By Mohamad Amin Saad

This article offers a comprehensive presentation of the history and future outlook of water desalination via membrane technology in the Arab world. It recites the milestones of seawater desalination via membranes which started in the Saudi village of Al Birk in the year 1983, then on the Island of Malta and back to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, which currently consumes a combined total of more than 16 million cubic meters of fresh water daily and will spend more than $30 billion U.S. until the year 2025, in addition to $40 billion U.S. they’ve already spent to date on desalination plants.

I will detail the status of membrane desalination technology and equipment in the Middle East countries, especially those Arabian Gulf countries including erected plants and active projects to produce more desalinated water such as the Jubail plant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Fujairah plant and Taweelah project in the United Arab Emirates, the Sulaibiya and Shuwaikh plants in Kuwait, the Arzew plant in Algeria, the Gaza plant in Palestine and the mega project of transporting and desalinating water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to provide fresh water for Jordan and Palestine.

Finally, the article lists the future requisites and technological trends towards developing the membrane desalination industry in the region, technically and commercially, as well as expanding and improving the areas of training, monitoring of desalination plant performance and cost, and establishing an industry base for desalination equipment and services including local manufacturing of membranes and plants to serve the gigantic Arab market, estimated to represent more than 50 percent of the world market.

History and current status of reverse osmosis
Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where five percent of the world’s population has just one percent of the world’s fresh water supply, have witnessed explosive growth in reverse osmosis (RO) membrane technology applications for desalination of water since its first commercial introduction in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The City of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was the first recipient of this technology represented in the supply of almost 9,000 8”x 40” hollow-fine fiber permeators by DuPont, the industry’s pioneer membrane manufacturer, with productivity totaling over 125,000 m3/day (33 mgd) of desalinated water in five large-scale RO plants (Salboukh, Manfouha I & II, Shemaisi and Malez) and 2,100 8”x 40” spiral-wound cartridges in 350 pressure vessels by Desal (now under GE Osmonics) with a capacity of about 32,500 m3/day (8.5 mgd) in the Al-Buwaib RO Plant. However, these plants were not commissioned for several years due to the lack of an actual need for the water.

In 1983, the world’s eyes focused on two places at the same time: the small village of Al-Birk on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia and the Island of Malta. A 1,000 m3/day (264,000 gpd) seawater RO plant was contracted and commissioned to provide drinking and potable water for the village of Al-Birk by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), which is responsible for installing and operating seawater desalination plants throughout the Kingdom. At almost the same time, the government of Malta contracted and commissioned the world’s first and largest seawater RO plant in Ghar Lapsi with a capacity of 20,000 m3/day (5.3 mgd). The success of these two plants was crucial for RO membrane technology to emerge as a viable, reliable and cost-effective alternative to the aging and expensive thermal desalination processes. Despite initial technical and commercial problems and setbacks at both plants, the age of membrane desalination in the water-scarce Arab world had arrived. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, RO is a fairly mature, yet still evolving, and highly competitive technology, utilizing state-of-the-art membrane manufacturing techniques, advanced pretreatment, integrated processes and cost-effective and operationally efficient system designs. GCC and North African Arab countries now have an estimated installed membrane desalinated water output of 1.5 million cubic meters a day (about 400 million gpd), with over four million m3/day (more than one billion gpd) already planned by many countries for the next two to five years. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and recently Kuwait, are leading the Arab World, if not the entire world, in utilizing large-scale RO membrane desalination as the technology of choice to meet the ever growing demands for drinking, potable and agricultural water at a reasonable cost.

Saudi Arabia
This country is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, with over one billion cubic meters annual output. SWCC alone is currently producing 21 percent of the world’s total, including about 350,000 m3/day using eight seawater RO plants in Al-Jubail, Jeddah, Yanbu and several remote locations on the Red Sea, with plans to build more plants and upgrade existing ones on the west coast using RO/NF (nanofiltration). Saudi Aramco played a role in experimenting with RO in its commercial infancy with two seawater plants at Ras Tanajib (used for producing utility water) and at Ras Safaniya (the first dual-stage seawater RO plant in the world with 45 percent conversion) for providing fresh water for its gas plant’s crude oil desalter. According to a recent forecast, Saudi Arabia will be the world’s third largest purchaser of RO membranes and systems by 2007, after the U.S. and Japan.

Quick to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain rapidly began exploring the viability of RO technology in actual practice. A 46,000 m3/day (12 mgd) RO plant was contracted and commissioned in 1984 at Ras Abu Jarjur to usher in the era of large membrane plants utilizing high-brackish, well-water feed. Although the plant used DuPont’s hollow, fine-fiber seawater membranes, it was prohibitively expensive to build at over $3,000 per m3 ($11.5 per gallon) of water, partly because of lack of experience and confidence in RO reliability resulting in over-design. It was critical to demonstrate that the new technology could deliver just as reliably at this capacity as multi-stage filtration (MSF) and other thermal processes. The plant is still operating with full force, following a major refurbishment in the early nineties and has been operating virtually fouling-free for the past 14 years.

The success of this plant quickly led to the design and construction of what would become the largest seawater RO plant at Ad-Dur, at a capacity of 46,000 m3/day (12 mgd). In sharp contrast to the Ras Abu Jarjur plant, the Ad-Dur plant was built for significantly less (by about a third) and has been plagued with serious pretreatment performance and membrane fouling problems, even after it was refurbished with new membranes and a UF system replacing the traditional gravity filtration system. RO capacity is planned to be increased by 27,900 m3/day soon.

A report for the Electricity and Water Ministry, prepared by British consultants Mott Macdonald, concluded that Bahrain will need an increased 400,000 m3/day of potable water by year’s end. The report recommended the construction of three new water desalination stations, each with a capacity of 135,000 m3/day, stating that Bahrain’s ground water supply would run dry in four years if measures were not taken.

Kuwait has been a significant contributor to development of RO technology by extensively studying over several years its technical and economic feasibility early on via the operation and evaluation of the seawater demonstration plant at Doha under a special agreement between the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR) and the German Research Institute, GKSS, in the mid-‘80s. The plant operated and tested three RO trains with different membrane manufacturers and configurations, using a common intake and pretreatment system. Kuwait, a major user of thermal desalination for many decades, has recently adopted RO and UF as commercially viable processes and commissioned the Sulaibiya Wastewater Treatment Plant to provide 26 percent of Kuwait’s overall water demand. With an initial daily capacity of up to 375,000m³ (100 mgd)—and designed for extension to 600,000m³/d (160 mgd) in the future—Sulaibiya treats wastewater to potable quality for non-potable uses in agriculture, industry and aquifer recharge. Kuwait is currently tendering its first large-scale RO plant at Al-Zur North with a production capacity of 56,500 m3/day (15 mgd).

United Arab Emirates
The UAE started utilizing RO technology in the late ‘80s and is now the third largest producer of desalinated water in the world, after Saudi Arabia and the United States. This nation is in the process of commissioning the world’s largest seawater RO plant in Al-Fujairah (170,000 m3/day or 45 mgd) and is planning a 190,000 m3/day (50 mgd) seawater RO plant at Al-Taweelah, the first IWPP (Independent Water & Power Plant). Both plants are part of an MSF/RO hybrid scheme combining the production of water with power generation.

Following suit, Algeria has plans to construct four brackish RO plants totaling about 500,000 m3/day (130 mgd), and U.S. aid is funding a 54,800 m3/day (14 mgd) seawater RO plant for the Palestine National Authority in the Gaza Strip with future expansion to 165,000 m3/day (42 mgd). Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries are embarking on plans to incorporate RO technology to satisfy their demands for water.

Jordan and Palestine
Jordan and Palestine will witness the world’s most ambitious water transport and desalination project yet to come. Known as the Red-to-Dead Conveyer Project, 1.5-1.8 billion cubic meters of Red Sea water will be carried annually via a 200-kilometer pipeline to replenish the Dead Sea level that has been badly deteriorating in recent years. An RO desalination plant will use part of the transported water to produce 850 million cubic meters annually (614 mgd). Two-thirds of the desalinated water will go to Jordan and a third will go to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as well as Jerusalem. The project is estimated to cost $3 to 5 billion U.S. to be funded mostly by international grants over 13 years of construction.

Technology issues and R&D opportunities
Although the RO process is no longer thought of as ‘too sensitive’ or hardly reliable, its application is accelerating as an established and reliable technology and several key issues still need to be addressed, especially in membrane plants in the Arab World:

Membrane fouling (biological and colloidal)
This is the single most critical and persistent issue hindering the commercial-scale application of RO membrane technology since its advent and to the present day, especially when dealing with tough-to-treat, open-surface Arabian Gulf waters. Most of the early RO plants in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE suffered some form of severe fouling, most notably colloidal and biological. The main reasons for this problem can be largely blamed on the pretreatment and disinfection processes commonly used. Surface seawater, with its high content of fine colloidal matter and high potential for biological contamination and ‘after-growth’, presented a major problem to membrane manufacturers and end users alike. The other aspect promulgating the incidence of fouling, often resulting in heavy but ineffective cleaning frequencies and eventually irreversible loss in membrane system performance characteristics and plant availability (and subsequently significant cost burdens), is the lack of adequate universal performance monitoring and evaluation techniques that can measure and diagnose membrane fouling or scaling early, before significant symptoms of deterioration are exhibited. Recent advances in pretreatment designs and optimization, disinfection ‘revolutions’, membrane chemistry and smart analytical technologies that can measure the degree of fouling in real-time, rather than ‘trend’ it, can go a long way in resolving this major issue.

Performance monitoring
From the beginning, plant operators, engineers and supervisors have had a difficult time monitoring the real performance of their plants due to lack of set procedures for data collection, analysis and reporting. At many plants it was not unusual to see piles of often incomplete data sheets gathering dust while no one had the time (and sometimes the interest) to utilize such data in making sure their plants were well-monitored or well-maintained on a daily basis. Membrane manufacturers offered free out-of-date data normalization software to end users but only for commercial warranty claim purposes and showed no real interest in helping plant owners monitor and evaluate the plant’s performance and fouling status. While this situation is changing, many plants have a long way to go in instituting proper standards and procedures for data collection, management, evaluation and reporting, based on actual experience, including more aggressive use of reliable instrumentation, automatic data sensors (such as the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System [SCADA]) and sophisticated computer software (i.e., expert systems). Again, the fundamental problem is lack of universal, industry-wide technology and procedures to evaluate collected data on a real-time basis and not on a long-term, trending basis.

Most operators and engineers responsible for the operation and maintenance of RO plants do not receive adequate classroom and field training on their vital functions, and they are often expected to learn on-the-go as they gain practical experience only through working at the plant for long periods. The issue of training deserves its own priority and budgeting through integrated and full-scale programs as a continuing education process no matter what the education level of plant personnel and their practical experience. Technology developments, advances and innovations are occurring at an increasingly rapid pace, and plant personnel need to be continually educated and trained as part of optimizing the operation and performance of their plants on an ongoing basis.

Other issues of significance

  • Establishing realistic industry standards for membrane plant system design, operation and performance expectations based on gained experience in plants during the past 25 years.
  • Establishing plant-specific standards and procedures for optimal membrane additions, replacements and cleaning (Membrane Management Program).
  • Studying the feasibility, technically, logistically and economically, of establishing membrane manufacturing, testing and refurbishing centers locally or regionally to serve the needs of plants located in MENA (Middle East—North Africa) countries.
  • Establishing on-site investigative R&D centers, such as SWCC’s RDC at Al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia, to be available for testing and evaluating existing as well as proposed plant processes, chemicals, procedures and new membrane technology innovations. Such centers should be the first stop for any future large-scale RO plant design scheme to ensure realistic collection, analysis and evaluation of vital plant data before the plant design is finalized and implemented, not after.
  • Focusing efforts on testing innovative schemes involving integrated membrane technologies, such as nanofil-tration, ultrafiltration and microfiltration acting as pretreatment systems for RO. Such efforts are already underway and need to be prioritized.

The future
With current consumption of Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates reaching about 16 million cubic meters per day (4.2 billion gpd), the total installed membrane desalination capacity is estimated at 1.5 million cubic meters per day (395 mgd), with 4.7 million cubic meters per day (1.25 billion gpd) being under construction or planned. Arab countries will spend over $30 billion U.S. through 2025 on desalination, according to UAE Industrial Bank Newsletter, Aug. 2004 issue. About $40 billion U.S. has been spent so far on desalination plants with 35 new plants planned for the GCC countries. Therefore, the future of membrane technology application in the Arab world carries tremendous prospects. Technology areas likely to gain focus include wider and more effective use of:

  • Integrated membrane technologies as alternative pretreatments with UF/MF to traditional media filtration and chemical treatments.
  • Innovative hybrid systems (MSF/RO/NF/IX) customized for particular needs.
  • Automation and remote/internet management (SCADA, silent alarms, etc.).
  • Privatization of government water sectors and desalination plants (ADEWA—UAE; Arzew—Alegria; SWCC—Saudi Arabia).
  • Mega-capacity plants (50-150 mgd) with mega membranes and pressure vessels.
  • Smart membranes—fouling-resistant and pre-treated/coated.
  • Effective, real-time plant monitoring and reporting.
  • Higher seawater conversions (50-60 percent) for more efficient energy consumption and recovery.
  • UF/MF for municipal water treatment applications.
  • RO for industrial applications (food, beverage, medical and industrial processes).
    With rapid technology advances and the increasing trend to localize the development, manufacture and service of membrane desalination equipment and processes, the future can only be unpredictable.


  1.  Saad, M.A., “Pushing The Limits: Optimizing Membrane Plants Via Correlating Fouling With Critical Flux”. Accepted for oral presentation at and publication by the 2005 World Congress on Desalination and Water Reuse, Singapore, International Desalination Association, September 2005.
  2. Saad, M.A., “Membrane Desalination for the Arab World: Overview & Outlook”, Arab Water World Journal, January-February 2005, Vol. XXIX No. 1, 29, Chatila Publishing House, Beirut, Lebanon.
  3. Abu Arabi, “Desalination Growth in the MENA Region”, MEDRC Watermark News Letter, Issue 20, p. 5, June 2003.
  4. Richards, Catherine, “The Pure Drop”,Arab Water World Journal, September/October 2003, Vol. XXVII, Vol. 5, pp. 58-61, Chatila Publishing House, Beirut, Lebanon.
  5. Projects & Developments, Arab Water World Journal, September/October 2003, Vol. XXVII, Vol. 5, pp. 54, 63-64, 104-106, Chatila Publishing House, Beirut, Lebanon.
  6. Saad, M.A., “Early Discovery of RO Membrane Fouling and Real-Time Monitoring of Plant Performance for Optimizing Cost of Water”, Desalination 165 (183-191), February 2004, Elsevier Science Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Presented at and published in the Proceedings of EuroMed 2004 Conference on Desalination in Southern Mediterranean Countries, Marrakech, Morocco, May 30-June 2, 2004.
  7. Saad, M.A., “Manufacturer’s Case Study: Smart Software Optimizes Membrane Plants”—International Desalination & Water Reuse Quarterly, August/September 2003, Vol. 13/2, pp. 45-49, Faversham House Group Ltd., UK.
  8. Saad, M.A., “Fresh Water for All: Status, Impact & Future Of Desalination In The Middle East & Mediterranean Countries”, Arab Water World Journal, July-August 2003, Vol. XXVII No. 4, 65, Chatila Publishing House, Beirut, Lebanon.
  9. Saad, M.A., “Desalination for a Better Future: The Technologies & The Innovations”, Arab Water World Journal, May/June 2002, Vol. XXVI No. 3, 33-35, Chatila Publishing House, Beirut, Lebanon.

About the author    
Mohamad Amin Saad has a B.S and M.Sc. in chemical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia, USA). During the past 22 years of his professional career in water desalination and membrane technology applications, he has gained tremendous technical and practical field experience in RO plant design, startup and commissioning, operation optimization, performance evaluation, troubleshooting and membrane fouling identification and prevention, particularly in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. He has published several international technical papers and has designed and conducted numerous membrane desalination technology-in-practice seminars, workshops and courses for plant operators, engineers and managers. Mr. Saad worked as a Senior Technical Specialist with DuPont; as a Membranes Development Manager with Aqua-Chem and as a Technical Marketing Director at the Biosphere 2 Environmental Project in Arizona before starting his own consulting, training and innovative plant monitoring software development and marketing firm in Tucson, Arizona. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or via the company’s web site


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