Man-made islands shaped like palm trees and a map of the world are already rising above the turquoise Persian Gulf, and Bahrain said Wednesday it wants to join the craze by building an island of its own — in the shape of a sea horse.
The tiny country — an island itself — says it wants to spend $3 billion to reclaim a nine-square-mile island off its northeast coast.
But the plan is already raising concerns it will bury a coral reef and cause other damage to the fragile marine environment, which supports a wide variety of species — including sea horses.
The project heralds Bahrain's attempt to cash in on a lucrative real estate boom sweeping other gulf nations, especially Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where properties on four manmade archipelagos — being created at a cost of $14 billion — have doubled in price even before they are built. Three are shaped like palm trees and the fourth is an archipelago resembling a map of the world.
Qatar is also building luxury developments on reclaimed land, with shapes inspired by pearls, in a bid to boost tourism and attract foreign investment.
Like those in Dubai and Qatar, Bahrain's manmade island — with a giant curling tail and a distinctive sea horse proboscis, according to project drawings — will be dotted with luxury homes, hotels, shops, promenades and other modern amenities, said the lead promoter, Bahrain-based Islamic investment bank Gulf Financial House.
Dredging for reclamation is expected to start this year, with the entire project taking several years to complete. A project official said the plan was given the go-ahead after the Bahraini government studied plans for construction and the environmental impact.
The Two Seas project "will redefine the concept of luxury waterfront living in the region," said Essam Janahi, chief executive of Gulf Finance House.
The developer said the island's sea horse design was the best suitable shape for development based on building up the land under the sea. The project is expected to lure additional financing from local and regional investors, the official said.
The $3 billion cost will only cover the land reclamation work, said Saud Kanoo, chairman of partner developer Bahrain-based Dala Development Co.
A local marine environmentalist said such large-scale reclamation projects could cause massive disturbances to the undersea environment and harm marine life that thrives here, including grouper, mackerel, shrimp, pearl oysters and dolphins.
"We have to be very careful because reclamation can easily destroy the coral reefs which support marine life," said Jassim al-Qaseer, director of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
A third of the country's coral reefs have already been destroyed over the past two decades by reclamation and waterfront development, al-Qaseer said.
In Dubai, where hot properties on manmade islands are luring buyers from around the world, dredging and dumping of fill has buried coral reefs, oyster beds and sea grasses that nurtured fish and sea turtles. The emerging islands also block and reroute natural currents, eroding Dubai's famed natural beaches.
One of the Dubai archipelagoes lies in an area once protected as a marine wildlife zone. The developer of the Dubai project said it was trying to counteract some of the damage by building artificial reefs, where, it said, sea life will thrive.