Honeybees in the higher reaches of Saudi Arabia are drawing crowds and making the native juniper-covered Soudah mountains one of the most interesting models for sustainable tourism in the Middle East.
At over 3,000 metres high, the Soudah mountains in the south-western Asir region break above the clouds and offer vistas of the Arabian Peninsula. But the rolling mist and cool mountain air apart – 10°C cooler than many other parts of the country – honeybees are contributing to Soudah’s position as an attractive tourism destination. So much so that it is a national priority to protect the bees and the local communities that look after them – and in doing so, support the area’s cultural heritage.
Traditional beekeeping practices have been passed down by farmers in Asir for centuries. Generations who have benefited from this knowledge have reared bees that produce some of the finest varieties of honey available in the Kingdom, thanks to the area’s unique climatic and floral diversity, which have helped bees and plants thrive.
There are an estimated 4,000 beekeepers and a staggering 700,000 beehives in Saudi Arabia. That’s one beehive for every 48 people. Around 3,500 tonnes of honey are produced there every year. It is safe to say that the industry in Saudi Arabia is flourishing. But all is not well globally.
While the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) claims there are more than 90 million honeybee hives globally, climate change and the lack of wild environments for bees to live in is causing serious global harm. Not just to insect and plant life but potentially to global food systems, too. Disease, loss of habitat and growing use of pesticides have led to a decline in the number of bees in the world. This, as we well know, is a serious threat to food production and human livelihoods.
The importance of bees to natural ecosystems cannot be overstated, especially in Saudi Arabia where food security is a strategic objective of Vision 2030, a plan that intends to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and, among other goals, make it sustainable.
Bees and other pollinators such as birds and bats are important because they help plants reproduce. Without them, we would live in a world devoid of food diversity. That means no chocolate, many fruits and vegetables and many other foods we survive on.
The FAO estimates that bees and other pollinators affect 35 per cent of the world's crop production – and a further two-thirds of the crop plants that feed the world rely on pollination to produce food for human consumption. Simply put, bees are critical to plant and human life.
The central question is what needs to be done to make sure they don’t become extinct? As part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has made a commitment to preserve the culture of beekeeping. It falls in line with programmes to arm young people with new skills to keep pace with a rapidly changing economy and create new jobs. Supporting sustainable agriculture, food security and ecological balance are thus linked to encouraging domestic beekeeping.
A number of government initiatives have been launched to encourage Saudi youth to pursue beekeeping with participation from entities such as the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and the Co-operative Society for Beekeepers. In the academic arena, King Khalid University in Asir – less than an hour’s drive from the Soudah mountains – has set up a dedicated unit to research bees and honey production.
The Bees and Honey Production Research Unit has launched a certification programme to accredit honey produced in the Kingdom. It is also focused on enhancing research projects that arm beekeepers with the latest scientific advice and guidance on improving the quality and production of honey. Dedicating more resources to these areas is intended to create jobs for the country’s next generation and ensure the industry thrives.
Such projects are extremely important to Soudah Development, which has made a commitment to protect and preserve its nature and the area’s rich cultural heritage. It ties into the Kingdom’s mandate to empower local communities and create a tourism destination that attracts two million people a year.
Visitors will be fascinated by the traditional beekeeping events in Soudah. One that never fails to disappoint is the annual honey-collecting season that lasts up to 50 days. Local artisans often compete to market the best honey, and this is often a tightly fought contest because Soudah’s altitude ensures a diverse pasture for honeybees that produce exquisite honey. Most of it is naturally rich in vitamins and antioxidants. This also makes it popular with health-conscious consumers. It is some of the most delicious and healthy homegrown honey on the market.
Soudah and the wider Asir region are distinctive places for beekeeping, with more than 300 bird and 400 plant species – including many endangered ones. These rich ecosystems provide honeybees with the wildflowers they need to thrive. And if the nation’s pollinators can continue to flourish, Soudah’s honey will not remain a sweet secret for long.