Greening the Desert

Rob Bell pays tribute to the legacy of Shaikh Zayed and his quest to plant the seeds of green development in the United Arab Emirates.

Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and the man who created the United Arab Emirates, is revered and respected - not least for his inspirational approach to the environment, which has seen him posthumously awarded the Champions of the Earth Award by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Shaikh Zayed's respect for the environment came from a youth spent in the desert, and, as the tiny emirates clustered on the Persian Gulf developed rapidly into a modern economy based on their phenomenal oil wealth, he strove to balance the demands of modernity with his respect for the natural ecosystem of the desert and his desire to preserve it.

This led to Abu Dhabi becoming a leader in environmental protection among the Arab States, which suffer from the Western perception of them as countries hell-bent on exploiting their natural resources and unconcerned about the ecological consequences.

While Western environmentalists focus on preserving nature in stasis, environmental protection in the Emirates has always been tempered by a desire to make the desert bloom, with massive irrigation programmes and huge housing developments sitting uneasily alongside environmental measures.

However, Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Shaikh Zayed's successor, has reiterated the UAE's commitment to environmental issues, instructing government departments to ensure all development projects have zero or minimal environmental impact. "This is our way of paying tribute to Shaikh Zayed and showing the world that we are committed to the environmental mission for which he lived," he said.

Figurehead projects in the UAE include an extensive captive breeding programme for the endangered houbara, a large bustard which has suffered from hunting and loss of habitat throughout its range, which runs from Arabia and the Gulf to Mongolia. The programme fits will with the Bedouin-derived ethos that permeates environmental protection in the region. Traditionally hunted with falcons, the houbara's increasing scarcity is both an environmental and cultural disaster.

Other initiatives include Abu Dhabi's falcon hospital, and rigorous efforts to wipe out the trade of rare birds of prey, with the implementation of a sophisticated passport system and anti-smuggling measures.

Less iconic but more endangered, the UAE's dugong population is also under threat. The Arabian Gulf and Red Sea have an estimated population of 5000 dugongs, the largest population outside Australia. About 40 percent of this number lives in the waters off the UAE - again, the largest number outside Australia. The Environmental Research and Wildlife Agency (ERWDA) has funded research into effective conservation of the unusual sea mammal.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement is the island reserve of Sir Bani Yas, a predator-free haven for endangered species like the Arabian oryx and sand gazelle.

However, while conservation programmes help protect the UAE's biodiversity and wider environment, development continues apace, as demonstrated by the huge artificial islands rising out of the sea off the coast of Dubai. The oil and gas industries also continue to grow, with Arab oil producers expected to invest nearly $84 billion during the next five years to develop the sector and more than $500 billion in the next three decades.

This continuing boom has created a huge market for environmental technologies and services such as consultancy, as demonstrated by the 338 exhibitors from 41 countries present at the Environment 2005 Exhibition and Conference, the third biennial event held in Abu Dhabi to showcase the environmental initiatives of countries as diverse as Oman, Iran and Qatar, and give businesses an opportunity to show off their wares. British, French, German and US companies have clearly realised the region's market potential, and companies such as UK-based monitoring equipment provider Casella CEL actively tour the Arab states, signing deals and helping them achieve their environmental goals.

A trade show on the scale of Environment 2005 demonstrates that across the region environmental protection, development, energy production and business are closely linked - and that the potential for the UK to export its environmental technologies and services is still under-valued, despite calls from the likes of environment secretary of state Margaret Beckett to encourage exporters, and the work of the DTI in promoting the UK's environmental sector.

The Persian Gulf is an area of stunning natural beauty threatened by the spectre of rapid development - development that is necessary, however, to provide its population with a standard of living we take for granted. The legacy of Shaikh Zayed is an attempt by the UAE government to reconcile the two, in line with the cultural principles of the Arab nation. As Zayed said: "Conservation of the environment is not, and must not be seen as, a matter only for Government or officials. It is something that concerns us all and is a responsibility for every member of our society."

Rob Bell is a former editor of Environment Business Magazine and now a freelance writer.

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