The Arabian Peninsula is a forbidding place most of the year – even for those who call it home.

Searing hot winds, temperatures almost half way to boiling point and a seemingly unending desert would, at first glance, hardly make it an ideal location to start salmon farming.

However, if plans by various regional governments get off the ground, this could become one of the world’s leading centres for aquaculture within the next 20 years, both marine and land-based.

It is no mirage. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the states that make up the United Arab Emirates have said they are ready to invest billions of dollars to make them almost self-sufficient in seafood.

And in a region that has seen once sleepy fishing villages transformed into modern super-cities in just a few decades, who can doubt them?

Saudi Arabia has been developing its seafood sector since the 1980s and now produces almost 80,000 tonnes from aquaculture and 60,000 tonnes from conventional fishing.

But with its citizens consuming up to 300,000 tonnes annually, it still needs to import far more than it can produce and the traditional Saudi fishing industry, mostly based around the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, is not in the best of health. Fisheries minister Jabir-Al Shihri says this means aquaculture will become even more important in future.

The government is increasing its investment on aquaculture from 20bn Saudi Riyals (SR) to SR 60bn (£11.77bn) between now and 2040.

Most aquaculture projects will be designed around cages in water close to shore so the fish can be transferred to nearby processing sites and sold onto home and international customers.

The country’s Agriculture Development Fund is ready to finance this strategy to the tune of nearly £3bn.

While well over 2,000 highly qualified technicians are thought to be working in the aquaculture sector, the country does not yet have its own specialist colleges, so more young people will be sent overseas for training.

Dr Ali Al-Shaikhi, CEO of the National Fishery Development Programme, told the Arab News recently: “We have launched an initiative to help develop 100 Saudi citizens to become aquaculture leaders, with 70% of the funds coming from the private sector and 70% from the government.

“And we have just signed an agreement with a local academic facility to train 3,000 Saudis for the aquaculture and fisheries sector.

The country is seeking help from foreign governments and recruiting overseas academics to help it with this training initiative.

Aquaculture in the Red Sea

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will soon begin test production on an aquaculture project by the Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) focusing on the farming of native species.

Venture director Michael Slage says the focus will be on native species that are difficult to farm using traditional methods, but he stresses the highest standards will be adopted, avoiding the use of pesticides and antibiotics. Instead, the project will involve working with nature.

Dubai is known globally as a glamorous tourist destination with fantastic luxury hotels, but away from the glitz, a lot of work is going on to develop its own aquaculture industry .

It is not just for home consumption: Dubai sees continental Africa as a potentially huge export market.

A group of students at the UAE University College of Engineering have set up a project to develop a fish farming system for tilapia.

The project also has the backing of a Dubai-based international company, Asmak, which has said it will help develop it into a commercial venture if the trials are successful.

And the UAE is working closely with India to help enhance its food security, mainly through fish farming and sustainable fishing practices.

The Emirates have the innovative technology, while India has the land, water and experience so together they have the potential to develop smart fish farming.

Roadmap to sustainable food

As part of another strategy, the UAE last summer laid out a national aquaculture roadmap though which it hopes to attract international investment.

A recent report from the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development showed that UAE residents eat 25kg per head each year, nearly twice the world average.

Dubai is developing its own salmon farming sector and is also working on other species such as sea bass. Fish feed is currently imported, but it eventually hopes to produce its own supply.

In Abu Dhabi, a partnership between the investment office and the company Pure Salmon is receiving funding to expand food sustainability through salmon farming.

Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary General of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, told the Khaleej Times recently: “The aquaculture sector has been identified as a priority sector for development by the Government of Abu Dhabi.”

She added: “One of the key initiatives seeks to encourage economic investment in the sector, thereby reducing pressure on the UAE’s severely overexploited fisheries, providing meaningful employment and generating wealth for citizens by producing safe, wholesome and high-quality seafood products.”

In February, a consortium of European and Middle Eastern businesses announced plans to build a land-based salmon farm in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The companies behind the recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) farm plan are Tech Group, a UAE-based diversified group of companies; Ocean Harvest, a technology-enabled aquaculture business recently set up in the UAE; and Belgian construction group BESIX.

Ocean Harvest’s first project is being delivered together with industry-leading RAS technology partner and supplier Billund Aquaculture A/S and global water treatment leader, SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions.

The project aims to supply 2,000 metric tonnes per year of premium-quality, locally grown Atlantic salmon to the UAE.

In conjunction with the partnership, BESIX and Tech Group will join Ocean Harvest’s Board of Directors as investors and “Strategic Partners”. Ocean Harvest has secured US $1m in pre-seed capital to fund its design and engineering activities from BESIX, Tech Group and leading angel investors.

Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Founder and Chairman of Tech Group, says: “Tech Group is dedicated towards the continuous pursuit of innovative opportunities that support the sustainable development of the UAE. Food security is among the most important priorities in the UAE national agenda, and we believe that our partnership with Ocean Harvest will generate a true and tangible impact for our society.”

Qatar, though not part of the UAE, has also unveiled plans to become more self-sufficient in food by accelerating the development of its own fish farming industry. Working with private industry, it aims to set up fish and shrimp farms, and an aquatic biology research centre.

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