The image of coral reefs—technicolor, undersea alien worlds brimming with fish and sea life—tend to be associated with Australia, the Caribbean, or the south Pacific, not the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE’s coastline is home to extensive reefs, but warming waters, severe weather, and rapid coastal development have all but devastated them. 

In the emirate of Fujairah, on the country’s small eastern coast, the UAE plans to develop the largest artificial coral reef in the world. Led by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) and under the patronage of the crown prince of Fujairah, the project will construct the “Fujairah Cultured Coral Reef Gardens” in a marine protected area near the town of Dibba (an exact location has yet to be chosen, and no timeline has been announced).

The gardens, sprawling across 74 acres (or 55 football fields), will be home to 1.5 million cultivated coral colonies, their species chosen to fit the habitat. Artificial caves will protect the reefs from underwater currents and “provide a safe environment for marine organisms to breed.”

The UAE sees the reefs as a means to revitalize marine life and provide sanctuary for fish, which in turn could boost food security– the livelihoods of local fishermen– and, crucially, eco-tourism. But for this vision to come to fruition, its stewards must protect it from the stresses that threaten corals across the UAE. 

Fujairah’s Corals

Coral reefs abound in the UAE’s hospitable waters, particularly on the northern coast. Fujairah, with a coastline facing the oceanic Gulf of Oman, has the smallest reefs of any of the seven emirates—just 36 acres as of 2015, or half the size of the planned gardens. 

Fujairah, Dibba

Most of its corals are near Dibba and Oman’s Musandam exclave, where imposing mountains and rocky outcrops meet the sea. Fujairah’s reefs, most of which are officially protected, are the center of the UAE’s scuba diving tourism and key to the local economy. 

But coral reefs offer far more than tourism revenue. They protect coastlines from erosion and brim with incredible biodiversity—though they cover only two percent of the ocean, reefs are home to 25 percent of all marine species. 

Fujairah’s corals are unlike those in the Arabian Gulf, which live in much shallower, less rocky waters, and are much more vulnerable to destruction.

Reefs in Decline

Corals are highly sensitive creatures, easily killed by warming waters, overfishing, construction, and depleted oxygen. The tiny, immobile marine animals, relatives of jellyfish, live in tight colonies that, over generations, build magnificent, rock-like reefs with their exoskeletons. Most corals depend entirely on the microscopic algae living inside of them for food. 

When water gets too hot or the habitat is disturbed, corals expel the overactive algae, bleaching themselves bone-white and leaving themselves starving. Corals will start dying two weeks after bleaching but will not take the algae back if the stress continues. 

Though some bleached corals recover, they often die. Recovery takes years, leaving the corals weak and susceptible to stress. If waters stay hot, and thus saltier and oxygen-poor, regrowth is near impossible. 

Anthropogenic climate change is raising ocean temperatures worldwide, putting reefs at risk. Half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the biggest coral reef system in the world, has died since 2016, with little hope of recovery. 

UAE Reefs in Distress

For John Burt, who heads the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) marine lab, the future of the Gulf’s reefs is “relatively grim.” The Arabian Gulf is warming three times faster than the global average because it is shallow and enclosed. Once-ubiquitous coral species have nearly disappeared, replaced with more stress-tolerant ones, Burt’s 2015 study found. A dead zone in the Gulf of Oman—an uninhabitable area starved of oxygen by rampant algae blooms—is now the biggest in the world

Bleached coral

In the summer of 2017, a whopping 95 percent of Emirati coral reefs bleached and 73 percent died, a NYUAD study found. A blisteringly hot, windless five-week period caused water temperatures to soar, Burt explained. These extremes, plus continued human disturbance, brought the most catastrophic bleaching ever recorded across the whole Gulf.

The reefs that survive will be much less diverse and dominated by dead coral skeletons. Massive bleaching also occurred in 2002 and 2010, but the UAE’s rapid coastal development has “all but negated” any recovery, Burt found. Only offshore island reefs, far from urban development, have recovered. 

Growing Pains

Besides the extremes of climate change, the UAE’s rapid development has decimated its rich coastal habitats. 

The 1970s oil boom triggered exponential urbanization and immigration, transforming small fishing towns into global metropolises. Change came fiercely to the coast: ports were dredged, sea was filled in to make land, and sewage, chemicals, and hot brine from desalination plants spilled into the waters. Dubai’s massive Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest artificial island, was built with 120 million cubic meters of sand dredged from shallow shore waters.

Google satellite image of Palm Jumeirah

The Arabian Gulf, also severely overfished, is “among the most degraded marine eco-regions in the world,” Burt wrote in a 2014 paper. Survival of the UAE’s corals and marine life requires “rapid, dramatic changes in coastal policy, regulation and management,” he said. 

The UAE is making strides to “protect biodiversity and champion sustainability.” But plans for sustainable development often focus more on economic benefit than the preservation of ecosystems and habitat, Burt said. And though the country is trying to diversify away from oil exploitation, its wealth still grows with every gallon turned into greenhouse gases.

Keeping the Fujairah Reefs Alive

Luckily, northern Fujairah has been spared much of the damaging development of the west coast. However, Super Cyclone Gonu devastated its reefs in 2007, and a massive dead zone made the damage worse. 

Surprisingly, they have made promising recovery, Burt’s 2015 study found. In fact, Fujairah’s corals could bounce back within the next ten years, he wrote, but only “in the absence of further impacts to this area.” 

Recovery, let alone new growth, needs healthy oceans, moderate temperatures, and minimal coastal development. Burt recommends a ban on dredging and land reclamation near coral reefs, and serious caps on carbon dioxide emissions. 

The MOCCOE said that effective conservation of the Fujairah coral gardens will require the government, fishermen, beachgoers, and the tourism sector to work together. Ecosystem restoration, not tourism, should take priority for the project; even if the reef gardens bring more revenue, Dibba cannot try to imitate Dubai. 

The Fujairah coral gardens is a laudable project. But without deep edits to the UAE’s operating system, that is to say without real systemic changes, it could end up being in vain.