Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts

Time: 26 October 2020  

Photo credit: Anas Almajed
  • Saudi stargazers are fusing ancient traditions with cutting-edge technology

JEDDAH: Saudis have for years wandered off to explore the country’s varied landscapes, with excursions that focus on stargazing and meteor watching.

The Kingdom’s vast, open lands provide one of the most optimal views of space in the region, a hidden secret has not been fully discovered yet, and which feeds curious minds and wakes the sleeping giants above.

For thousands of years, Arabs traveling across the region’s lands used stars to navigate through rough terrain and vast deserts. Indigenous tribes inherited their navigation skills on land and sea from those who traveled from one end of Arabia to the other.

Today, satellites and navigation apps do the job instead, but people’s curiosity has remained, and many still look up at blue or red dots of glowing planets, star systems, and constellations in a bid to understand their historical significance and beauty.

Photographers in the Kingdom have advanced the field of nature photography, with some branching out to become astrophotographers, documenting celestial events such as eclipses and meteor showers. The keenest have gone even further and captured nebulas and star clusters.

Many medieval Muslim scholars made huge contributions to astronomy — from Ibn Yunus’ successful attempts in correcting historic Greek calculations of planetary movements to Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi, who was the first astronomer to observe the Andromeda Galaxy and Large Magellanic Cloud.

Anas Al-Majed, an avid astrophotographer based in Riyadh, bought his first telescope seven years ago and was able to view the moon’s mountains and craters as well as neighboring gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, in fine detail.

“I was awestruck with how detailed everything was, like Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s gaseous bands. With time, I upgraded from a simple telescope to a Dobsonian 8-inch, where I delved into discovering deep-sky objects, starting with the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion’s Nebula,” Al-Majed told Arab News. “As a photographer, I wanted to know more and continue discovering, and again, upgraded to a refractor with an equatorial mount for my camera, which brought simple results.”

But the photographer still needed more, as he wanted to capture images of the sleeping giants in bright detail, and he soon bought a camera with features that suited deep astrophotography. The result was surprising and magnificent.

“The refractor’s lens is the closest to a camera lens, my first love. Maintaining the refractor telescope doesn’t take much effort and it can handle the tough terrain unlike other telescopes,” he said.

Although an expensive hobby, turning to international sites means cheaper prices for proper equipment and telescopes, which many say are expensive in the Kingdom.

Al-Majed said the field is still young and there is more room for exploration, but warned that it takes time, practice, and patience to achieve optimal results.

With seven years of experience, he is still keen to find more deep space objects to photograph. “It’s the challenge that’s exciting. The Bubble Nebula is very difficult to photograph due to its distance and the Veil Nebula is a strange and beautiful object. There are still many deep space objects to find and I can head out of Riyadh and search.”

FASTFACTS

• Some of the constellations that can be viewed with the naked eye during autumn above the Saudi deserts include Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Minor, Crux, and Draco.

• Planets such as Venus, Saturn, Jupiter also shine bright, but it is Mars in opposition that steals the show this time of year.

The Kingdom is ideal for stargazers and astrophotographers, but few know where or how to watch one of nature’s most striking sights in all its glory — the Milky Way Galaxy.

With proper research and by selecting the right time and place, the Milky Way’s core can be seen rising during the country’s summer months and disappearing toward the Southern Equatorial Belt.

Huda Alerwy, a Jeddah-based photographer, went on a hiking trip in April 2019 and camped off the edge of the Wahba Crater, a volcanic crater located 250 km from Taif. There she witnessed the Milky Way galaxy’s rise above the horizon for the first time in her life.

Fortunately, there are apps that people can use to reach areas with relatively clean and stable air to make the viewing of stars sharp and clear.

Mohammed Jan

“The scene was mesmerizing. We started to see the glow of the belt at 2 a.m. and I had the chance to capture the moment,” Alerwy told Arab News. “We spent more than an hour photographing its rise and if I get the chance to relive that experience again, I’ll do it with no hesitation.”

With her tripod in tow, she was able to ensure that her camera was stable enough to withstand any wind gusts and stabilize it for a clear shot.

Some of the constellations that can be viewed with the naked eye during autumn above the Saudi deserts include Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Minor, Crux, and Draco. Planets such as Venus, Saturn, Jupiter also shine bright, but it is Mars in opposition that steals the show this time of year.

For casual stargazers in many parts of the Kingdom, the stars have been further away, photographer Mohammed Jan told Arab News. “Many Saudis can’t see the Milky Way where they live, or many stars for that matter, due to light pollution. They’d have to drive for hundreds of miles outside city limits to get away from it.

“Fortunately, there are apps that people can use to reach areas with relatively clean and stable air to make the viewing of stars sharp and clear for both stargazers or photography enthusiasts alike,” he added.

Obsessed with astrophysics and space for years, Jan captured his first glimpse of the Milky Way in 2014 and soon became more knowledgeable in the field. He often drives for hours just to make sure he is away from any light pollution.

“There are different apps that you can use to make sure that you’re in the right area. Large cities such as Makkah and Jeddah are within Zone 9 and barely feature any stars. For optimal viewing and astrophotography, you’ll need to be in an area less than a Zone 4,” he added.

With time, Jan grew used to capturing celestial objects, but soon ventured into new territory — nebulas and deep-sky objects.

“The Helix Nebula has always captured my interest. The planetary nebula was and has always been my favorite object to photograph in the dark skies,” said Jan, repeating Al-Majed’s warning that it is through time, practice, and effort that he was able to reach his level of expertise. Jan is looking forward to doing better but has called for greater community support for astrophotography.

“Not many understand what we do and why we do it. It’s educational, it’s knowledge and its understanding,” he said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Arabia, Google partner in plan to ‘level-up’ Mideast

18/10/20

Lino Cattaruzzi, managing director for Google in MENA. (Supplied)

  • The program includes cloud training for local businesses, as well as workshops on advanced digital skills, such as a machine learning platform that will teach about 140,000 developers with a focus on women

DUBAI: Several Saudi ministries have teamed up with tech giant Google to launch a set of projects aimed at helping the Kingdom’s economic strategy and digital transformation.

Google said the initiatives will focus on Saudi Arabia and the MENA region and will boost economic recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic. The program, named “Grow stronger with Google,” will include a comprehensive list of digital tools, grants and training opportunities to support local businesses and job seekers across the region. In the Kingdom, Google will target the retail, tourism and technology sectors, including Saudi Post, which will list 100,000 local entities on the company’s digital platform and train employees in online marketing.
“We are proud to partner with Google in this initiative to bring value to Saudi nationals, residents and local businesses, especially SMEs through bringing them together using the Google ‘My Business’ platform,” said President of the Saudi Post Anef Abanomi.
“Through this partnership we aim to list up to 100,000 businesses in the first phase in line with Saudi Post’s strategic transformation objectives to improve quality of life and help SMEs achieve their e-commerce and digitization goals,” he added.
Lino Cattaruzzi, managing director for Google in MENA, said in a press release: “During the pandemic, online tools have been a lifeline for many in Saudi Arabia. Making the most of the online opportunity can help Saudi people, businesses and communities and in the wider region bounce back stronger.” He said the program will equip businesses and individuals in the Kingdom with digital skills, especially in sectors that have been most affected by the pandemic, such as retail and tourism.

HIGHLIGHT

In the Kingdom, Google will target the retail, tourism and technology sectors, including Saudi Post, which will list 100,000 local entities on the company’s digital platform and train employees in online marketing.

The tech giant has also partnered with several Saudi bodies — including the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Ministry of Tourism — to implement the programs. One project is set to train 50,000 students and businesses in digital marketing.
“We remain fundamentally optimistic about the future of this region, and we’re confident that by working together with local partners, we can boost recovery and build on the rapid acceleration of tech adoption we’ve seen during the crisis,” Cattaruzzi said.
The program also includes cloud training for local businesses, as well as workshops on advanced digital skills, such as a machine learning platform that will teach about 140,000 developers with a focus on women.
Google said it wants to help 1 million people and businesses throughout the MENA region learn digital skills and grow businesses by the end of 2021.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Arabia launches ‘make it green’ campaign to plant 10 million trees

11/10/20

Saudi Arabia loses 120,000 hectares of trees every year through destruction and the logging industry. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture launched the “Let’s make it green” campaign on Saturday – an initiative aimed at planting 10 million trees across the Kingdom.

Over the next six months, trees will be planted in approximately165 sites to tackle deforestation.

The campaign was launched with several Saudi ministries tweeting tree emojis in a push to promote the planting of trees in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia loses 120,000 hectares of trees every year through destruction and the logging industry.

 

The environment ministry explained that the campaign comes as part of its efforts to work on developing natural vegetation cover and restoring biological diversity in natural environments, as well as rehabilitating degraded vegetation sites.

The campaign also aims to promote positive behavior to preserve and protect the environment.

Trees and shrubs that are threatened with extinction due to overgrazing, logging and uprooting, as well as the urban expansion will also be planted,

The Ministry of Environment reported that the campaign also aims to create a number of national parks, to spread seeds in a number of areas, and to plant forests in the Najran and Al-Baha regions.

 

This article was first published in Arab News

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UNESCO praises Saudi Arabia for keeping education going during COVID-19 lockdown

Time: 08 October 2020  

UNESCO said lessons were available online within 10 hours of Saudi schools closing due to COVID-19 March. (SPA/File)
  • Report says Saudi Arabia’s transition to distance learning had been a “success story”.
  • Online lessons were available within 10 hours of schools closing

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s education ministry had been praised by UNESCO for measures it took to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

The report by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said Saudi Arabia had “ensured the continuation of the remote educational process and maintained the safety for more than six million students in public schools and universities.”

The report focussed on the second semester of the last school year, as lock down measures went in to full force to stop the spread of COVID-19.

It detailed how Saudi Arabia successfully implemented emergency plans from February, which were continuously updated.

Specialized committees and work teams were formed “to ensure the readiness of the education and training system to produce results that guarantee the safety of education personnel,” UNESCO said.

The report said Saudi Arabia’s transition to distance learning had been a “success story”.

Online classes were set up within 10 hours of the decision to close schools in late March and lessons were broadcast via satellite on 20 TV channels.

They were also available on YouTube where views reached more than 61 million.

In higher education, 27 public universities hosted two million virtual classes and more than six million panel discussions.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Helicopter Company hauls largest airborne Saudi flag across the Kingdom’s skies

Time: 29 September 2020

(Supplied)
  • Impressive spectacle marked the start of a first-of-its-kind airshow, as part of the Kingdom’s 90th National Day celebrations

RIYADH: The Helicopter Company (THC) helped Saudi Arabia’s 90th National Day Airshow get off to a flying start by displaying the largest airborne Saudi flag in the skies above the Kingdom.

The impressive spectacle marked the start of the first-of-its-kind event, which combined military and civil aviation displays in a single show. The week-long airshow, organized by the General Entertainment Authority, began in Jeddah on Sept. 21, before moving on to Riyadh and concluding in Al-Khobar.

It began with a THC AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter towing the 2,000-square-meter flag across the sky. At the end of each day’s airborne entertainment, THC took the skies again to display a banner decorated with the slogan of the 90th National Day, “mettle to the top.”

THC, which is wholly owned by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, recently launched its banner-towing service. It offers clients the chance to display messages and advertise products on huge customized banners towed across the sky by a helicopter. The company’s participation in the National Day Airshow was the first official use of the service. THC has also introduced aerial photography, in addition to other recently announced aerial business services.

This article was first published in Arab News

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A national day on an international stage

Time: 23 September 2020

Last year’s Saudi National Day came just 10 days after the attacks on the Kingdom’s oil production in Abqaiq and Khurais. In that time, oil production had been restored and the attempt to cripple the world’s largest oil processing facility instead became a symbol of the country’s resilience in the face of adversity.

Fast forward a year and the Kingdom’s national day again coincides with a period of adversity, though this time shared by the world at large.

Once again the Kingdom is demonstrating its resilience amid an unprecedented downturn in global oil demand caused by the coronavirus.

During this 90th national day celebration, Saudi Arabia is chairing the G20 in what is a critical crossroads for the global economy.

While the pandemic prevented physical gatherings from taking place, the Kingdom continued to steward the virtual meetings of world leaders and helped to galvanize action to curb the impact of the virus and rebalance an energy market that had been badly hurt by falling demand at a time of copious supply.

The speed with which a deal was reached was, in part, an acknowledgment of confidence among other countries in the Saudi vision for restoring order to the energy market.

That entailed orchestrating the largest oil output cuts in history, with 20 producers from inside and outside OPEC, in order to contain the largest oil demand shock the world has ever seen. This unique pact between OPEC and other producers outside the group — now in its fourth year — has kept oil markets on an even keel despite the most ferocious of headwinds.

Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, remains the most profitable among its peers, while many other companies in the sector have had a much tougher time in adjusting to what has become known as “the new normal.”

For the wider oil industry, the second quarter was unsurprisingly much worse than the first, and the steep losses incurred by oil companies does not bode well for future investment in key energy infrastructure as they slash expenditure across operations and exploration.

Weaker oil prices that fell to historic lows in April and similarly weak refining margins have resulted in losses for many industry titans, but not, it is worth noting, for Saudi Aramco which managed to achieve a net income that exceeded the profit of the five major international oil companies combined. It will also make good on its dividend commitment to shareholders despite the extraordinary events of recent months.

Beyond the oil sector, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) has also prospered and seized on new opportunities across a number of sectors and industries helping it to increase its global profile.

During the pandemic, its assets jumped to some $390 billion compared with about $360 billion last August. This takes it a step closer to fulfilling its Saudi Vision 2030 target of $400 billion by the end of 2020.

• Faisal Faeq is an energy and oil marketing adviser. He was formerly with OPEC and Saudi Aramco. Twitter:@faisalfaeq.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Al-Fouta’s facelift: Riyadh’s historical district slated for renovation

14/09/20

The buildings are sorely in need of repair to restore them to their former glory, experts say, adding that the project will contribute significantly to the preservation of Saudi culture. (Supplied)

  • Prince Badr said that the restoration process will meet international standards for the restoration of historic buildings

RIYADH: A major project is set to bring back the glory of 15 old palaces in the Kingdom’s capital.

The work is part of broader restoration work in the historical districts of central Riyadh, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, Minister of Culture and Chairman of the Heritage Authority, announced on Sunday.
Managed by the Ministry of Culture, represented by the Heritage Authority, in partnership with the Royal Commission for Riyadh and the Riyadh municipality, the project comes as part of King Salman’s keenness to preserve Saudi heritage and falls under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
From 15 palaces, seven in the western district of Al-Fouta date back to 1944, while three in eastern Al-Fouta date back to 1935. The project will also restore five royal palaces: King Fahd Palace, King Abdullah Palace, Princess Haya bint Abdulrahman Palace, Prince Sultan Palace, and Princess Al-Anoud Palace in Dhahira, Al-Fouta, and Umm Salim districts.

The district of Al-Fouta has a charming, antiquated atmosphere that transports the visitor into another era. Here you’ll find the oldest park in Riyadh, Al-Fouta Park, and the historic Red Palace, which was a gift to King Saud from the Kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz, which opened its doors as a museum in March of last year, as well as mosques and government offices.

FASTFACTS

• The district of Al-Fouta has a charming, antiquated atmosphere that transports the visitor into another era. Here you’ll find the oldest park in Riyadh, Al-Fouta Park, and the historic Red Palace, which was a gift to King Saud from the Kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz, which opened its doors as a museum in March of last year, as well as mosques and government offices.

• The work, which envisages the comprehensive restoration of the buildings in two phases over 24 months, starting in January 2021, will commence by conducting a complete study of all heritage buildings of importance in the center of Riyadh.

The buildings are sorely in need of repair to restore them to their former glory, experts say. Rana Alkadi, a specialist in heritage architecture, said that the project will contribute significantly to the preservation of Saudi culture.
“Reviving the heart of Riyadh city heritage will preserve its identity and enhance its historical cultural bonds to the past,” she said.
Saudi historian Majed Al-Ahdal called the renovation “an important step forward,” emphasizing the importance of respecting and understanding one’s past to fully appreciate the future.
“I would argue that the future is open to those who know their past well and use the insights the past provides to move forward with confidence. Though renovating the buildings may seem like a purely aesthetic endeavor on the surface, architecture is one of the most fundamental ways of measuring urban progress,” he said.
“These palaces oversaw countless important events and dates, and thus fully deserve to be restored to their former glory.”
Prince Badr expressed his gratitude for the support provided by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the culture and heritage sector.
In a press statement issued today, the minister said that the restoration process will meet international standards for the restoration of historic buildings.
The work, which envisages the comprehensive restoration of the buildings in two phases over 24 months, starting in January 2021, will commence by conducting a complete study of all heritage buildings of importance in the center of Riyadh.
The project aims to preserve the heritage buildings of architectural and historical importance and transform them into an economic, social, cultural, and tourism resource, reasserting their cultural identity in the context of the history of Riyadh.
The ministry’s efforts to preserve Saudi architectural heritage have increased significantly over the past year.
On Thursday, Prince Badr announced in a tweet that: “Having previously won membership on both UNESCO’s Executive Board and the World Heritage Committee, Member States have now elected KSA for membership of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee.”
In 2019, Arab News reported that SR50 million ($13.33 million) had been pledged by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to support the restoration of Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad district, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site.

This article was first published in Arab News

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500 million birds migrate through Saudi Arabia every year

04/09/20

International efforts have been intensified to support biodiversity, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, in line with the methodology of the Convention on Migratory Birds and the UN Convention on Combating Desertification, according to Saudi observers. (Shutterstock/Supplied)
  • Saudi Wildlife Authority adviser: Dangerous risks facing birds include plastic pollution, dredging and illegal trade

MAKKAH: More than 500 million birds representing 500 species migrate across Saudi Arabia every year through the Red Sea, according to an expert in the Kingdom.
Dr. Mohammed Shubrak, a Saudi Wildlife Authority adviser, said that birds migrating from their habitats to other habitats reflected biodiversity, since most species were well-known and classified.
He explained that the route of migratory birds covered the yearly migration from nesting to resting and feeding grounds.
During migration, birds made many physiological adaptations such as increasing their fat percentage, reducing the size of their organs and increasing the size of their feathers. To migrate from one place to another, birds also adopted different behavior according to their size and species.
“Birds have four movements: Flailing, flying, walking and swimming,” Shubrak told Arab News.
“Flailing and flying are two types of movements of the migratory birds to the Kingdom that cannot escape potential hazards. Some birds come to the same place each year for the same foods, like the imperial eagle that has been seen in Saudi Arabia visiting the same places repeatedly.
Eagles provide a free service to humans as they feed on dead animals. According to a study conducted in a reserve in Taif, eagles get rid of 32 percent of dead animals and 3 percent of mammals (foxes and stray dogs) knowing that livestock numbers represent nine times the load capacity of
grassland in the region.”
Migratory birds are an indicator of environmental changes, he said, adding that environmental interdependence was the movement of species without obstacles ensuring the flow and continuity of natural life.

FASTFACT

• There are about 10,966 bird species in the world.

• 1,469 species are threatened with extinction — equivalent to 13 percent — and illegal hunting is one of the reasons behind their declining numbers.

• 5 billion birds migrate between Eurasia and Africa.

“Environmental interdependence also supports the movement of land, sea and air species and benefits in pollinating flowers of birds, insects, and the environmental hydrological cycle.”
Birds are one of the most common animal species as they exist in all regions of the world, from polar to desert.
According to Saudi observers, international efforts have been intensified to support biodiversity, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, in line with the methodology of the Convention on Migratory Birds and the UN Convention on Combating Desertification.
Shubrak said that migratory birds played a vital role as they had a major relationship with the world that people lived in, whether in terms of culture, the environment, the economy or tourism.
Some birds resorted to hopping and moving for short distances between tens to thousands of kilometers. There were also species that flew thousands of kilometers without stopping, relying on large quantities of food sources to get them through their journey.
Other birds migrated through narrow routes or straight lines, Shubrak said. “The coastal line toward the Red Sea between the mountains and coast lines — this trajectory threatens species like the Siberian crane that by disappearing, caused the disappearance of species migrating through Pakistan to spend winter in India.”
He added that the most dangerous risks facing birds were noncontrolled hunting, poisoning, plastic pollution, dredging and land filling, power lines, illegal trade and climate change.
“There are plans of action to protect migratory birds in Saudi Arabia, including hawks, in partnership with hunters. Saudi Arabia has contributed financially and scientifically to developing plans to protect hawks in partnership with hunters from Saudi Arabia.”
He added that a national plan needed to be carried out to preserve hawks in the Kingdom since the numbers of most hawks used for hunting were dwindling, such as the mountainous falcon, whose numbers have decreased by 93 percent.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudis try sandboarding as domestic tourism booms

04/09/20

While the international airport and borders remain closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudis and expats turn to domestic tourism, many heading for a sandboarding experience on the dunes of the “Saed” desert area, 110 km east of the capital Riyadh.

This article was first published in Arab News

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240,000 students take part in stellar Saudi space education program

29/08/20

Photo/Supplied
  • ‘Through the program, I learned why countries spend billions of dollars on space exploration and the most important satellites launched for this purpose’

JEDDAH: A Saudi space education program for students has proved a stellar success after attracting more than 240,000 online participants.
The “9 Space Trips” initiative, launched by the Saudi Space Authority (SSA) in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, was run during the summer to promote space science and its related fields among middle and high school students.
The program included a variety of space-orientated topics and scientific experiments aimed at youth wishing to learn more about the sector.
Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, the SSA’s chief executive, noted the large number of students who had taken part on different interactive platforms and pointed out that through the Space Generations Program (Ajyal) for the development of human capital, the authority aimed to provide an inspirational education environment to encourage the Kingdom’s space scientists of the future.
To help achieve the program’s strategic goals, a number of projects and initiatives have been designed to empower young people to lead and develop the sector. The Ministry of Education is the SSA’s strategic partner, and the “9 Space Trips” summer program marked the start of a joint cooperation project between the two bodies.
Over a three-week period, it included nine virtual and interactive trips on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays lasting two hours per session.
Program participant Mahmoud Al-Hamoud, a 12th grade student from Jeddah, told Arab News that prior taking part he knew little about space, but the experience had enriched his knowledge on the subject.
“Through the program, I learned why countries spend billions of dollars on space exploration and the most important satellites launched for this purpose. Before, I thought that there was only one galaxy, the Milky Way. We were told that there are 12 trillion galaxies, and this reflects the greatness of the Creator,” he said.
Al-Hamoud added that the program taught students how they could become the astronauts of the future and what NASA’s requirements were for becoming a space pilot. “We also learned about the training courses that astronauts receive, in addition to other interesting information about space.”
Although planning to study pharmacology, Al-Hamoud said that participating in the “9 Space Trips” project had made him think seriously about space travel and possibly pursuing a career as a space scientist.
He added that the program mirrored Saudi Arabia’s ambition to produce a generation that could further space exploration.
“The Saudi Space Authority and the Ministry of Education offered an inspiring program that will pave the way for many ambitious students to study space and contribute to international efforts to discover the outer world.”

This article was first published in Arab News

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