The Arabian Shield: Mining’s new hub

Austmine’s chief executive officer Chris Gibbs Stewart shares her insights from the Future Minerals Forum

Austmine’s chief executive officer Chris Gibbs Stewart shares her insights from the Future Minerals Forum. The conference had representatives from 31 countries connecting key players and business leaders across the mining value chain to start a truly global conversation about the region’s mining potential.

In January, I visited Riyadh to attend the Future Minerals Forum as a guest speaker of the Ministry of Industry and Minerals Resources, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To say I was surprised by what I found is an understatement. My preconceived notion of the Kingdom was incorrect, and what I discovered was a modern energised country, with a sense of purpose, fantastic young people, and a bold vision for the future.

The Kingdom knows that its future does not lie in its oil reserves, and it has put together a vision for 2030 which focuses on technology, sustainability, and its people. Already the Kingdom is investing heavily in its vision and has established the largest green hydrogen project in the world, is transforming its tourism sector, and is bolstering its critical infrastructure, including a major focus on water.

Mining is seen as a key component of this economic transformation with an estimated $1.3 trillion in untapped mining potential including such commodities as gold, copper, zinc, and iron ore. With the mineral potential of the Arabian-Nubian Shield which extends into Africa and the rich mineral deposits of Central Asia to the north, the Kingdom is positioning itself as the hub of mining of this rich region.

The Future Minerals Forum provided a platform to explore the potential of the Kingdom and the wider region. The two-day conference had representatives from 31 countries for high-level talks on the future of the mining industry and it was agreed that deeper collaboration on mining across the region was needed to unlock the industry’s full potential.

Mining Ministerial

The Kingdom has an opportunity to position itself as a regional hub for mining, finance, and mineral knowledge, and the conference provided a platform to discuss how the region might work together to attract investment and develop mining projects.

Before the conference, there was a mining ministerial roundtable with 28 countries involved. The ministerial focused on sustainability issues surrounding the industry and the need for regional cooperation. The meeting also discussed what role metals and minerals could play in the global energy transition, as well as the role that each nation in the region can play in developing sustainable and responsible mineral value chains.

From all accounts, the ministerial discussion was highly productive, and it provided the foundation that the forum was built on. Developing and bringing mining to the region that will be beneficial to countries and communities requires regional cooperation as well as deeper collaboration. Those attending the ministerial committed to meet again, bringing the regional hub one step closer to fruition.

Talent Attraction

How young is too young to attract our youth to a mining career?

According to a panel organised on this topic, young people’s interest needs to be sparked early because once he or she reaches high school, it is too late.

Families play an important role in where people choose to work and better education in what a mining career looks like is required.

Young people also do not want to be associated with an industry that is perceived as destroying the planet. More stories about the positive impacts of mining, particularly on communities, are necessary to give young people a sense of purpose, including more of a focus on technology. Many don’t realise that mining is not just big pits and remote workers with plenty of people employed in urban centres. Examples of big tech companies that work in mining need to be talked about with the likes of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft being active players within the mining value chain.

Finally, we are always preaching to the converted and we need to change tact and understand who the key influencers are and what the right channels are to engage young people. This includes using non-traditional communication channels and people outside the mining industry to get the message across. This will take an industry-wide effort that needs to be global in scope.

Women in Mining

You would think in a country like Saudi Arabia that this topic might be off the table, but the Kingdom is driving for more participation of women in the workforce and has reached its initial targets in just a few years.

And in this context, it was fantastic to have a frank discussion about mining with some amazing women from the Kingdom, Australia, Botswana, USA, and the UK – a truly international perspective!

The panel touched on a range of issues from the value that women bring to corporations, and what the hygiene and safety considerations are for women on site. Importantly, as well, we were not speaking to an audience of women, but one of men who can truly influence the future of women in mining in the Kingdom.

Dr Dina Al Nahdi, a leading entrepreneur in the environmental space, led the panel discussion. She was the first woman to be on the Saudi Board of Industry, and she represents mining at a senior level. She noted, “Shaping the future of mining is defining and building a critical mass of women in the sector. Currently, women are represented an estimated 7% to 9% of the global mining workforce, which on a global level is very low.”  This signals that all countries need to do better in boosting female participation in mining.

Other key messages included:

  • The international women in the mining community can support each other with mentorships and lessons learned.
  • Technology enables more female participation and can make mining a more attractive career for young people.
  • Bold leaders are needed to set the example of encouraging and appointing women to key positions, particularly at senior levels.
  • Make it easy for women to opt-in reduce barriers, provide flexibility and support family needs.
  • Unconscious bias is holding women back, so keep this in check when considering promotions and hiring.

Mashael Al-Omair, who was part of the panel, is the first female metallurgical engineer at Ma’aden and hopes to establish Women in Mining in Saudi Arabia. She is a young woman who is leading the way and gave a very honest account of her experience as a trailblazer. If Mashael represents even a fraction of the next generation of miners, there is no doubt the Kingdom will be a mining powerhouse in no time!

Could the Region Become the Silicon Valley of Mining?

Where there is a will, there is always a way, and creating the foundations of a Silicon Valley is already part of the 2030 vision.  The next steps are building a strong ecosystem that will enable start-ups, technology innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors to come together. But with other mining powerhouse nations to compete with, the Kingdom needs to focus on its competitive advantages.

As mining is one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world, the conversation naturally turned to how the Kingdom should position itself around energy and the energy sources of the future. This not only includes the green hydrogen projects it is leading but investments in other types of renewables such as solar. With such a strong capital base, the Kingdom can lead the way in applying renewable energy to mining as well as making it less energy-intensive. This opens up opportunities in mineral processing for the Kingdom, particularly given the Kingdom’s strategic location.

Building a METS sector will also be key to a Silicon Valley positioning. The METS sector in the Kingdom is currently in its nascent stage and this needs to be fostered, along with international players to allow for modern mining practices to flourish.

What does it mean for our METS sector?

There is no doubt that the first Future Minerals Forum connected the key players and business leaders across the mining value chain to start a truly global conversation about the region’s mining potential.

With a focus on sustainable mining and the value of technology and innovation, the first-mover advantage for Australian METS will be a bonus. Ma’aden is looking for partners and has plans to modernise its mining practices, creating opportunities for Australian METS.

The Australian METS sector is already working in the Middle East and the wider region giving even more opportunity to supply products and services, particularly in the automation, digital and environmental solutions.

The Kingdom is looking to engage globally and believes that achieving its national objectives comes only by participation for all segments. With its commitments to achieving a sustainable economy, preserving the environment, and increasing community and business participation in mining, we are well placed to be part of the story.

Please get in touch with Austmine if you are working in the Saudi Arabia Kingdom or the region so that we can include you in any communications and activities to ensure our members can be the first to engage when the opportunities arise. Contact membership@austmine.com.au.

CEO Chris Gibbs Stewart, Austmine

This feature appeared in the May issue of Australian Mining.

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