For the Expo 2020 Dubai opening ceremony's final act, Al Wasl Plaza was transformed into a magical garden with dancers in fantastical costumes representing blossoming flowers. At the centre of the stage rose a huge silver and white ghaf tree, the UAE's national tree, as Grammy Award-winning Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli walked out to perform his rousing hit The Prayer.
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But what's the significance of the ghaf tree and why was it centre stage at the ceremony?
In the UAE, the ghaf, which goes by the scientific name prosopis cineraria, has cultural, historical and environmental significance. Declared as the national tree in 2008, the indigenous tree can tolerate harsh conditions and live for 120 years.
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Ghaf leaves and pods provided food in the past during famines and its nutritious branches were used to feed livestock. It is also said to have medicinal properties and the Bedouins would use ghaf trees for navigation.
The trees are particularly environmentally friendly because they are able to survive on very little water and help sustain other plant and animal life. Ghaf trees range from three to five metres, and its roots can go as deep as 30 metres, which is one of the reasons they are able to survive the harsh summer.
Salama, Expo 2020's ghaf tree
A lone ghaf tree at the Expo 2020 Dubai site, estimated to be more than 70 year old, was preserved when construction first began. In 2019, organisers released an animated film in its honour, detailing how it has endured the harsh desert conditions through changing times.
The short film shows Salama witnessing the country through the ages, starting with the UAE's unification in 1971 and concludes with it perched on a hill overlooking the site of Expo 2020.
"Salama grew on the land of the UAE and witnessed many generations over the years. Similar to its culture, she resisted and grew and flourished under all circumstances," reads a description on the Expo 2020 Dubai website.
Year of Tolerance logo
In 2019, which was declared the Year of Tolerance in the UAE, the ghaf tree was chosen as its logo.
"The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan [Founding Father of the UAE] gave great importance to the ghaf and issued laws and regulations prohibiting the cutting of the tree throughout the country," the Supreme National Committee of the Year of Tolerance said.
"Our ancestors and tribes gathered under the shadows of the ghaf trees to discuss their daily matters. Also, a number of UAE rulers used to meet their citizens and listen to their demands directly under the shadows of these trees. The ghaf tree symbolises stability and peace in the desert and has the ability to adapt in the desert."
An homage to Sheikh Zayed
Last year, a project to plant more than 2,000 ghaf trees to form Sheikh Zayed’s fingerprint in Abu Dhabi was announced.
The 2,082 trees will be planted on 36,000 square metres of land near Al Dhafra Camel Festival site, south-west of Abu Dhabi city, the Maitha Bint Ahmed Al Nahyan Foundation for Community and Cultural Initiatives said.
Sheikha Maitha bint Ahmed, the foundation’s chairwoman, said she chose to commemorate the UAE Founding Father in this way because of his passion for the environment.
Sheikh Zayed launched large programmes of tree planting in the 1970s and had hoped to turn the desert green to provide shade, and improve the appearance of the villages and make them more habitable.
The shape of the plantation was designed by Al Reef Design Company to symbolise Sheikh Zayed’s positive mark on the country. Once complete, the site will be open to visitors from around the world.
Children's book on ghaf tree
In 2019, Emirati businesswoman Hanadi Al Fahim used the country's national symbol to educate youngsters in heritage and history through her book The Little Ghaf Tree.
The illustrated book, published in English and Arabic, is intended to instil "in our children a love for our culture and environment, while educating them on the importance of preserving our environment and co-existing with nature and neighbours," she told The National.
"My admiration started in 2006 when we sponsored a campaign with Emirates Nature to save the ghaf tree and pave the way for it to be the national tree," she said. "Through this sponsorship, I learned about all the beautiful traits of this tree and decided to continue trying to inform people.
"When my nieces and nephews were born that is when it clicked for me and I felt like I wanted to pass on this information."
Planting a million ghaf trees
Fuel-delivery company Cafu in May launched an ambitious project to use drone technology to plant a million ghaf tree seeds across the UAE in an effort to combat climate change.
The two-year strategy will involve swarms of drones launching the seeds into the ground from a height of 10 metres.
The company has completed the first two rounds of the programme with drone seeding taking place in the Mleiha Desert in Sharjah.
“The key benefit we hope to create is to discover a new way to plant trees in a cost-effective way,” Cafu general manager Antonio Al Asmar told The National.
“We want to show that planting seeds by drone technology is a much more efficient method than using hundreds of people to do the same task.”