Impacts of the rapid development in recreational demand on the desert environment: a case study of the Dammam region of Saudi Arabia
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As the capital city of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Dammam has undergone rapid economic development in the last fifty years. Desert areas on the outskirts of the city have become outdoor recreational places and picnicking areas, despite not being designed for such use nor having basic facilities. In fact, local residents are finding these sites more attractive than the projects established specifically by the city authorities for recreational purposes. This research examines if socio-cultural factors in Saudi society are the only reasons for this pattern of outdoor recreation and also, the resulting impact on the desert environment itself. A mixed-methods approach is used, based on questionnaires, go-along interviews and participant observation, in order to understand how people are using the desert and what it means to them. The physical and ecological condition of the popular sites was also compared with the condition of an unused and also, a protected area in the same region. In addition, a Global Positioning System was used to establish the mutually acceptable distances maintained between desert picnickers to satisfy privacy and territorial needs. The research shows that Dammam residents use desert areas as outdoor recreation spaces to escape from their urban environment, allowing women, particularly, to be close to nature and retain their privacy, besides experiencing a feeling of freedom and undertaking numerous activities with the full confidence that no stranger will intrude. It also shows that for many users, the silence of the desert and its remoteness enhances spirituality, and contemplation of God’s natural creation. In general, it builds a picture of family members and also groups of single males gathering in the desert for specific recreational reasons, highlighting the importance of such recreation in local people’s lives across different ages and genders. This increasing number of desert users, however, is found to be damaging the desert environment and its long-term sustainability is threatened by vehicle use, litter, fires and erosion. This is an urgent issue for residents and the professional and governmental bodies responsible for its management. Thus, this research also establishes basic guidelines for new developments that can better manage and protect the desert environment.