The Flowering of Agriculture and Forestry in
The United Arab Emirates

Habeeb Salloum

When visitors land at Abu Dhabi International airport, then drive to the heart of the city some 35 km (22 mi) away, they are overwhelmed by flowers, shrubs, date palms and other trees, lining both sides of the multi-lane thoroughfare. Not many travelers, seeing all this greenery, know that this is a recent phenomenon. A little over a quarter century ago, not only Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital, but the whole of the country consisted of towns built of adobe atop a landscape covered with sand - the home of Bedouins and camels.

Today, camel tracks have become six-lane highways, greenery dots the once barren sands and ancient dirt-trodden souks are now air-conditioned plazas. The towns with their clusters of dirt huts have been transformed into cities of luxurious villas and hotels, overshadowed by elegant apartments and skyscrapers. Where, in the past, migrating birds would fly over an inhospitable barren terrain, today they stop and breed in a countryside dotted with dams, man-made oases and ever-expanding areas of farmland.

Farms and forests now cover 4.5% of the land, and over 200 of the UAE islands have been partially greenified. There are 6313 greenhouses and 22,797 farms spread throughout the country - 12,021 of these have been started in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi since 1993. Around the Liwa Oasis alone more than 40,500 ha (100,000 ac) of desert has been converted into cultivated land. Using a variety of ultramodern drip and traditional irrigation techniques, including that of the ancient aflaj system, orchards, cereal and vegetable fields, flowers and forests now flourish in every corner of the country.

With the proliferation of small farms, incentives given to farmers by the government and the adoption of modern agricultural techniques, tremendous progress has been made in the production of fruits and vegetables. UAE grown citrus fruits, avocados, grapes, guavas, strawberries, tomatoes and cut flowers are to be found as far away as the markets of Europe.

These small farms are becoming the basis for the country’s steadily increasing food production which has reached a million tons. A good number of food processing facilities are being set up and, besides the hundreds of artesian wells which have been drilled, 40 dams with an annual storage capacity of 80 million cubic meters have been built and more are being planned or are under construction. The aim is for the UAE to become self sufficient in food production in the near future.

Tree planting and greenification are encouraged in every part of the country. Home owners are urged to beautify their surroundings by government gifts of free plants and trees, and state-supported parks saturate cities like Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Roads in many parts of the country are now edged by fields of trees and shrubs, and islands like Sir Bani Yas are now, to some extent, covered with orchards and forest.

Much of this tree-planting is due to the support of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and one of the strongest environmentalists in the world. Under his guiding hand, in a little more than a quarter century, the barren face of the desert has been transformed into a land of lush greenery. The horticulturist Bernard Lavery, with 16 world records in horticulture, described Sheikh Zayed as “the man who tamed the desert.”

The massive agricultural development in the country has put 723,738 ha (1,787,633 ac) of once barren land under the plough – 300,000 ha (741,000 ac) of these are man-made forests. The afforestation effort throughout the country, fuelled by solar energy, giant desalination networks and use of waste water from urban and industrial projects, is truly remarkable.

In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi alone, some 130 million trees have been planted. In order to protect cities from sandstorms, green belts have been created. To supply the needed greenery, nurseries have been established to grow decorative flowers and environmental trees. The total annual production of flower saplings reached 20 million and tree saplings 1.5 million in 1999.

Even more impressive are the UAE’s 40.1 million, mostly newly planted palm trees, 33.7 million of these in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, consisting of 37 different species. The UAE’s spectacular progress in developing the cultivation of palms has increased their number to 20% of all date-palms in the world –  producing more than 250,000 tons of high-quality dates, making the country one of the largest date producers and processors in the world.

Another type of tree which is today proliferating the coastline of the UAE is the humble mangrove which can grow in salt water. Its propagation is a pet project of Sheikh Zayed who was raised in the dry desert and appreciates a tree which grows in salt water. For 20 years, new stretches of the UAE coast have been greenified by the salt tolerant mangrove. Today, these patches of greenery are becoming important habitats for varieties of birds, fish and invertebrates.

The most renowned of the afforestation projects in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is on the island of Sir Bani Yas. Three and a half million trees and shrubs, 500,000 of which are fruit trees, have been planted on the island. Many of these trees are forest species, some indigenous to the Emirates, and others introduced to test their capacity to adapt to the UAE’s arid climate. Today, trees and shrubs cover 70% of the island.

Al Jurf, 100 km (61 mi) northeast of the city of Abu Dhabi, is another of the garden spots springing up in the UAE. In this area of transformed desert, massive planting has created a rich forest of more than a half million trees - mostly citrus fruit trees and palms.

Newly greened areas, on the outskirts of the city of Dubai have witnessed a proliferation of wildlife. Thousands of Ghaff trees, considered to be one of the sturdiest plants able to withstand the harsh desert climate, have been planted - nourished by a sophisticated drip irrigation system. Among these trees, where no wildlife has been seen for thousands of years Arabian gazelle, rabbits, does and the desert agama now roam.

All across the land, the millions of newly planted trees, along with the countless gardens and parks are a wonderful example of fighting the desert and, at the same time, spreading greenery. Afforestation along with other aspects of the UAE’s agricultural revolution has greatly increased the greenification of the country. The extensive shade and evaporative cooling effect created by the man-made leaf canopy has helped to moderate the climate by reducing local temperature by several degrees.

The UAE has been so successful in its desert greenification projects that neighboring states are seeking its advice on afforestation. Sheikh Zayed’s call, “Give me agriculture and I’ll warrant you a civilization” seems to be echoing even outside the UAE’s borders. In Sheikh Zayed’s words: “They used to say agriculture has no future, but with God’s blessing and our determination, we have succeeded in transforming the desert into a green land.”

Sheikh Zayed’s lifelong dedication to improving the environment in the UAE has its roots in the country’s Bedouin tradition of living in balance with nature. Long before conservation was a buzzword in the West, it was a fundamental part of Arabia.

Sheikh Zayed’s work to save the environment earned him the 1997 “Gulf Business Award for Environmental Action” and the “Gold Panda Award” – the top international conservation tribute. It was presented to him on 6 March 1997 by Britain’s Prince Philip, President of the World Wide Fund for Nature. A dedicated conservation supporter, not only in words but in deeds, as the UAE testifies, it is only fitting that Sheikh Zayed should be the first head of state to receive this award. 

Habeeb Salloum is a writer in Ontario, Canada. 

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