Working Together for Saudi Birds: An Interview with Abdullah Al Suhaibany

There are currently big changes afoot among the governmental organizations that comprise the Saudi wildlife conservation community. I reached out recently to Abdullah Al Suhaibany, who has been a prominent figure in the community for over three decades, in the hopes of not only learning more about him and but also what might be in store for Saudi birds. I am grateful to him for taking the time to respond to my questions. Introducing Abdullah Al Suhaibany.


SB: What’s your educational and professional background, Abdullah?

AS: I have an MSc in Marine Environmental Protection. I got it in 1996 from Norfolk University in Bangor, North Wales, and I’m currently working as an ornithologist and as a specialist in biodiversity in general for both marine and terrestrial environments.


SB: And how long have you been active in environmental protection and wildlife conservation in Saudi Arabia?

Abdullah in Tanomah, southwest Saudi

AS: Actually, I joined Saudi Wildlife Authority in 1986, and I worked as an administrator in the finance department from 1986 to 1990. During that time, I was studying in high school and part time in university. I have worked for several organizations. After the Saudi Wildlife Authority, I then worked in PERSGA (The Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea & Guld of Aden), and then I worked in the private sector on some environmental impact studies. After that I worked for Aramco for five years in the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and now I’m back with the Saudi Wildlife Authority, where I started.


SB: So what led to your interest in this field?

AS: In 1991, during the Gulf War oil spill, I volunteered to go to Jubail to work with volunteers, hundreds of volunteers, to clean oiled birds, collecting them from the beaches and bringing them to the rehabilitation center, where we cleaned them, kept them for a few weeks until they got better, and then released them back into the wild. That was my start actually when I fell in love with these poor animals, and that’s when I decided to change my whole career path from finance to science.

SB: I can see how volunteering to save birds during such a terrible crisis could have such an impact on you. What would you say have been your proudest achievements in your work since then?

AS: There are so many things I am proud of since 1991. I am delighted to have worked with hundreds of scientists, specialists, and experts from all over the globe. They came to assist us and work with us here in the country and I have worked with most of them. I have got information from each one of them, and I think together as a team—Saudis and expats—we have had so many achievements for the sake of the country and for the wildlife of the country. I’m proud of so many things in my life, but that’s not because I alone did them. No, I did them through teamwork with all of the other people around me. That has been the real achievement.


SB: So I’m aware that you have a new position. What is it and what does this new role entail?

AS: Yes, I’m working now as the Deputy CEO for the National Center for Wildlife (NCW), which is newly established, and actually I’m so proud and so happy to join the country’s effort in reorganizing the environmental sector by forming five environmental centers, and I’m working in one of them now in wildlife conservation. So basically the government has enabled us to achieve so many initiatives regarding wildlife conservation in the country—establishing policies and conservation programs, conducting surveys and monitoring projects, as well as education and awareness initiatives—and we hope that by working together with the other centers and with partners in other organizations there will be a tremendous change in the conservation of Saudi wildlife and I hope to be part of that change.


SB: Are there any important initiatives those who care about Saudi wildlife should look forward to?

AS: We have so many initiatives and I think in a few months we will start feeling some of the changes in Saudi wildlife conservation.

SB: When did you first become interested in birds?

Abdullah, Christopher Boland (center) and Jem Babbington conducting a survey on the Red Sea coast for Aramco’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD)

AS: Actually when I started as a volunteer in 1991, I saw these poor, oiled birds and then I really wanted to do something for birds in Saudi Arabia. I was not really aware if there were ornithologists or birdwatchers in the country, but while working on the birds at the wildlife rescue center, I noticed that there were actually no Saudis working on birds in Saudi Arabia. Nobody knew anything about birds in Saudi Arabia. So I decided to enter this field and start learning from the experts and specialists who were working with us at that time. And I found myself really picking up a lot from these people, who were very generous in providing me with information. I learned a lot from them and I am so happy to have worked with these people. That’s really the astonishing story that I want to tell everyone. That cooperating with others, working together to pass on information, being generous to others with information will really assist them in reaching their dreams.


SB: Okay, and what’s your favorite Saudi bird and why?

AS: Well, honestly I’ve been asked this many times—what’s my favorite bird in Saudi Arabia? Honestly, I love all birds, all wildlife in the world, not only in the country, and I feel sad if there is any threatened species or rare species that is facing difficulties or threats. I want to help it. So I love birds. I love seeing them. I enjoy hearing them. I love spending time in the field, in the wild, maybe just hearing them, watching them. Maybe I will spend hours and hours like what I did before—I spent 14 hours watching terns while they were breeding on the islands of the Gulf and the Red Sea. So I really enjoy watching birds, all birds, and don’t really have any favorite birds.


SB: Do you have any favorite places to go birding in the Kingdom?

AS: Yes, my favorite spot in the country to go birdwatching is of course the southwest in general and Tanomah specifically. We have 19 endemics on the Arabian Peninsula and the coastal areas around the peninsula, and in Tanomah, you can see 11 of them, honestly, 11 of these endemics, you can see them in one spot. The other endemics you can see them on the coast of the Red Sea and in parts of the Tihama, but Tanomah’s a really unique spot and not only for the endemics. During migration you can find a lot of other birds in the area. It’s really just very beautiful. I’m from Qassim, but I’m in love with the Tanomah area.


SB: Several students of mine from the Asir Province were surprised to learn about the existence of the Asir Magpie—it was the first time they’d ever heard about this unique species that basically lives in their backyards. How can we make young Saudis more aware of the natural treasures their country holds?

White-eyed Gull is one of the unique coastal species endemic to the seas around the Arabian Peninsula. These gulls can only be found in the Red Sea.

AS: I think education is most important for raising awareness among young people. I feel sorry for a lot of people who are hunters or they are from the region and they don’t know their birds. That’s why we need to work really hard to start publishing books, information, apps, showing the wildlife, the birds, the plants, for each region, each part of the country and let people enjoy them for free. We can give them to people for free to let them enjoy the beauty and learn about the other living things around them. We know that our country is really rich in biodiversity and people love to be outside, outdoors, because this is in their blood really, to love the desert. But basically we need to show them what sort of nice and good activities that they can do in the wild, not only having a gun and shooting birds or animals or whatever. No, we can show them birdwatching, encourage them to paint, encourage them to take photographs, do some activities to remove harmful trash from the wild to ensure that wildlife are safe in their environment. There are so many activities, but I think if we educate and show people the way, then they will really enjoy being in the wild and learning about what lives there.


SB: You know well the threats facing the birds of the Middle East. How can we get more Saudi hunters to put down their guns and take up the cause of wildlife conservation?

AS: Yeah, honestly, I mean I am always trying to pass the right information to people, talking to them, advising them. I think they can change their behavior. We now have almost 50 Saudi photographers in one group. They are spread all over the country, photographing birds and talking about birds. But six of them they were hunters and they sold their guns and changed them to cameras when we started talking to them. We went to the field and we gave them some books about bird identification and they really loved it. Now they have become some of the best photographers in the country, bird photographers. Why? Because they know how to approach the birds and they know what’s the best side to shoot the bird, with a camera, not with the gun, so they love it and then one of them told me something nice. He told me when shooting the bird to eat he’d enjoy it for only a few minutes and the enjoyment would finish after eating the bird, but shooting the bird with a camera the enjoyment stays with him forever. Those were really nice words from him.


SB: What’s your top wish for Saudi’s bird life by 2030?

AS: Regarding our top wishes for birds in Saudi Arabia by 2030, I think we will reach our destination before then. Really, I’m so happy with the results we have achieved so far, and we’ve started planning and developing programs and projects for wildlife conservation in general and bird conservation in the country. I think very soon everybody will hear about these projects and see projects on the ground, not only the strategies, papers, and reports. No, we will start working and establishing work on the ground and everybody will see scientists on the ground and in the field, working together with local communities, university students and teachers, and academics from inside and outside the country toward building the country’s capacity for bird conservation and that very soon will be a tangible result—everybody will see it. I think we will be one of the leading countries in the region in bird conservation very soon.


SB: Thank you, Abdullah. I wish you and the National Center for Wildlife Development all the successes you and the birds of Saudi Arabia deserve.