Regional Perspectives:

Seas of the Middle East

Map 2. Seas of the Middle East


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Coral reefs ecosystems in the Seas of the Middle East (Map 2) are rich, visibly biodiverse and generally in good shape. Large cities and large coastal populations in bordering countries are rare, and human stress to reefs is comparatively low (Ginsburg, 1994).

In the Red Sea, the world's northern-most mangroves live along the southern Sinai coast. Seagrass beds are abundant in the region but their development is limited in areas with steep drop-offs and rocky terrain (ISPAN, 1992). The lack of rain and river input allows well-developed fringing reefs to thrive on both coasts of the Red Sea (less in the southern portion). Coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba represent the northernmost limit for coral reefs in the Indian Ocean region. Apart from cold weather fronts and extreme low tides, reefs in the region are subject to few natural disturbances. Recently however, northern Red Sea reefs have seen an increase in grazing by the gastropod Drupella (Ginsburg, 1994). Rapid coastal development that includes mainly oil-related industrial centers as well as tourist resorts poses serious threats to future health of coral reef ecosystems. Inadequate environmental standards in Egyptian and Saudi oil facilities and the de-ballasting of ships in the Red Sea pose pollution threats to coral reef ecosystems (IUCN/UNEP, 1988).

In the Gulf of Aqaba, pollution from port facilities in Eilat, Israel, and Aqaba, Jordan, threaten water quality (ISPAN, 1992). Large-scale tourism is expected to quadruple by the year 2000. Tourist development impacts can already be seen off Hurghada, Egypt, where land reclamation and sedimentation associated with coastal development have destroyed or very seriously damaged large areas of reef. The use of imported fine sand for hotel beaches off Dahab threatens these reefs. Eutrophication problems related to nutrient rich sewage water from hotel gardens, as well as desalinization effluents pumped onto reefs from hotels in Quseirand threaten reef health. Fishing pressure is increasing as the emphasis shifts from sustainable to extractive fishing practices. Lobster are presently overfished around the Sinai. Sharks in the area are reportedly declining for unknown reasons, possibly because of tourist-related activities such as boating. Increased recreational diving will also bring more diver-related damage to coral through kicking, trampling, or holding -- all of which tear the delicate tissues of the corals, increasing the chances of mortality and making the corals more susceptible to replacement by algal competitors (Hawkins and Roberts, 1993).

The reefs of the north and south regions of Yemen and Oman are beautiful but are under constant threat from oil pollution. Although development is increasing, human stress is minimal because coastal populations are relatively small.

In the Arabian Gulf, the extent of mangroves has been declining due to the impacts of unplanned coastal development, with only about 125-130 km2 remaining (90 km2 off Iran, 10 km2 off Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, remainder along the UAE coast). In Saudi Arabia, more than 40 percent of the Arabian Gulf coastline has been infilled and 50 percent of the mangroves lost. Seagrasses occur principally in shallow (< 10 m) coastal areas and form the basis for many food chains. More than 530 species of plants and animals were recorded among seagrasses in the Gulf. Approximate figures from Tarut Bay (410 km2) suggest these seagrass beds support production of 2 million kg of fish annually at a 1987 value of US $10 million, or the same quantity of shrimp worth US $12 million (Price, et al., 1993). Coral reefs occur mainly as numerous patch reefs. However, fringing reefs are found around offshore islands. Coral diversity is low compared to the Red Sea (55-60 species vs. nearly 200 in the Red Sea). High and low water temperature and high salinities affect coral species diversity and many species live near their maximum tolerances. Immediate impacts from oil spills during the Persian Gulf War were less than generally expected, indicating a high resilience among reef communities in this area. However, continued monitoring is needed to reveal longer term effects (Downing and Roberts, 1993). Oil and domestic, urban, and industrial pollutants are a problem in several parts of the Arabian Gulf, although effects on ecosystem structure and function are generally not well known. The coastal zone is fast becoming the repository for solid wastes. Major ecological problems have arisen from loss/degradation of productive coastal habitats, caused by landfill, dredging, and sedimentation. Anchor damage to coral reefs is a problem on Jurayd Island and possibly elsewhere. Fishing pressure is intensive in some areas (Price, 1993).

Human Consequences

There are enormous differences among countries regarding the effects of lost coral reef resources in this region. Some countries (Egypt, Israel, Jordan) would lose enormously from the loss of tourist revenues where others (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, Qatar, Yemen) effectively have little tourism but would suffer from the loss of commercial and artisanal fisheries.

Existing Management and Research Programs

The Kuwait Action Plan was adopted in 1982 for the protection and development of the marine environment and coastal areas of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Other programs to help conserve the environment include: The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Environmental Program, The Action Plan for the Conservation of the Marine Environment and Coastal Area in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The Global Environment Facility supports an Egyptian Red Sea coastal and Marine Resource Management Project that promotes the development of a coastal zone management plan, development of environmental assessment capabilities, environmental monitoring, maoagement activities to protect coral, reef habitat, and establishment of marine protected areas.

Marine protected areas include: Ras Mohammed Marine National Park, Eilat Coral Reserve, the Marine Nature Reserve in Jordan, and the Qur'm Public Park and Nature Reserve (GBRMPA et al., in press). There are several coral reef marine protected areas: Bahrain (1), Djibouti (2), Egypt (4), Iran (1), Israel (1), Oman (2), Saudi Arabia (2), Sudan (1). A coral reef Peace Park is planned for the Gulf of Aqaba as part of the Middle East Peace Initiative.

There are several research/educational facilities conducting marine research in the region including: King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (Dahran, Saudi Arabia), King Abdul Aziz University (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), Heinz Steinitz Marine Laboratory (associated with various Israeli universities), and the University of Sana'a (Yemen).

Preliminary Recommendations for Regional Action

In addition to the general global recommendations, we suggest the following:

Integrated Coastal Zone Management

  • Successful tourism will depend on the availability of clean, nonpolluted water and healthy coral reef ecosystems. Integrated coastal zone management is essential to manage increasing human uses and to accomplish these goals;
  • Upholding existing agreements is vital;
  • More marine protected areas should be established and existing reserves managed effectively; and
  • Environmental impact assessments should be conducted in conjunction with coastal development projects.

Capacity Building

  • Increased development requires more education. Conservation education will be especially important for tourists. Hotels and other tourist attractions should develop or be provided entertaining educational programs and literature for visitors.
  • Accidental loss of hazardous materials poses a constant threat to coral reef ecosystems in the region. Therefore, effective hazardous material response programs should be developed and spill response capacities increased.

Improved Scientific Understanding of Coral Reef Ecosystems

  • Fisheries management data is limited and should be gathered to ensure populations of valuable species are conserved.


State of the Reefs * May 1995

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