x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Major Ali al Suweidi, soldier fighting for nature

Creatures and habitats harmed by rapid development have a champion in the head of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group.

Major Ali al Suweidi with a sick turtle at the Ghantoot Reserve, near Jebel Ali.
Major Ali al Suweidi with a sick turtle at the Ghantoot Reserve, near Jebel Ali. "Anyone can become a green hero," he says.

DUBAI // Where the breeze from the sea hits the soft wind of the desert, a strong draught works its way through to an open majlis by the water. Major Ali al Suweidi draws a deep breath, and declares: "I am in love."

A heron dives into a crystal blue pool. Along with the fish, the nearby mangroves, turtles, and other marine life, it is safe here on the Ghantoot Reserve, hidden away just a few miles from the noise and industry of Jebel Ali. "My mother is a Bedouin from the desert, my father a pearl diver from the sea, and so I love everything there is about both places and all the creatures that live in them," says Major al Suweidi, 52.

As the president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group, a non-profit group set up in 1996 under the patronage of Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid, Major al Suweidi was responsible for founding the reserve. In its 14 years, the group has rescued thousands of reptiles - including many whose homes were cleared for a new airport in Dubai - and has transported hundreds of young mangrove trees from resort sites in Abu Dhabi. "It took me many years to convince people here to take our mission to protect the environment seriously and to work with us to preserve our natural habitats and heritage," he says.

For decades, he has been working with the country's biggest developers, municipalities as well as numerous government entities to help lessen the damages to nature. The reserve was one of the few enterprises to benefit from the recession, he says. As developments scaled back, some of the land - and 2km of shoreline - was donated by the Government, giving the reserve more than 4km of undisturbed shore.

Major al Suweidi is completely at home in this isolated haven. There are no paved roads, and no direction signs. Walking along the shore, he stops and points to the sand. "See the little holes?" he asks. "Those were made by the crabs to help air out the sand. Every little creature has a role in life, and they are a gift to us from Allah which we have an obligation to protect and take care of." Just a few steps from the waves, the red and beige majlis, its roof made of palm fronds, and a mud and brick platform, can be found an ideal place to rest and watch nature. Major al Suweidi is always ready to welcome visitors.

"People from all walks of life are welcome here," he says. "Many come to just take a break from their hectic life." He pulls a small sack from one of the pockets of his khandoura. In it are pearls of all sizes and colours, all from local oysters without human intervention. "Look at these," he says. "They are just a small reminder of the old glory days of pearl diving here and the great treasures we once had in our waters."

As a child, Major al Suweidi and his family would camp out along the open beaches of Dubai, and go diving in the deep sea. Today, many of those beaches have been engulfed by development or penned off by resorts. As a teenager, he and his friends went out on nature expeditions after finishing their school work or playing football. The boat and equipment were provided by Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid, the Ruler's brother. "His Highness liked how we wanted to reconnect with our heritage," Major al Suweidi recalls. "He provided us with everything we needed."

Major al Suweidi learned how to read the mood of the sea, using hidden clues in the wind and stars. He also learned the importance of listening to the elderly and the wise. "An old pearl diver warned us about heading out to the sea when a particular star was dim, and advised us to wait until it shone bright. But we didn't listen, and got trapped in a horrible storm. We almost drowned." As a result, even three decades later, the wall of his office, a small wooden shack near the majlis, bears a massive illustration of the relation of the stars, the seasons and the mood of the sea.

"Our ancestors didn't have fancy technology or tools," he says, "and yet they understood nature and how it works better than we do today." After graduating in Egypt with a geography degree, Major al Suweidi joined the Army. It was there, during the first Gulf War, that his path towards a career in protecting the environment began. "I saw so much destruction taking place to the marine life in the sea from all the ships and weapons, and the impact all of this had on the beaches and the lives there, that I decided I must do something to protect it from our human tendency to destroy."

And now he is passing his love of nature on to a new generation, running workshops with schools. Each year, the reserve has more than 10,000 young visitors. "The young spend most of their time inside buildings and houses," he said. "When they come here, I want to rekindle in them a sense of peace and love for the simpler things in life that are often taken for granted. "Anyone can become a green hero, a defender of nature. It just takes a bit of effort and patience."

@Email:rghazal@thenational.ae