June 12, 2024

‘In Sweden they train crows to pick those up,” shouts a passerby, unhelpfully, as my colleague and I fill our jam jars with hundreds of cigarette butts. Half an hour later, it’s plastic bottles, tin cans and a pair of boxer shorts.

Our team of a dozen volunteers are snorkelling and scuba-diving their way around the Dubai coastline of the Gulf – specifically a stretch of La Mer Bay that has been adopted by Chloe Griffin, a diving instructor who organises these “debris dives” for students.

The greatest environmental concern in these waters is not litter, however. It is the damage inflicted on coral and other marine wildlife by rapidly rising sea temperatures.

“I’ve noticed significant shifts in the four years I’ve been here – in particular, the seasonal impact on coral reefs,” says Griffin. “During the scorching summers, the coral often struggles – and yet it miraculously regenerates during the cooler winter months.”

Or it did. Half the world’s coral has been lost in the last half-century to pollution, overfishing and coastal development, and the crisis threatens what’s left.

And while Gulf corals are no pushovers – the toughest, most thermal-tolerant in the world – with the Gulf now warming at twice the rate of global oceans, reaching 38C (100.4F) during the summer, even these corals are being pushed to their limits. Up to 70% of corals off the coast of the United Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, have been bleached in the past six years.

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, 124 miles (200km) north in Iran, dredging, construction and bleaching events have caused “lethal stress” to corals – and there’s even less ability to protect, monitor and restore them.

A diver making notes underwater
An Iranian scientist, Mohammad Reza Shokri, on a research trip to Kish Island.

“We are not like Qatar or UAE, with money from oil companies,” says Mohammad Reza Shokri, a marine biologist at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, explaining that he receives just $1,200 (£950) a year in research funding that also has to cover the work done by his three students. Sanctions imposed on Iran mean little or no access to overseas funding.

One thing that could help both researchers is collaboration between countries. However, this is particularly difficult in the Gulf, where eight nations share the coastline: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Shokri is one of a group of leading marine biologists and scientists from across the region who have published a paper pushing for governments to allow them to work more closely together via “science diplomacy”. The aim would be to halt further declines in the Gulf’s marine ecosystems, including its coral reefs, through “peace parks” – protected areas that span neighbouring countries.

The parks would be a version of the land-based conservation areas in Africa, where conservation zones cross national boundaries, even between countries that might be fighting each other.

In the Gulf – as much as anywhere in the world – political sensitivities and rivalries can obfuscate issues and blunt actions. Advising politicians and rulers on how to balance economic development with environmental stewardship can be tricky for scientists.

In the UAE, for example, laws and regulations that restrict criticism of the government mean scientists here choose their words carefully about the climate crisis, or the environmental damage caused by relentless construction. Just a short drive away from the air-conditioned Expo City venue is the Palm Jebel Ali artificial island, where construction reportedly destroyed some of the best coral reefs in the area.

Even though Dubai – the UAE’s biggest city – is hosting the Cop28 climate summit, which started on 30 November, discussion of climate or other contentious issues will be problematic. In October, the British government expressed disappointment that the UAE had not accepted recommendations to guarantee rights to freedom of expression at Cop28.

Two Divers swim over a coral table reef
Divers examine the coral reefs in the Djiboutian waters of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. A team of 12 researchers looked at the state of the reefs at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, and their capacity to adapt to global warming. Photograph: Lukasz Larsson Warzecha

Before the summit, Shokri and his fellow scientists around the Gulf pushed for region-wide action that sets aside sensitivities for the sake of the sea’s bleached corals and the endangered marine life they support.

In a paper published at the end of September by the Royal Society, they called for greater freedoms to collaborate and share data and expertise, in order to create large, protected areas in the Gulf that span neighbouring countries. They also called for stronger intergovernmental organisations to enforce change.

Science diplomacy initiatives in the Middle East date back 30 years and more, from the Malta Conferences to the Cern-backed Sesame particle accelerator. Indeed, a regional organisation for the protection of the Gulf’s marine environment already exists: the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), established in Kuwait in 1978 under the auspices of the UN.

But Shokri and his co-authors say ROPME is “challenged by weak compliance”, and claim it is ineffective in providing leadership or coordinating region-wide funding and data sharing.

“ROPME was a good initiative to start with, but its job now seems to be no more than hosting workshops,” says Fahad al-Senafi, a marine physicist at Kuwait University, who has been researching climate variability and the shamal – a hot, dusty wind from the north that blows over Iraq and the Gulf states.

“Scientists here tend to work with each other, regardless of political tensions. Even when there were political tensions with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we still found a way to work together.

“Sometimes there will be disagreements over whether to write Persian or Arabian Gulf in the final paper, but there are no constraints to us talking together.

“The biggest challenge is data-sharing. All the Gulf states are developing their shorelines and employing consultants to conduct environmental impact assessments, but none of that vast amount of data is being shared with scientists.”

In his efforts to convince the Kuwaiti national assembly to introduce open access laws that would compel government and consultants to share environmental data, Senafi hopes to provide a template for colleagues in other Gulf countries.

People in wetsuits in a small boat with scuba gear onboard
Researchers from the Transnational Red Sea Center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale on a coral mission in the Djiboutian waters of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Photograph: Ulrika Larsson

“We all face the same issues around fisheries, coral and changing water properties. We’re all adding stresses through desalination plants and infrastructure. But we need everyone to share data.”

Senafi, Shokri and their colleagues can take encouragement from a coral-focused collaborative venture in another sea at the mercy of geopolitics. Launched by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 2019, the Transnational Red Sea Center (TRSC) includes researchers from Switzerland, Jordan, Israel, Djibouti and Sudan to map out monitor and share data on the coral reef along the Gulf of Aqaba, on the northern tip of the Red Sea. There have been talks with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to get them onboard too.

“We facilitate collaboration by providing the diplomatic umbrella of Switzerland,” says Guilhem Banc-Prandi, TRSC scientific coordinator. “Most scientists want to collaborate, but in some countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Djibouti, our ambassadors and diplomats have to go to the highest level of government to get the green light for scientists to be involved.”

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.

One Israeli scientist, Maoz Fine from the Israeli Inter-university Institute of Marine Science in Eilat, whose research has helped scientists understand how evolutionary selection equipped corals in the Gulf of Aqaba to withstand high temperatures and salinity, says he understands the difficulties.

“The TRSC is wonderful – for managing the Red Sea, it’s critical – but scientists are afraid about collaborating with each other, certainly with the Israelis. Only a few brave ones would dare to do it,” says Fine.

“Right now, every country is managing its own reefs, ignoring the others when it’s obvious that every action taken in one country affects all others. Reefs and pollution don’t recognise political borders.

“That’s why a neutral umbrella – in our case, Switzerland – is needed to allow us to collaborate with colleagues, who are also now friends. Because in this region, it’s a tough neighbourhood.”

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