.
It reminded me of that scene in The Mummy, where Imhotep created a sandstorm to kill Rick O’Connell. Except for this time, it was climate change that was about to kill us in this scene.
We ended up landing a few hours later, but it was one of the scariest experiences I have ever been through. I started going back through my memories as a child, and I could not remember for the life of me experiencing sandstorms before.
Unfortunately, this incident was the start of what my nephews today call “dusty season,” which is the equivalent of spring everywhere else in the world.
But the difference is that we have sands blooming instead of flowers.
Sandstorms frequent our cities between one to three times per month in the high season and at least once a month during the low season.
This has definitely affected the quality of air and, ultimately, the quality of life in Saudi Arabia.
More people are becoming allergic to the dust, impacting our citizens’ health, not to mention the economic impact this phenomenon has on businesses due to the shutdowns during these sandstorms.
Not many studies have been conducted to analyze the leading causes of this recently-developed phenomenon; however, a local researcher from the University of Jazan published a paper in January 2021 that somewhat addressed the factors that lead to the recurrence of sandstorms in Saudi Arabia.
According to the study, sandstorms are meteorological incidents driven by very low humidity and high wind speeds that carry the dust from the sand dunes to the cities.
While the former is expected in a very dry desert, wind speeds never reached those we are witnessing today in Saudi Arabia - around 40 mph.
In addition, the lack of vegetation in the desert and the expansion of the sand cover across the Kingdom with the Empty Quarter, also known to be the largest body of sand globally and constituting one-fourth of the country’s land, is claimed to have loosened the soil which has made it easier for the dust to travel.
But the real question remains – what has caused this change in wind speed? Was it the lack of interlinks between policy-making and climate change? Or was it the tremendous human intervention that disrupted the ecological composition of the area?
Despite that terrifying landing in 2009, there seems to have been light at the end of our runway.
A decade and a few years after my flight, the government announced an initiative that will hopefully help combat sandstorms or reduce them to bearable levels.
In early 2019, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced a mega project to make “Riyadh Green,” which aims to plant 7.5 million native shade trees all around Riyadh.
This, if done correctly, will improve the quality of air by reducing dust particles. It is also expected to reduce temperatures in the desert and hopefully improve the quality of life.
Little did I know that I was the one that was going to be surprised on that trip by the negative evolution in climate that happened in Saudi Arabia over the years. I am pleased to see that the government is working on introducing new policy interventions that will address these issues – and hope to never see The Mummy return to Saudi Arabia!