Known as the “City of Roses,” Taif is a city located on the slopes of the Hejaz Mountains in Saudi Arabia's province of Makkah. The sixth most popular city in the Kingdom, Taif enjoys moderate weather throughout the year, even in summer — making it a popular summertime destination for Saudis to escape the scorching heat typically experienced in lower-lying regions elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

I always enjoy the fun and adrenaline from driving up along the winding road, along Highway 15, hugging the majestic mountain ranges leading up to Al Hada and then Taif City proper — located at 1,800 metres above sea level. My latest visit to Taif, in early April, was to experience the annual rose season. Since 2005, there's usually a large Rose Festival every year at the city's Al Rudaf Park celebrating the rose season but, due to the global pandemic, the annual event was cancelled this year.

But the pandemic didn't stop Taif's entrenched and pivotal agricultural sector, best known for the cultivation of roses. The area, including the town of Al-Hada, the valley of Wadi Mahram and the Al Shafa mountains, is home to approximately 900 rose farms, collectively producing around 30 million roses during spring, and about 70 factories.

The rose season begins in early March and runs for 40 to 60 days. The Taif region's mild climate provides the ideal conditions to cultivate the renowned Taif rose. The carefully handpicked roses are then transported to rose factories that distill the petals into rose oil (attar) and rose water used to produce a range of products such as fragrances, lotions, soaps and more. The rose water is commonly used across the Gulf region in tea, coffee and food.

Visiting a family-owned rose farm

The 30-petal Taif rose — the Wardh Taifi — also known as the Jori or Damascus rose is believed to have made its way into Taif during the Ottoman Empire, around 250 years ago, from modern-day Turkey. The Damascene Jori actually traces its roots on the Arabian Peninsula back to the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks transported them from the Balkans. But the highlands of Taif ultimately proved to be the ideal setting for its cultivation.

Thanks to Taif-based local guide Khalid Sherbi, I visited a 200-year-old family-run rose farm administered by patriarch Mr. Salim and his sons Akram, Jameel and Ayman. Since 2017, they have been welcoming visitors on their farm to enjoy the experience of seeing first-hand the harvesting during the rose season.

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As they welcome visitors year-round, they've also created a special plot of land where roses are grown all year, outside the primary spring season. Mr. Salim's farm also has many apricot trees under which about a dozen traditionally decorated cabins can be rented by the hour to enjoy a local breakfast, dates and Arabic tea or coffee.

Visitors can try their hand at the delicate craft of picking the roses from the bush by hand. There's a specific flick of the wrist movement required to master the art.

While you're stopping to smell the roses, Pin It!

It takes between 10,000 to 15,000 hand-picked roses to produce just a small 12 ml vial, or “tolah,” of rose oil. Deluxe perfume is produced from as much as 45,000 roses.

In order to maximize the extraction of the highly volatile rose oils before they evaporate under the mid-day sun, rose farm workers rise early, well before dawn, to pick the roses at the optimal time. It takes ten days for each rose to bloom fully, and timing is everything.

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As I mentioned in my previous article on the agrotourism farms in the southern Jizan region, the development of these ancestral family farms into experiential tourism hubs is an important part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 objectives to diversify the country's economy and promote sustainability in rural tourism.

Distilling the rose essence at Al-Kamal rose factory

Also tracing their origins to the time of the Ottoman Turks, about two centuries ago, the descendants of some original rose distillers still operate the family-run Al-Kamal rose factory in Taif's nearby Al-Hada district. The Al-Kamal factory was founded in 1831 — making it the oldest in the Kingdom. The seventh-generation owner, Khalid Al-Kamal, manages the operation with his three sons.

They use techniques passed on from one generation to the next to turn the delicate rose petals grown and gathered in Taif's farms into perfumes, aromatic rose water, lotions, soaps and more.

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I purchased a small tolah of rose perfume from oil essence (attar) for the equivalent of about $150 USD. Prices vary depending on the season, essence quality and size of the container. The larger container was priced at just over $400 USD. Most of the lotions and soaps are priced at around $10 USD. An on-site café also offers rose tea.

Packed in large multicoloured cloth sacks and baskets, the Wardh Taifi (Taif roses) are sorted and weighed upon their arrival at the rose factory before being distilled in large copper alembic pots.

Attar and rose water are produced by filling those large tin-lined copper pots with thousands of roses. The images below capture a worker from the Al-Kamal factory transporting bags full of rose petals which he methodically filled the copper pots with. The copper boilers are then filled with water, and the mixture is left to simmer for several hours.

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Equipped with over 120 distillation pots, the Al-Kamal rose factory uses a process of steam distillation, using gas to heat the pots, to release the essential oil into vapour form. The steam collects under the mushroom-shaped helmet fitted above the boiler. A downward-angled tube then directs the steam through a zing cooling tank, and the distillate condenses are thereafter collected into large glass containers. The separation process between the rose water and attar then begins. The rose fragrant oil extract ends up floating on top of the rose water surface.

As a reminder of how their forebearers worked with more modest means, a small restricted area in the Al-Kamal factory conserves some original copper pots, along with the wood burners of olden days, as museum pieces.

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Ali Russell is the Chief Marketing Officer of Extreme E. The five-race global electric SUV off-road racing series aims to leverage the power and popularity of motorsports to raise awareness about climate change by holding races in extreme environments around the world which have already been damaged or affected by climate and environmental issues.

Russell also worked very closely with Alejandro Agag, CEO of Extreme E and Founder and Chairman of Formula E​​​​​​​ to bring the first fully electric racing series to the world. The first Formula E race was held in September 2014 on the grounds of the Olympic Park in Beijing, China.

This past April, it was Extreme E's turn to embark on the electric odyssey and make its grand debut with the very successful Desert X Prix in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. The focus of the inaugural X Prix was to bring attention to the challenge of desertification.

So I wanted to find out from Russell about the adventure of bringing both Formula E and Extreme E to the Kingdom. As it turns out, he's no stranger to Saudi Arabia — having grown up here as an Aramco brat. So he's been able to witness many of the tectonic changes which have occurred over the years.

A foundational pillar of the Extreme E series concept and overall mission is the very active engagement of world-renowned researchers who make up Extreme E’s Scientific Committee. Their role involves advising on the series’ education and research programmes.

Each researcher focuses on a specific climate challenge identified through each of the racing season stops around the world, which are desertification, rising sea levels, the melting ice cap, deforestation and glacial recession.

The next stage for the Extreme E series will shift to Lac Rose, in Senegal, on the West Coast of Africa, from May 29th to 30th, 2021 for the Ocean X Prix — where the environmental focus will be on rising sea levels. There are also challenges caused by the rapid depletion of coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves — compounding problems of erosion and food shortages for coastal communities.

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The stunning desert landscapes of AlUla in Saudi Arabia make the perfect setting for the start of the inaugural FIA-backed Extreme E all-electric SUV racing season. The Desert X Prix will take place in AlUla between April 3-4, 2021. Following the Dakar Rally and Formula E, the Kingdom welcomes Extreme E. It's not only a prestigious motorsports event but also a natural partner for advancing the country's own Vision 2030 goals of promoting the​​​​​​​ renewable energy sector, fighting desertification, and placing a strong focus on sustainability.

Extreme E's overall mission is to highlight remote environments facing the threat of climate change and encourage positive action to protect our planet's future. This pioneering concept merges thrilling sports action, science education and storytelling to address pressing concerns underpinning the climate crisis.

In an effort to reduce CO2 emissions, the Extreme E SUVs competing in the rally races are all-electric 400kw (550hp) vehicles. The cutting-edge bespoke Odyssey 21 E-SUVs weigh 1,650 kilograms and can rip from 0 to 62mph in just 4.5 seconds.

The E-SUV was built from scratch by Spark Racing Technology in France back in 2019. A pioneering hydrogen fuel cell technology by AFC Energy enables the E-SUVs to be charged using zero-emission energy. The innovative solution uses water and solar energy to generate hydrogen power. Not only does this process reduce the vehicle's environmental footprint by eliminating greenhouse emissions, but it allows for the utilization of the water by-product elsewhere on-site. Williams Advanced Engineering produced the all-important high-performance battery, and founding partner​​​​​​​ Continental provided extreme winter-and-summer-proof tires.

Turning a bold idea into reality

The Odyssey 21 E-SUV was turned from a drawing board concept to reality in just two months. It was unveiled to the world in the summer of 2019 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.

"We were little more than an idea on a napkin back in January 2019, and now Extreme E is real," said Extreme E Founder and CEO Alejandro Aga. The idea for this remarkable odyssey originally came in late 2018 when having breakfast with a friend and motorsports great, Gil de Ferran. The pair dreamt up the idea of a world-class motorsports series to tell the story of the effects of climate change and human activity on stunning, remote locations worldwide.

I first observed the Odyssey 21 live and direct when it was on public display during the inaugural Saudi edition of the Dakar Rally last year — where it raced the final 20-kilometre stage of the legendary rally. The first photo on top of this article is from a pre-Dakar testing session in the Saudi desert. The E-SUV, driven by Ken Block, stormed the final competitive stage of the 2020 Dakar Rally in a time of 9 minutes and 17 seconds, placing third overall.

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This coming week's Desert X Prix in AlUla is the first in a 5-race inaugural season. The other carefully chosen race locations around the globe also represent regions affected by climate and environmental challenges. The five-race global voyage listed below, spanning four continents, promotes sustainability and electric vehicles' adoption to help protect the planet.

  • Desert X Prix: AlUla, Saudi Arabia (3-4 April 2021)
  • Ocean X Prix: Lac Rose, Senegal (29-30 May 2021)
  • Arctic X Prix: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (28-29 August 2021)
  • Amazon X Prix: Para, Brazil (23-24 October 2021)
  • Glacier X Prix: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina  (11-12 December 2021)

Unique environmental issues are being highlighted through each destination: Saudi Arabia (desertification), Senegal (rising sea levels), Greenland (melting ice cap), Brazil's Amazon (deforestation) and Argentina's Patagonia (glacial recession).

All of the E-SUVs racing in the Extreme E global circuit are transported between locations in a converted former passenger-cargo ship, the RMS St. Helena, which underwent a multi-million-Euro refit to minimize emissions and transform it into Extreme E’s operations hub.

Motorsports events traditionally attract throngs of adrenaline-seeking spectators, but Extreme E is turning this concept on its head. Given the organization's focus on mitigating the environmental impact as much as possible on these remote race environments, there are no on-site spectators allowed. Each Extreme E team will also be limited to eight people — comprising two drivers, one engineer and five mechanics. Even the bulk of the TV operations will be done remotely from London.

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Fans will instead have the opportunity to watch the races live through TV broadcasts. Local viewers in Saudi Arabia will be able to watch the inaugural Desert X Prix AlUla and Extreme E debut season on KSA Sports.

The merging of sports and science for the good of the planet

Extreme E is a signatory and supporter of the United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action Framework. The initiative is led by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which finds its roots in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“In a little under a year, I saw the impacts of climate change first-hand and met the people experiencing the effects,” said Alejandro Agag. “For anyone that denies its existence or is unaware of the problems it is causing — join us on this journey," as he encouraged the world to do at the launch event.

"The ocean and exploration always fascinated me as a kid," said Agag. One of his childhood heroes was the famous French explorer and marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau. He was inspired by Cousteau's boat, the Calypso, to create a 21st-century version with the RMS St. Helena.

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Extreme E's floating paddock not only transports the electric off-road racing vehicles and support crew across the season's adventurous global circuit but also serves as a scientific research command center. A team of top researchers from leading universities forming Extreme E’s Scientific Committee will advise on the series’ education and research programmes. Led by Professor Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge, the onboard scientists will assess the environmental impact of event logistics and recommend positive legacy initiatives that support local communities in each race location.

Other scientists making up the Scientific Committee include leading Brazilian Amazon scientist Francisco Oliveira, ocean scientist Lucy Woodall, desert/climate scientist Prof. Richard Washington from the University of Oxford, and a great marine scientist from my own King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Professor Carlos Duarte.

In partnership with the Enel Foundation, Extreme E will give the opportunity to scientific researchers at each Extreme E race locations to conduct research and outreach programs whilst onboard the ship.

Unified teams of equals supported by legends of the sport

In April of 2020, Extreme E committed to the Equality Programme to promote fairness and a level playing field between male and female drivers. All nine competing teams and 18 drivers starting off in AlUla for the Desert X Prix will comprise world-class male and female drivers.

The two-day format of the X Prix races will run on Saturday and Sunday. Each team has two qualifying rounds of races on Saturday. The final on Sunday comprises two semi-final races and the Final. Each race is two laps – one lap driven by the female and one lap driven by the male.

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Extreme E's call to use motorsports as a platform to advocate for climate action and promote greater environmental responsibility has attracted legends of the sport eager to play a role in fulfilling this grand vision.

The reigning Formula 1 champion, Lewis Hamilton, is entering the first season of the Extreme E Championship with his team X44 – a reference to the number he started racing with as a youth.

Another Formula 1 champion entering the eco-friendly championship as a team owner is Hamilton's former Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 racing team partner, Nico Rosberg. His RXR (Rosberg X Racing) team will feature drivers Molly Taylor from Australia and Johan Kristoffersson from Sweden.

It will be exciting to see their racing rivalry being reignited on the X Prix series. I'm certainly hoping to see both racing the Odyssey 21 E-SUVs themselves in future seasons.

Bringing great excitement to the first season as a participating driver is Jenson Button – who enters the series as both a team owner and driver. Also participating are rally legends Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb. Participating female racers include Williams F1 development driver and W Series Champion Jamie Chadwick, as well as Italian-Canarian rally and off-road race driver Christine Giampaoli Zonca (aka Christine GZ) and X Games medalist Sara Price.

This groundbreaking series is definitely one to watch.

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* All images and videos have been provided by Extreme E. 

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"If you want to do something, if you want to be a writer, you've got to write. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to make films." - Spike Lee, during a talk delivered in San Francisco on June 8, 1996.

These words may seem entirely intuitive and straightforward, but it's funny how we can often lose sight of the truth of this statement.

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Julia Cosgrove is the award-winning Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at AFAR Media, based in San Francisco, which publishes the influential travel magazine AFAR and website. Born in New York and raised in Berkeley, she now lives in Oakland, California – where she's been sheltering in place since the pandemic.

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Ever since moving to Saudi Arabia, I've wanted to visit the enigmatic flower men living in the southern provinces of the country and extending into Yemen. They're the descendants of ancient Tihama and Asir tribes dating back two millennia who are known for wearing colourful and distinctive flower garlands on their heads. They also sport an ornate traditional curved dagger, called the jambiya, over a colourful and multi-patterned wrap-around male skirt known as a futa.

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They say that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. Well, I recently had to cut short a planned 16-day self-drive tour of Saudi Arabia only on the fourth day due to coronavirus restrictions announced by the government. My original itinerary included mostly hotel stays during the first week and mainly camping on the second week – as I hoped to make my way around remote sites in Tabuk Province.

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One of the things I most looked forward to when visiting Brazil's northern city of Manaus, known as the Gateway to the Amazon Rainforest, was the opportunity to visit some of the aboriginal people living in the Amazon. The opportunity came when we sailed along the Rio Negro river towards a riverside village inhabited by the Tuyuca (Tuyaka) people. They also call themselves Dojkapuara or Utapinõmakãphõná. Their population is concentrated in Brazil and Colombia. Tuyuca is spoken by 500 to 1,000 people in these two South American countries.

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It’s hard to believe that I’ve already crossed the eight-year mark on my third overseas work experience here in Saudi Arabia. Life as an expat offers many fantastic opportunities on various fronts, but it also comes with some challenges.

I recently spoke to a fellow Canadian expat and colleague, Michelle Ponto, for a podcast episode covering a wide range of topics from how to embark on an overseas work adventure, adjusting to life in a new country, and overcoming the stigma of travelling alone.

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Siphesihle (Siphe) November is a dance prodigy from Zolani, in South Africa's Western Cape. Siphe grew up in the small township located about two hours from Cape Town. At the age of 19, in 2017, he joined The National Ballet of Canada as a member of the Corps de Ballet, after graduating from the National Ballet School, skipping the customary apprenticeship route. Two years later, he was promoted to Second Soloist.

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