Everyone has role to play in meeting environmental challenges, say Saudi princesses

Cop28 speaker Princess Noura bint Turki and Princess Mashael Saud Al Shalan founded sustainable development company Aeon

Princess Mashael Saud Al Shalan, left, and Princess Noura bint Turki Al Saud say communities are central to their work. Photo: Aeon
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Climate should be at the top of everyone's agenda, sustainable development expert and Cop28 speaker Saudi Princess Noura bint Turki Al Saud has said.

Princess Noura and Princess Mashael Saud Al Shalan are co-founders of Aeon, a Riyadh-based sustainable development advisory firm that specialises in strategy and policy design and project management.

In an exclusive interview with The National, the princesses told how Saudis are striving to meet environmental challenges, with youth taking a prominent role.

A leading figure on sustainability in the kingdom and an advisory board member of the International Energy Agency intergovernmental organisation, Princess Noura will be speaking at Cop28, which opens in Dubai on Thursday.

While the UN climate change summit at Expo City Dubai has a tough challenge in keeping global temperature rises to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, Princess Noura believes change is possible – but to achieve that all parties must get involved.

“You need every player, every sector to play a role in that and I think that's what we're trying to do,” she said.

“Climate should be on the top of everyone's agenda.”

We're very excited about Cop28. But if you're really serious, you have to think of Cop30. You have to think of this longer-term trajectory
Princess Mashael Saud Al Shalan, co-founder of Aeon

Princess Noura said Cop28 was all about engaging with people from all across the board.

The summit is vital for “building bridges from a diplomatic aspect, having conversations with people from across the globe from the policy side and from the civil society”, she said.

But Princess Mashael, who guides Aeon’s overall strategy, thinks a longer view is needed.

“If you're really serious, you have to think of Cop30. You have to think of this longer-term trajectory,” she said.

“How can you push certain mandates from ideas on a piece of paper to things that people coalesce on?”

Under the Saudi Green Initiative two years ago, the kingdom set a target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2060.

“They're talking about climate, they're talking about environmental stewardship, and this trickles all the way from top to bottom … it's really involving everyone and it's giving everyone that sense of urgency that they can do more, and they can contribute to this effort,” said Princess Noura.

“You're trying to regenerate and rebuild some of the lost wealth – whether it's biodiversity, or your culture and heritage … so, it's about a multitude of issues and that's really what guides us and what drives us.”

The princess said a lot of work is being done on planet-positive interventions, which focus on solutions, but also on innovation and policymaking to “develop what we're hopefully going to have in the next few years, this planetary repair skills bank”.

Youth participation

“Our region primarily is quite young, and there's a lot of energy investment going into the pipeline,” said Princess Mashael.

During the Middle East and North Africa climate week, held in Riyadh this year, in co-operation with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, Princess Noura said international attendees were pleasantly surprised to see how deeply involved Saudi youth were.

The week-long climate event brought together private sector companies, policymakers, campaigners, and stakeholders in sustainability for discussions on energy and climate.

“The youth are part of the policymaking process. They are in the negotiation rooms they are on these boards they are in the rooms with ministers and with the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] voicing their concerns voicing but actually thinking about solutions,” said Princess Noura.

When Saudi youth first started working in the energy and climate sector they realised there was a very big gap in how policies were relating to projects on the ground, “specifically the developmental projects that touch communities”.

Princess Noura said societal values inspire Aeon, which was founded in 2016, because “in the end it's the individual in society that you want to influence”.

“We're Bedouins and we take pride in the Bedouin ethos and approach. I call it this Bedouin approach to policymaking. We like to under-commit, and hopefully over-deliver in certain arenas, Princess Mashael said.

Consistent leadership

Princess Mashael says there is a need to address empty rhetoric to help translate a lot of this work into pragmatic action that's felt on the ground.

“I think what's very lacking is consistent leadership and consistent vision,” she said.

“And how do you translate that to action on the ground? We always allude to this big win.

“That we were very happy to be able to push across the finish line with the Saudi Green Initiative.”

New projects to highlight the importance of art and culture to sustainable means of living will be launched next year.

“We are the indigenous communities that lived here for centuries,” said Princess Noura.

“Maybe there are communities who have different ways of life who are still more in touch with traditional practices but essentially everyone is indigenous in one way or another to this land.”

Aeon now has a network of physical sites around the world. The company said these can build and share knowledge and create a space where people can have conversations on everything from policy innovation to technical solutions.

Despite the progress, Princess Noura thinks Saudis “will never be content with the status quo … they're always going to strive for better and better”.

“It's really something to be proud of … you can just see it in their eyes and feel it in the way that they're engaging.”

Updated: November 30, 2023, 7:25 AM