The View from England: Arabian call to action

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Stock image.

A mining conference without alcohol, and at which many delegates left when Mark Bristow and Robert Friedland took to the stage. You wouldn’t think such an event was likely to succeed, but this one did, and is certain to thrive.

The event in question was the recent Future Minerals Forum (FMF) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The event was a bold (and financially extravagant) statement of intent with regard to mineral development across the whole Arabian-Nubian Shield.

The underlying initiative dates back to April 2016, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a series of goals and reforms (branded ‘Vision 2030’) to diversify the economy away from petroleum products. Although only the seventh son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Prince Mohammed is now heir apparent and the country’s de facto ruler.

Vision 2030 now encompasses plans not just for mining in the Kingdom but also for unlocking opportunities across all of the Middle East, plus North and East Africa, and Central Asia, with KSA acting as a hub for activities across the whole region. To that end, over 100 speakers and in excess of 2,000 delegates attended the inaugural FMF in Riyadh.

Held at the palatial King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center, the two-day FMF was the brainchild of His Excellency Khalid Al-Mudaifer, the Vice-Minister of Mining Affairs at KSA’s Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources.

The conference had three main themes: ‘Mining’s contribution to society’, ‘Reimagining mining’ (a spotlight on new technology) and ‘Lands of opportunity’ (an examination of plans to speed up development of the highly prospective Arabian-Nubian Shield). Al-Mudaifer told delegates that “by bringing together governments, the private sector, multilateral organisations and NGOs, we aim to create a mining sector that does things the right way, sustainably and equitably.”

It was instructive that, with delegates from Arab nations in the great majority, the auditorium emptied when Al-Mudaifer (the former CEO of state-controlled mining company Ma’aden) left the stage. There seemed less appetite to hear from the following speakers, who included the leaders of Barrick Gold and Ivanhoe Group.

The Arabian-Nubian Shield, particularly to the west, is the cradle (‘Mahd’ in Arabic) of our industry, with mining being recorded in Egypt and Sudan over 3,000 years ago. Mining in the region has stagnated, however, and very little exploration has been conducted using modern techniques and equipment.

Mining executives queued up to applaud the Saudi initiative, and to concur that the Arabian-Nubian Shield was under-explored and offered huge potential for mineral development. Most agreed that KSA is particularly well placed for an explosion of exploration and mining, given its impressive infrastructure and that the government has initiated a comprehensive airborne geological survey of the country.

Several speakers noted that, in addition to the mining potential, there was an exciting opportunity to establish KSA as a centre for the processing of raw materials from third-party nations. Indeed, with plentiful, and cheap, energy and access to important shipping lanes, the Kingdom could usurp China’s current dominant position in the processing and fabricating of metals that are actually mined elsewhere. From the perspective of Western nations, KSA could become a secure, and friendly, supplier of critical metals.

The conference was a great success in the conventional sense but, with so much political and financial firepower being brought to bear, it felt like a wasted opportunity to deliver something truly memorable. FMF should aspire to be much more than a ‘normal’, commercial, conference, and copy instead the World Economic Forum — although the annual junket in Davos has rather lost its way.

Similarly, a lacklustre Ministerial Roundtable was held on the day before FMF. Some 25 ministers attended who are responsible for their individual nation’s mining sector. The discussion was disappointing (perhaps predictably), with far too many of these ministers regrettably staying quiet or reading from pre-prepared statements, rather than joining into a constructive debate.

It is not just in the Arabian-Nubian Shield that the mining industry needs to sit down with stakeholders to discuss mining’s contribution to society and how we can extract metals sustainably and equitably. Nevertheless, this is an easily-defined region with modest levels of mining activity and clear political objectives, and seems a persuasive place to establish binding rules and firm guidelines that can be exported worldwide.

If FMF is to be an annual event, which seems highly likely, why not make it a proper forum? The issues we face are far too important for pandering to fee-paying delegates and exhibitors, and for indulging sponsors. Restrict invitations to those with a relevant place at the table, and lock out journalists and lobbyists to limit political posturing. Proper, adult, debates are required, behind locked doors if necessary.

It is way past time for a high-level mining meeting between stakeholders and, bizarrely, KSA could be the unlikely catalyst that we need. A mining Davos, perhaps, but in the desert rather than high mountains.

(This article first appeared in The Northern Miner)