The Arabian oryx’s remarkable story can serve as inspiration for Cop28 negotiators

By working together and making connections between the environment, economics and politics, we can make things right

Arabian Oryx are seen at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Um al-Zamool, near the United Arab Emirates' border with Saudi Arabia on March 24, 2017.
The sanctuary stretches over an estimated area of 8,900 square kilometres and currently hosts nearly 155 of the species, which were reintroduced into the its natural habitat in the UAE in a five-year conservation plan launched by UAE's late ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after fears of their extinction. / AFP PHOTO / KARIM SAHIB
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Text books say that the Empty Quarter is 650,000 square kilometres of sand desert in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. What textbooks often don’t say is that this vast area larger than France is not so empty after all. I’ve just had my first visit to the section of the Empty Quarter in the UAE.

Beyond the beauty of the whispering wind on the sand dunes there are oryx, gazelles, scorpions, and all kinds of birds including bulbuls and laughing doves among the bushes and date palms. One lovely creature, the Arabian oryx, tells an important story.

It was hunted to extinction here. But since 1995, protected areas, zoos and private reserves have re-introduced oryx into their traditional home. The numbers are put at 143 and are growing. The ones in the UAE section have been breeding successfully and – I was warned politely by our guide – they are very protective of their young. I kept my distance.

What the breeding programme and other measures to protect the environment here show is that humans can seriously damage our planet, but we can also make amends and fix things. We can shoot oryx to extinction or protect them and restore the balance of nature in this most precious and difficult desert environment. I came to Abu Dhabi not for the sightseeing, although that has been inspirational. I came to take part in The National’s Connectivity Forum.

The 2023 UN Climate Conference Cop28 opens in Dubai at the end of November, and the need to make worldwide progress on what some now characterise as our climate emergency has never been more obvious than in a region depending on water from desalination plants built on the shoreline.

And so seeing how the oryx have recovered was itself the most stunning connection between all the high-level conversations in the conference centre about making connections between the environment, economics and politics, and the reason that we should go forward to Cop28 with renewed determination and optimism.

Scientists, climate experts, all round the world want Cop28 to succeed and to demonstrate that what humans can break, we can also fix

The situation of the Arabian oryx once seemed hopeless. Now – even with a long way to go – we can be hopeful the rewilding programme is already working. Humans can destroy the planet, but by working together and using our imagination we can also put things right.

The connectivity conference explored ideas that link us in our common interests and the fact that the great challenges of our time, from climate change to economic disruption, wars, forced migration and pandemics, all require nations to work together. No country can solve any of these problems alone. We truly are all connected.

One theory, originating with an American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, is that every human on Earth is connected by “six degrees of separation". Mr Milgram set up a peculiar experiment. He arranged for several hundred Americans to send a letter to a complete stranger in Boston by first thinking of a personal friend who might be closer to the “target".

He found that the letter reached the target after being passed through about six connections. Some 40 years later, a Columbia University sociologist Duncan Watts used modern computer software to try to verify Mr Milgram’s research. Mr Watts published his results as Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by creating an internet experiment to examine, as Harvard Business Review reported, “50,000 message chains originating in 163 countries in search of 18 targets around the world".

The research showed that life was a little more complicated than Mr Milgram realised, but his basic theory that everyone can connect with everyone else using roughly six intermediaries seemed to be roughly true. Networks – in other words – on a laptop, in the mail, in the human experience – have always connected human beings.

That’s how good ideas, and presumably bad ones too, can spread. The Connectivity conference was a small preamble to Cop28 by bringing in people of different backgrounds, skills and experience from different cultures to discuss how by connecting we may be able to co-operate, and how by co-operating we might – as those who have been restoring the oryx population have done – reverse the harm we have done to our planet.

Cop28, however, will be a tough diplomatic challenge, like most Cop meetings. Every political leader who comes to the UAE in November will want to connect with other leaders to reduce the damage the climate crisis is causing. But every leader will also want to defend their own country’s national interests and return home with some sense of having done well.

Perhaps each one of the leaders should take time out from those top-level diplomatic meetings to come to the Empty Quarter. Here they can connect not just with each other and with climate scientists but also with the great Arabian desert, the oryx, the plants and this precious environment. Scientists, climate experts, all round the world want Cop28 to succeed and to demonstrate that what humans can break, we can also fix. But time is running out. It’s time to connect, to talk, persuade – and to do.

Published: May 24, 2023, 4:00 AM