Saudi Arabia’s committee for Environment Protection recently launched a large-scale programme to reduce pollution in Riyadh.

Air pollution is the focus of the initiative, but water purification, waste management, wildlife protection and visual pollution also feature quite heavily. Riyadh is drawing up legislation and building facilities to ensure these goals are met.

For many countries, water, waste and wildlife often join air quality at the top of the list of national environmental concerns. They are the keywords of eco-friendliness. Visual pollution, on the other hand, is the odd one out.

Visual pollution is about aesthetics. It is about visual discomfort. It is defined as any man-made element that impedes a person’s ability to enjoy a view.

Visual pollution often includes smokestacks, rubbish, overgrown vegetation, rubbish dumps and billboards as examples of contamination brought about by human activities. The problem, however, is that discomfort is a feeling, and feelings are a poor basis for legislation.

What is enjoyable to view for one person, may be unsightly for another. One person’s bustling cityscape might be another’s urban monstrosity. Perhaps more importantly, how does a government regulate an issue riddled with such ambiguity?   

The answer is unclear. GCC countries, however, should be watching legislation in Saudi Arabia with interest.

Gulf cities have developed so quickly and on such a large-scale that they are peppered with unfinished projects and riddled with construction debris. They boast little or no public space and even less articulated landscaping.  

If Gulf cities are planning to regulate visual pollution, they had better entrench themselves for a long battle. Until basic aesthetics guidelines are defined, there is no hope for meaningful aesthetic regulation. Perhaps beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.