The blue economy – riding a wave of optimism?

Coastal tourism and maritime transport have important roles to play in the diversification efforts of regional economies

An illustration of the Amaala mega-project - one of a number of coastal and tourism schemes Saudi Arabia is developing under Vision 2030. Courtesy of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage 
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Oceans have long been at the heart of our planet.

They provide jobs, food security, water, transport, energy and are key drivers of wealth and prosperity.

If they were a single economy, oceans would be the seventh-largest, with an annual estimated value of $1.5 trillion per year, according to The Commonwealth.

More and more interest is emerging around the ‘blue economy’. which is made up of a number of ocean industries such as fisheries, tourism, maritime transport, aquaculture, renewable energy and other economic activities associated with the ocean.

The World Bank has estimated that fisheries contribute $270 billion annually to global gross domestic product. More than 80 percent of trade takes place by sea and the volume of trade by sea is expected to double by 2030.

As more governments are taking steps to promote ocean-based economies, how can the Middle East and North Africa ride the wave?

Pursuing the blue economy and the sustainable use of the oceans can help enable economic diversification and move the region towards a post-oil era.

With diversification plans underway in the region, developing sustainable coastal and marine tourism has vast potential. It is projected to be the largest value-adding segment of the ocean economy by 2030, with global growth rates of more than 3.5 percent forecast by the World Bank. This indicates that investing in non-oil sectors such as the tourism industry is an opportunity to help better diversify the economy.

New waves of investments are encouraging the development of such sectors. As the country with the longest Red Sea coastline, Saudi Arabia has unveiled ambitious plans to invest and develop its Red Sea Coast.

Through Vision 2030, the country is seeking to develop its coastline under a portfolio of projects dubbed the “Riviera of the Middle East” that include Amaala and NEOM.

In the UAE, initiatives have been launched to promote ecotourism across the country.

The National Ecotourism Project was announced by the Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment in a bid to transform and position the country into a leading ecotourism destination.

Another opportunity to boost the blue economy is through developing the maritime industry.

As a backbone of the blue economy, maritime transport remains an integral part of international trade.

Nearly 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, according to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation. The Indian Ocean alone has the world’s busiest trade route and almost 80 percent of global maritime oil trade flows transits through three of its narrow passages of water.

The region can leverage its strategic location by giving priority to maritime growth.

Strengthening maritime cooperation can help make use of opportunities the blue economy offers. Steps have already been taken to improve the stability and enhance the prosperity of the Indian Ocean – whose coasts are home to nearly 2.7 billion people.

Last year, the UAE took the helm as chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for the next two years. This was the first time the country has done so since joining the organisation in 1999.

As part of its mandate, the UAE pledged to revive the idea of establishing a development fund for the organisation.

The creation of such a fund has been a long source of disputes since the inception of IORA and will not be an easy task due to the diversity of member states.

However, given their complex interconnectedness, heavy reliance on the Indian Ocean and shared climate change woes, a development fund could further unlock the potential of the ocean.

The blue economy is aligned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 14, which aims to “conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. While the potential of the blue economy has garnered interest from policymakers globally, this comes at a time where the oceans are at a tipping point.

The compounding effects of climate change, pollution, overfishing and the loss of biodiversity put added strain on the oceans.

While the blue economy offers vast potential, ocean health should be at the heart of the agenda.

Strategies taken to advance the blue economy’s potential must be taken through a climate and sustainability lens with a collective responsibility to support ocean health.

The blue economy depends on it.

Maram Ahmed is a Senior Fellow at SOAS, University of London