A geological survey has found 12 sites in the Northern Emirates where marble may be mined.
Marble hunters track down their quarry in the UAE
DUBAI // The UAE is a country that loves its marble, for gleaming stone surfaces in shopping centres, palaces and mosques.
All of it is imported, almost 70,000 tonnes a year at a cost of about Dh1,000 a tonne, and often from thousands of kilometres away.
That is a lot of stone and a long way to bring it. But there could be an alternative. Geologists have found a source of the decorative stone far closer at hand, in the mountains of the Northern Emirates.
The discovery could reduce the burden of imports and provide a boost to jobs and the local economy.
"There is a significant amount of these stones," said Abdullah Gahnoog, an adviser in the Ministry of Energy's petroleum and mineral resources division.
"I would think there would be a lot of interest in them. In time, this could be an important source of employment for a large number of people."
The investigation into decorative stones was carried out by the British Geological Survey (BGS) as part of a 10-year, Dh90 million study of the Emirates that began in 2002.
Two geologists collected samples from areas in the Hajjar mountains in October last year, taking the stones to be polished and then back to the UK for further tests.
Their detailed findings have been presented to the Ministry of Economy but will not be released until late next year.
However, a pamphlet by the BGS at the Mena Mining Congress in Dubai last week said tests had been conducted to determine how porous and strong the stones were, as well as their appearance when polished.
The study found 12 sites contained rock types that could be right for use, and stressed "many more locations could be suitable after local site investigation".
About Dh66m worth of marble was imported in 2009, or more than 67,600 tonnes, mostly from Iran and Oman but also from Turkey, Italy and China.
Marble is essentially limestone that has been chemically altered by heat. While there is very little of it in the UAE, the sedimentary limestone that is common here can look very similar when polished.
"Marble is a trade term and it has a loose meaning, geologically speaking," said Clive Mitchell, a task leader at BGS. "It's normally just applied to rocks that take a polish.
"The UAE does have marbles that are equivalent to many of the rocks that are imported. There's definitely potential for a … quarrying industry to be set up."
Mr Gahnoog said the ministry was considering an awareness campaign to educate people on the resources available in the Emirates.
"We intend to carry out an exercise of contacting the architects, the contractors and the merchants and making them familiar with what we have there," he said.
"People are used to Italian marble and importing stones from other countries. They need to be weaned off these and taught to appreciate the local rocks that are available.
"It will definitely be cheaper but it's also a matter of taste. Some of the stones are very attractive.
"I would not say they are as attractive as Italian marble but they are attractive. Because of that, it will take time to develop an interest."
Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah have dozens of quarries and cement factories, which cast clouds of dust into the air and over residential areas.
Mr Gahnoog said that came from using explosives to dislodge rocks and huge crushers for grinding the stones into dust. But decorative stones are extracted differently.
"It does not cause any problems to the environment," he said. "In a quarry where you extract rocks for decorative stones you need to delicately extract these rocks.
"You don't use explosions because that destroys the rock. You need to remove a big block and take it to a factory for cutting and polishing."
Mr Gahnoog said that after the study was completed and distributed to the emirates, it would be up to private companies to apply for a quarry.
"We are only responsible for carrying out the study," he said. "We will leave the rest to the market."