x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UAE’s under-appreciated salt flats deserve more attention

Increasingly, information about the UAE's history and environment is becoming available. The challenge is to use the new data, to enrich our cultural understanding and ecological sophistication.

More and more information about the UAE’s environment is making its way into the public domain, thanks to the work of governmental and non-governmental bodies that undertake research and publish it.

This is progress of enormous importance, not only because it satisfies what I hope is a growing thirst for knowledge, but also because this information can be of crucial value in informing Government, as plans are being drawn up for future development.

The more data is available about areas of sensitive habitat or the presence of endangered species of fauna and flora of local or even international significance, the more our long-term planning can take that information into account, in pursuit of truly sustainable development.

I welcome the original scientific research that collects this data, and I would like to see more money, public and private, being devoted to it.

Of course there is also always a need for yet more data to be made public: this sort of information is of limited value if it’s tucked away in files gathering dust or if it’s buried on a computer hard-drive, so that only the researcher who collected it, or their institution, is aware of its existence.

The same applies to other areas of research, into the country’s history for example. Much information is hidden in overseas archives of which few in the UAE are aware.

In London recently I had a meeting with some academics who are engaged in research in the British Library. They told me that they have located around 2,000 files rich in detail about the UAE’s history from around 1800 to 1950. The vast majority of these papers have never been catalogued or seen by historians. Many, one of the scholars told me, “certainly contain new information correcting our understanding of the country’s history and heritage, revealing a dramatic and eventful past.”

Studying such material is complicated and time-consuming: it will take many months, considerable expenditure and the writing of tens of thousands of words before its full value is understood. I look forward to reading the results of that work.

But other data, more recently collected, is more easily accessible and of more immediate relevance. One example relates to an important part of the UAE’s land surface, the sabkhas or salt-flats that comprise much of the coastal zone along the Arabian Gulf. Flat and without vegetation, the sabkhas appear at a quick glance to be of little interest, except to geologists, and to be of minimal value.

Perhaps, in consequence, they’ve never been high up on any list of areas to be protected and preserved. Instead, these areas have often been chosen for development, as at Musaffah, Khalifa City and Mohammed bin Zayed City, just outside Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the sabkhas are far from uninteresting. During my summer leave, I met a friend who is one of the top specialists in the world on our sabkhas. He started studying them nearly 50 years ago, has written numerous academic papers about them and has supervised much research about them over the years.

Forcefully, he made the point to me that they are of international scientific significance – there’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world. Since they’re so flat, they provide a useful laboratory for studying evidence of the sea level changes that are believed to be a result of global warming. They’re also important as analogues of some important oil and gasfields in the North Sea: petroleum geologists from around the world come to study them.

One would have thought that for these reasons, at least, our sabkhas – or at least parts of them – would be considered to be worth preserving.

My friend has been arguing for years, through academic papers, through reports prepared for senior officials and more broadly in the geological community, for proper protection. He’s depressed that nothing seems to have been done.

Information from him and from other scientists is easily available. What does it take, I wonder, to prompt a holistic response that will draw in the results of research in a coordinated manner and then take the necessary decisions?

The UAE is well-known for having, for example, the largest man-made port in the world, as well as being a world leader in research into renewable energy. That’s fine. But wouldn’t it also be nice to be known as a country that has unique geology of global importance, and that properly protects it?

That too is something of which we could, and should, be proud.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture