RAS AL KHAIMAH // Dressed in khaki shorts and resembling a wiry school teacher, Clive Mitchell bounds enthusiastically across the rocks of Wadi Bih seeking slabs of marble, which could one day become gleaming facades in five-star hotels.
He and a team from the British Geological Survey (BGS) are scouring the country for useful deposits of the stone to reduce imports and boost the local economy. Their project is part of a Dh90 million study of the Emirates scheduled to last 10 years.
"Most of the decorative stones that you see in the UAE at the moment are imported, I'd say almost 99.9 per cent," Mr Mitchell said. "We want to see whether the country can substitute that material coming in for its own domestic industry."
The Emirates imported some US$18 million (Dh66m) in marble last year, or more than 67,600 tonnes, mostly from Iran and Oman but also from Turkey, Italy and China.
In March, the federal Ministry of Energy commissioned the BGS team to assess whether local stone could match that supply.
The project is a bolt-on to a survey which began in 2002 under its regional director Richard Ellison.
"We've found some nice stones," Mr Ellison said. "In fact, we saw a stone last week in Dubai which was imported from Turkey. It looked just like this one here," he said, pointing at a boulder at his feet.
The BGS report, expected to be ready by March of next year, is unlikely to make an overt case for exploiting any natural resources uncovered in the survey. However, the Ministry of Energy has expressed an interest in the findings should they yield evidence that might boost RAK's economy.
"If the report presents any economic implications, of course we will act on that," said Abdullah Gahnoog, an adviser in the ministry's petroleum and mineral resources sector.
The wider 10-year survey has covered every corner of the country and no area larger than two square kilometres will have escaped the eyes of BGS researchers when the fieldwork concludes next year.
The findings are likely to become a useful resource for builders, particularly in Masdar City. The plans for the world's first carbon-neutral city stipulate that its construction materials should come from within a 500km radius of Abu Dhabi.
"If a decorative stone has come from China, it's travelled a long way to get here," Mr Mitchell said. "It's a much higher carbon footprint than stones which are transported within the country."
Despite being unable to find gold, copper, diamonds or much platinum to speak of, a revolving team of around 40 BGS researchers has made some worthwhile discoveries.
Many of the stones found in the wadi areas of the country are 300 million years old and were underwater long before the tectonic plate on which the country sits was shoved up on land around 90 million years ago.
"This is an area which is of very high scientific importance," said Mr Ellison, his eyes glowing. "You don't normally see rock which has been under the ocean and is now on land."