Coral reefs cover 1 per cent of the ocean floor, but support 25 per cent of the known marine life of the planet. They are the nurseries for much of the fish and marine life that we enjoy and consume.
One billion people rely on coral reefs for employment, income, food and protection, either directly or indirectly. Hundreds of millions of jobs are associated with reefs, such as diving, tourism and fishing. As well as being a major source of protein for many people, coral reefs are also potential sources of important medicines for arthritis, cancer and blood diseases.
They add $36 billion to world tourism income and they may add as much as $3 trillion to the world economy. Coral reefs protect land, properties and ecosystems surrounding them. As they are superb wave breaks, many coastal communities, hotel chains, industries and governments rely on them. But the world has lost 50 per cent of its reefs since 1950, and their biodiversity has dropped by 63 per cent. If this trend continues we may lose 90 per cent of them by 2050.
The greatest threats to reefs are global warming, pollution, overbuilding, overfishing and illegal fishing, population growth and the increased acidity of the ocean; 25 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. More than 90 per cent of increased heat as a result of climate change is absorbed by the sea.
The subsequent rise in temperature and acidity cause coral bleaching and disease. The massive bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef are horrific examples of this. Corals in the GCC have suffered a similar fate. Fortunately, some northern Red Sea corals have so far not been harmed as much by rising temperatures, but that does not mean they won’t be if the trend continues.
The population of the GCC has grown vastly, especially since the 1970s. Along with this rise in population came the growth of industry, shipping and cities. All of this has put pressure on reefs. Tourism, another sector that has seen significant expansion in the region, can be damaging to reefs.
Fortunately, laws and regulations have changed in many areas of the GCC. And ecotourism in some places is now actually becoming a means to help protect reefs.
In the years ahead, tourism as a percentage of GDP has the potential to be much more than the present 8 per cent in Oman, as much as 10 per cent for Saudi Arabia, more than 12 per cent for the UAE and almost 17 per cent for Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia has great plans for ecotourism. Neom, a vast new and futuristic city the government is investing in, will have coral reefs as part of its tourism plan. The UAE is also developing marine ecotourism. In 2021, the ecotourism sector in the GCC was worth more than $500 million, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia dominating.
The region’s fishing sector is relatively small, but its imports are huge. GCC consumers, therefore, can also help fragile reefs by using their purchasing power to move exporters to more sustainable methods of fishing.
In terms of official initiatives to protect marine ecosystems, Saudi Arabia is pursuing the huge investment of the Saudi Green Initiative. Vision 2030, the county’s development plan up until 2030, also has provisions for the environment, and the kingdom is currently pursuing eco-partnerships with Unesco and Monaco’s Prince Albert II Foundation, among many other international organisations. The Red Sea Development Corporation is also taking up the mantle.
For the UAE’s part, the country has been taking action: from sinking boat hulls to create artificial reefs, to outlawing sand removal and certain types of fishing that damage reefs. The country has also developed many marine protected areas and parks and has toughened up laws and regulations to protect reefs.
There is important work also being done in other parts of the GCC. Petroleum Development Oman and Sultan Qaboos University have some significant coral development projects, among many other legal, regulatory and research efforts.
Bahrain is rebuilding coral reefs ruined by the dredging of canals with the help of The Rotary Club, an international humanitarian organisation.
The G20’s Coral Research and Development Accelerator Platform, the Kuwait Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment and Coastal Areas, as well as the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment, based in Kuwait, are other examples of GCC multinational approaches to this important issue.
Each of these countries could benefit massively from protecting their reefs. Future ecotourism incomes could be many times what they are now, and many jobs could be created. Most of all, protecting reefs is an important responsibility for safeguarding the region’s natural heritage for future generations. Can any country afford to lose these delicate and life-sustaining places? The answer is a resounding no.
Dr Paul Sullivan is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council