How Sheikh Zayid Turned the Desert Green

When visitors land at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, then drive to the heart of the city some 22 miles away, they are overwhelmed by flowers, shrubs, date palms, and other trees lining both sides of the multilane thoroughfare. Not many travelers who see all this greenery know that this is a recent phenomena. A little over a quarter century ago, not only Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the whole country consisted of towns built of adobe atop a landscape covered with sand.

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 migrating birds used to fly over inhospitable, barren terrain, they now stop and breed in countrysides dotted with dams, man-made oases, and ever-expanding farms.

Farms and forests cover 4.5 percent of the land, and more than 200 of the UAE's islands have been partially "greenified." There are 6,313 greenhouses and 21,700 farms spread throughout the country. Around the Liwa Oasis alone, more than 100,000 acres of desert have been converted into cultivated land. Using a variety of ultramodern and traditional irrigation techniques, orchards, grain 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 can be found as far away as the markets of Europe.

Toward food self-sufficiency

These small farms are becoming the basis for steadily increasing national food production, which has reached 1 million tons. Food processing facilities are being set up. Hundreds of artesian wells have been drilled, and 25 dams have been built, with more planned or under construction. The aim is for the UAE to become self-sufficient in food in the near future.

Tree planting and greenification are encouraged in every part of the country. Home owners are urged to beautify their surroundings with government gifts of plants and trees. 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.

Much of this tree-planting sprouts from the support of Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al Nuhayyan, president of the UAE and one of the world's leading environmentalists. Under his guidance, the barren face of the desert has been transformed into lush greenery in a little more than a quarter century. The renown horticulturist Bernard Lavery described Sheikh Zayid as ''the man who tamed the desert."

The massive agricultural development in the country has put 1,787,633 acres of once-barren land under the "plow" - and 741,000 of these acres are man-made forests. The afforestation effort throughout the country, fueled by giant desalination networks and the 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. The UAE's 22 million, mostly newly planted palm trees now represent 20 percent of all the palms on the planet. The country is today one of the largest date producers and processors of this fruit in the world - a single factory processes 14,000 tons annually.

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

The most renowned of the afforestation projects in Abu Dhabi is on the island of Sir Bani Yas. Three and a half million trees and shrubs, 500,000 of them fruit trees, have been planted on the island. Many are forest species, some indigenous to the Emirates. Others have been introduced to test their adaptability to the UAE's arid climate. Today, trees and shrubs cover 70 percent of the island.

Al Jurf, 61 miles northeast of the city of Abu Dhabi, is another garden spot. In this area of transformed desert, massive planting has created a rich forest of more than 500,000 trees - mostly citrus and palm.

The millions of newly planted trees, along with countless gardens and parks, are a wonderful example of fighting the desert. The extensive shade and evaporative cooling effect created by the man-made leaf canopy has helped to moderate the climate, reducing local temperature by several degrees.

Omar Sharif dumbfounded

The movie star Omar Sharif first visited the UAE in the early 1970s. Returning in 1996 to take part in a project directed by a leading British documentary filmmaker, he remarked, "I am totally dumbfounded by the greenery in the UAE."

The UAE has been so successful in its greenification of the desert that neighboring states are seeking advice. "They used to say, agriculture has no future," Sheikh Zayid has said, "but with God's blessing and our determination, we have succeeded in transforming the desert into a green land."

Sheikh Zayid's life-long dedication to improving the environment in the UAE and the Gulf region earned him the 1997 "Gulf Business Award for Environmental Action" and the "Gold Panda Award," a top international conservation tribute. It was presented to him on March 6, 1997, by Britain's Prince Philip, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

As a dedicated conservationist - not only in words but in deeds, as the UAE itself testifies - Sheikh Zayid aptly became the first head of state to receive this award.

* Habeeb Salloum is a writer based in Don Mills, Ontario.

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