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Why does the marine ecosystem matter to the UAE?

The marine ecosystem is closely intertwined with the lives of the Emiratis, a reminder of their hardships and success. The country has introduced various marine conservation programs

[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

Back in 2011, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces made an impactful comment – “Water is more important than oil.”

Water defines the UAE’s cultural, economic, and social development as a nation and is symbolic of the people and the nation’s struggle and aspirations.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the conservation of its marine ecosystem is crucial to the national agenda.  

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), oceans are the Earth’s most valuable asset, and their “natural capital” is vast, contributing $70 trillion to global gross domestic product (GDP) annually. The ocean’s value of ecosystem services is $38 trillion annually. For instance, 80% of our oxygen comes from oceans, while the seas act as vast stores of heat and carbon, essential for regulating the climate.

Further to this, they support the “blue economy,” which the World Bank defines as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”

 When it comes to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG14 relates to “Life Under Water” and puts forth a powerful case for why water bodies matter and the role they can play in helping us fight climate change. 

The last two years with Covid-19 have been a bitter-sweet experience for our oceans. While on the one hand, we have witnessed the slowing down of marine traffic, on the other hand, there has been an exponential increase in the use of one-time disposable items such as masks, PPE suits, and plastic cutlery, to name a few. These items take hundreds of years to decompose and then also they turn into microplastics and further damage flora and fauna. 


The marine ecosystem is closely intertwined with the lives of the Emiratis. It is a reminder of their hardships and success. The UAE’s strategic location in the south of the Strait of Hormuz makes it a significant artery for transportation, especially for crude oil. UAE also benefits from its diverse marine life, and its water is used for desalination and other industrial activities.

While these sectors contribute to UAE’s growth, the country’s meteoric rise has adversely impacted marine flora and fauna. The UAE faces many environmental threats such as biodiversity loss, marine and coastal areas pollution, air pollution, water scarcity, and poor quality.

According to Hala Dahmane, President & Managing Director, Azraq, “The marine and coastal environment which hosts a diversity of marine and coastal habitats is facing increased pressure from economic, social, and environmental aspects.”

Mangroves are an essential component of this coastal environment, and with an area of over 150 km, the UAE enjoys the most extensive mangrove coverage in the region.

Besides being home to a wide variety of native, estuarine, and marine species and supplying nutrients to coral reefs, they are like the “lungs” of UAE, taking in the CO2 being released due to urbanization and industrial development of mitigating global warming.  

Mangroves are remarkably diverse and provide essential ecosystems. They play an important role in keeping our waterways and the air we breathe clean and healthy. They are the first line of defense for coastal communities as they provide natural barriers and stabilize shorelines,” said Dahmane.

However, they have been under constant threat due to pollution, urbanization, construction, and sedimentation. Abu Dhabi has been documenting the state of mangroves by using high-resolution satellite imagery, and according to scientists, while the mangrove coverage has nearly doubled since the 1990s, a fifth of the mangroves are in moderate or deteriorating health.

“There is no doubt that our oceans are impacted by maritime traffic. Ships are a source of pollution that affects marine water quality and marine life. They usually discharge wastewater, oil and grease, fuel spills, and chemicals into the marine waters,” Dahmane pointed out. 


Providing a sustainable environment and infrastructure is one of the six pillars of the UAE National Agenda. It is also at the forefront of protecting its coastal areas, with a total protected area coverage going up from 15% of the territory in 2019 to 15.53 % in 2020, accounting for 18.4% of its terrestrial, and 12% of its marine environment.

Speaking about it, Dahmane said that the UAE has introduced various marine conservation programs, including mangrove tree planting and coral restoration, and is working continuously on increasing the size of marine protected areas.

“This process is vital for the UAE to establish a successful network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) within its regions. MPAs have been proven to be one of the most effective marine management and conservation tools. They ensure that important habitats are protected from climate change and human activity. Ultimately, MPAs can help ensure that marine resources are sustained for social, economic, and cultural enrichment,” she added.

She also highlighted that various UAE national entities launched marine conservation programs to offset the environmental footprint of their activities. In their efforts to restore marine environments, these entities partner with marine conservation NGOs to conduct cleanups, plant mangrove trees, and increase the size of the marine ecosystems on the UAE coastline by employing artificial reef techniques.

The Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), the largest environmental regulator in the Middle East, has diligently worked through various initiatives to protect mangroves. It launched the Mangrove Rehabilitation project in 2020 and has been planting mangrove seed balls via specialized engineered drone rigging, which are then monitored monthly for growth over a year.

The country has also stepped up its ambition to expand its mangrove cover by raising the mangrove-planting target under the Paris Agreement from 30 million to 100 million by 2030.

In October 2020, the UAE became the first Middle Eastern country to join the Global Ocean Alliance, a 32 countries consortium to safeguard at least 30% of the World’s oceans by 2030 through marine protected areas.

The Government has also framed the UAE Sustainable Fisheries Programme, which is being implemented to ensure the continuity of Emirati fishing traditions, targeting a sustainably-utilized fishery by 2030.

The UAE also supports the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, a Cop26 commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

In February, Abu Dhabi declared an ambitious plan to establish itself as the global hub for R&D and innovation for the conservation of mangroves. This Abu Dhabi eco-drive aims to enable mangrove recovery to address climate change and protect biodiversity. 

We have also seen an increase in Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in this field. For instance, MasterCard has partnered with Emirates Nature-WWF for Priceless Planet Coalition to protect the mangroves. The project aims to restore 50,000 mangroves, equivalent to an area of 10 hectares, in at least one priority coastal area within the UAE.

Water is the source of life, and protecting the mangroves is akin to protecting future generations from the adverse impact of water scarcity, loss of income, and climate change. 

While the road ahead is not easy, and a lot needs to be done to tackle the human-induced destruction of mangroves, we can rest assured that the UAE uses advanced technology advancements coupled with a solid determination to protect the mangroves. 


Aparna Shivpuri is a freelance researcher and writer with experience of over 20 years in international economics and trade. She has worked in various international organisations, NGOs, publishing houses and think tanks globally, including the UN in Thailand and the World Trade Organization in Geneva and has numerous articles and research papers to her credit. Aparna holds a Masters's degree in International Law & Economics from the World Trade University, Switzerland and recently completed a course in Business Sustainability Management from the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership. More