“The Challenges of Collaborating on Coral Reef Protection in the Gulf: Scientists Overcoming Political Barriers”
In Sweden, a passerby unhelpfully suggests that crows are trained to pick up cigarette butts as my colleague and I collect them in our jam jars. After thirty minutes, we switch to collecting plastic bottles, tin cans, and even a pair of boxer shorts.
A group of twelve volunteers are exploring the Dubai coast of the Gulf by snorkelling and scuba-diving. They are focusing on a section of La Mer Bay that has been taken care of by Chloe Griffin, a diving instructor who arranges these clean-up dives for her students.
The primary environmental issue in this area is not garbage, but rather the harm caused to coral and other marine creatures due to the sudden increase in ocean temperatures.
“I have observed notable changes during my four years here, specifically in the effect of seasons on coral reefs,” states Griffin. “The coral tends to struggle during hot summers, but surprisingly regenerates during colder winter months.”
In recent times, approximately half of the world’s coral has been depleted due to pollution, overfishing, and coastal development. This severe issue poses a threat to the remaining coral.
Despite being known for their resilience and ability to withstand high temperatures, Gulf corals are facing immense challenges due to the rapidly warming Gulf waters. In fact, with temperatures reaching up to 38C (100.4F) during the summer and the Gulf warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world’s oceans, even these strong corals are struggling. In just six years, around 70% of the corals near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, have experienced bleaching.
However, on the other side of the country, 124 miles (200km) to the north in Iran, corals have faced severe stress due to dredging, construction, and bleaching activities, resulting in potential harm. Unfortunately, there are limited resources available to safeguard, observe, and rehabilitate these corals.
Mohammad Reza Shokri, a marine biologist at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, states that they do not have the same financial resources as Qatar or UAE, who benefit from oil companies. Shokri explains that he only receives $1,200 (£950) annually for research, which also has to support the work of his three students. Due to the sanctions placed on Iran, there is limited or no opportunity for obtaining funding from abroad.
Collaboration between countries could aid researchers, but it poses a challenge in the Gulf region, where eight nations share the coastline: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Shokri is part of a team of prominent experts in marine biology and science from various regions who have released a publication advocating for governments to permit them to collaborate through “science diplomacy”. The goal is to prevent further deterioration of the Gulf’s marine ecosystems, such as its coral reefs, by implementing “peace parks” – safeguarded regions that encompass neighboring countries.
The parks in Africa would function similarly to land-based conservation areas, with conservation zones spanning across national borders, even between nations in conflict with each other.
In the Gulf region, political tensions and rivalries may cloud discussions and hinder progress. Providing guidance to political leaders on how to effectively balance economic growth with environmental protection can be challenging for scientists.
In the United Arab Emirates, scientists must be cautious in their language when discussing the climate crisis or environmental harm caused by ongoing construction due to laws and regulations limiting criticism of the government. A nearby location, the Palm Jebel Ali artificial island, has reportedly caused destruction to the surrounding coral reefs due to its construction, despite being just a short drive from the air-conditioned Expo City venue.
Despite hosting the Cop28 climate summit, which began on November 30th, the city of Dubai, the largest in the UAE, may encounter challenges in discussing climate and other divisive topics. The British government was disappointed in October when the UAE did not agree to ensure freedom of expression at Cop28, as recommended.
Prior to the summit, Shokri and other scientists from the Gulf region advocated for collective action that prioritizes the protection of the sea’s bleached corals and the endangered marine life they sustain, regardless of any sensitivities.
A recent publication by the Royal Society in September urged for increased collaboration and data sharing to establish extensive, safeguarded regions in the Gulf that encompass multiple countries. The paper also advocated for more effective intergovernmental organizations to enforce necessary changes.
Efforts for science diplomacy in the Middle East have been ongoing for over 30 years, beginning with the Malta Conferences and continuing with projects such as the Cern-supported Sesame particle accelerator. Additionally, an organization aimed at safeguarding the Gulf’s marine environment, known as the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), was founded in Kuwait in 1978 with the support of the UN.
Shokri and colleagues argue that ROPME faces obstacles due to inadequate adherence, and argue that it is not successful in offering direction or facilitating regional financial support and information exchange.
According to Fahad al-Senafi, a marine physicist at Kuwait University, the original purpose of ROPME was commendable, but it now appears to mainly consist of organizing workshops. He has been studying climate variability and the shamal, a hot and dusty wind from the north that affects Iraq and the Gulf states.
Researchers at this institution collaborate with one another, even in the face of political conflicts. Despite strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we have managed to maintain a partnership.
“Occasionally, there may be differing opinions on whether to refer to it as the Persian or Arabian Gulf in the final paper, but we are free to discuss and come to a resolution.”
“The primary obstacle is the sharing of data. Despite the Gulf states’ efforts to develop their shorelines and hire consultants for environmental impact assessments, there is a lack of sharing of the extensive data with scientists.”
Senafi is striving to persuade the Kuwaiti national assembly to implement open access laws, which would require government and consultants to share environmental data. His goal is to create a model for others in the Gulf region to follow.
“We are all confronted with similar challenges concerning fisheries, coral reefs, and changes in water conditions. The stress on these resources is further exacerbated by the construction of desalination plants and other infrastructure. However, it is crucial for everyone to collaborate and share data.”
Senafi, Shokri, and their team can find motivation in a partnership focused on studying coral in another sea affected by political tensions. The Transnational Red Sea Center (TRSC) was established by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 2019, bringing together researchers from Switzerland, Jordan, Israel, Djibouti, and Sudan to collaborate on mapping, monitoring, and sharing data on the coral reef in the Gulf of Aqaba, located on the northern end of the Red Sea. Discussions are also underway with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to involve them in the project.
Guilhem Banc-Prandi, the scientific coordinator of TRSC, explains that Switzerland plays a vital role in promoting collaboration among scientists. While most scientists are interested in working together, certain countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Djibouti require the involvement of government officials for approval. This is where Switzerland’s diplomatic support comes in handy.
Banc-Prandi has just returned from an expedition to Djibouti, to map and study remote reefs in the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, where the Red Sea feeds into the Indian Ocean. He was joined by scientists from Sudan and Djibouti. But the Israel-Hamas war prompted the TRSC to decide, on safety grounds, not to invite Israeli scientists to join the research vessel on this mission.
A scientist from Israel, Maoz Fine, who works at the Israeli Inter-university Institute of Marine Science in Eilat, has conducted research that has improved scientists’ understanding of how corals in the Gulf of Aqaba are able to survive in environments with high temperatures and salinity. Fine acknowledges the challenges involved in this type of research.
According to Fine, the TRSC is essential for managing the Red Sea. However, there is fear among scientists about working together, particularly with Israelis. Only a small number of courageous individuals are willing to take the risk.
At present, each country is responsible for their own coral reefs and disregarding the impact on others, despite the fact that any actions taken in one country can have consequences for all. Coral reefs and pollution do not adhere to political boundaries.
Therefore, it is necessary to have a neutral mediator, such as Switzerland, in order for us to work together with our colleagues, who have become our friends. This is because the environment in this region is challenging.