Activists aghast at plan for Mideast wetlands

An Emirates photographer takes a picture of a billboard that shows the $3.3 billion Umm Al Quwain Marina developement, to be built on a vast wildlife area on the Gulf waters about 40 miles north of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
An Emirates photographer takes a picture of a billboard that shows the $3.3 billion Umm Al Quwain Marina developement, to be built on a vast wildlife area on the Gulf waters about 40 miles north of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.Kamran Jebreili / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Khor al-Beidah lagoon is a pristine tidal flat teeming with wildlife, including endangered birds, sea turtles and manatee-like dugong that swim among its tangles of mangroves.

But a bevy of dredges and construction gangs are about to begin transforming a 1,500-acre parcel into a $3.3 billion luxury conglomeration of homes, shops, marinas and beach resorts aimed at foreign buyers and tourists.

The crown jewels of the development are private villas to be built on artificial islands with gated access — and views over one of the few remaining mangrove archipelago left in the Persian Gulf.

Developers say the waterfront complex, called Umm Al-Quwain Marina, will skirt the mangroves and leave most of the 20 square miles of wetland untouched.

“Our aim is to create a community of special neighborhoods bordering an open stretch of water with views of the marina against a backdrop of the gulf,” says Mohammed Ali Alabbar, chairman of Emaar, the Middle East’s largest developer.

Bird-watchers fear the worst
Environmentalists are aghast. They fear construction and people, cars and boats will drive off Khor al-Beidah’s internationally famous wildlife, including birds that migrate from Siberia to Africa and the rare socotra cormorant that nests almost exclusively on the Arabian Peninsula.

“We’ve seen it happen everywhere else. When you start to dredge and build marinas, that’s the end of it,” says Colin Richardson, a 30-year resident of Dubai and author of the periodic Emirates Bird Report and a guidebook to local species.

The leaders of Umm Al-Quwain, however, are eager to bring big projects to their emirate, which is the least-developed of the seven states in the United Arab Emirates. It has little of the energy wealth of Abu Dhabi, the largest of the emirates, and few of the tourists of Dubai, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities and tourist destinations.

Other wildlife zones buried by projects
The 35,000 people of Umm Al-Quwain, most of whom live in the small coastal city of the same name, make their livings from fishing, growing dates, building traditional sailing dhows and, lately, working at a container port.

Development is coming fast, though.

The deal for the lagoon complex was signed July 23, and a few days later developers announced Umm Al-Quwain’s desert interior would be the site for a new city that could eventually house as many as 500,000 people. The initial phase was valued at $8.2 billion.

The once empty Emirates coast is awash in construction that has buried coral reefs, mangrove swamps and other wildlife zones. The tidal lagoon here is one of the last such areas in the country, especially since the partial bulldozing of a mangrove swamp on the east coast.

Feasting spot for birds
Richardson says a half-million birds stop at the Khor al-Beidah every year.

“The birds don’t have very much left,” he says. “It’s a very important site. It has the highest density of winter migrants anywhere in eastern Arabia.”

The lagoon is a shallow tidal flat where turquoise sea and orange sand form swirling arabesques, bordered by grassy desert dunes. The protected waters are laden with small fish and crabs that lure the birds that nest in adjacent mangroves and on a sandy barrier island.

Bird enthusiasts are running out of sites in the Emirates.

Richardson says hundreds of people visit Khor al-Beidah every year for the wildlife. He and other activists long urged the government to protect the lagoon, arguing it is more valuable as an ecotourism destination than as home to another luxury housing complex.

BirdLife International, an advocacy group, has designated Khor al-Beidah an “important bird area” for hosting of 85 species, including the country’s largest wintering flock of crab plovers, one of the world’s rarest shorebirds.

The wetlands also are stopping place for the Emirates’ only flock of Great Knots, birds that migrate from nesting grounds on the Siberian tundra.

Taking a page from Fort Lauderdale
Developing the lagoon also could threaten endangered sea turtles and dugongs, a manatee-like sea mammal, Richardson says.

The marina project is meant to resemble canal-side neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with residents able to walk to their boats and quickly cruise to open sea, says Mark Amirault, Emaar’s senior director of development.

As is common at similar luxury developments in Dubai, the homes will be targeted for sale to buyers from all over the world, especially Britain and elsewhere in Europe, as well as India, Pakistan and Arab countries.

Emaar, established in 1997, is responsible for many of the projects that have turned Dubai into the Middle East’s growth hub, including Burj Dubai, planned to be the world’s tallest building when it opens in 2008.

“What you’re seeing in this region is on par with development in North America 100 years ago,” says Robert Booth, Emaar’s executive director.