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Opinion World

Let’s Talk Story: How Our Perception of the Persian Gulf Portends its Ecological Ruin

Picture the scenery of Lilo and Stitch. I think of waves and piña coladas and hula dancers. Of swimming and laughing and surfing. That’s the story of Hawaii that we’ve all been told. For me, the story comes first-hand. My father, who grew up dirty and barefoot and loved, would weave tales of his childhood in the water. When we’re home in New Orleans, the stories take on a mystical quality, enshrined in the fuzzy haze of memory and imagination. But when we’re in Hawaii, the reality to them sets in. As we walk to the beach, he points out landmarks that have changed over time. That house right there, the one with the lanai, that didn’t use to be there. It used to be all grass. Your auntie Malu and I would just cut right through there to get to the water after school. Each year he would say that, but that’s just about all that remained the same. For the first years of my life, blurred in memory but vivid in pictures, the beach itself was clear. Empty of humans save us, the water would sparkle and shimmer like cellophane. 

Then, as I entered middle school, the stagnant landscape of my summers began to change. Stories of Hawaii spread, and tourism blossomed. More people came, and traffic increased. New buildings sprouted up. As I completed high school, the area transformed again. Sustainability became cool. Horror stories of floating fish and white reefs struck fear—and inspired action. Eco-tourism became mainstream. Hydroflasks were the rage, and chemical-laced sunscreen was treason. Reef-safe only! 

Each time I return,  the ever-increasing changes hearten me. Plastic bag ban. Green recycling. Solar panels. Yet, what about other cities, regions, and ecosystems? Surely Hawaii isn’t the only beautiful and threatened seascape. Its story dominates, and others are left untold—or told incorrectly. The most conspicuous case is the Middle East. 

We are told that it is desolate. The perfect setting for an adventure: undercover and exotic and perilous. Think American Sniper. So, I see an incomplete story being written about this region. Diplomacy in the Middle East is complex, yes, but rainbows decorate the skies there too. And gentle breezes and laughter and beaches. There certainly are corals, dimpling the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Not, it should be noted, coral reefs, but coral-dominated limestone habitats that certainly appear to be coral reefs. The distinction is purely scientific nitpicking. 

Like Hawaii’s coral reefs, watercolor would depict the corals in the Persian Gulf the best. A series of blurs, intense and vibrant, since life moves too quickly to occupy just one piece of space. The distinction between one living creature and another becomes inconsequential in a coral ecosystem. Think of the corals themselves: what’s the difference between corals and the algae that sustain them? But also the dolphins and turtles and dugongs. And the angelfish and sturgeon and shrimp. The sordid sweetlips and the Ehrenberg snapper. All painted without lines because their lives blend, united, and tied to the corals. 

The corals themselves are a testament to nature’s resilience. The Persian Gulf is an inhospitable lodging. It is shallow and only communicates with the rest of the world through the scrawny Strait of Hormuz. This renders the Gulf susceptible to a temperature flux of twenty degrees Celsius throughout the year. Also, the Gulf is extremely salty—nearly one and a half times saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

The organisms in the Gulf already live near the limits of their environmental tolerance because of these conditions. Despite the Gulf’s corals, its mangroves, its dugong population, its mudflats, its seagrass beds, and its dolphins, it is depauperate. There are a few endemic species. The Gulf only has one-tenth of the species present in the Indo-Pacific. The Gulf, then, is naturally cursed compared to biodiversity hotspots like Hawaii. 

Because the Gulf has less biodiversity, it is less resilient to slight changes in the environment. And it is, tragically, one of the most anthropogenically impacted regions of the world. Hawaii may struggle with microplastic pollution and overfishing, but there have been no mass human-driven alterations to the environment. The Gulf’s leaders, though, are attempting to populate the desert, and corporations steadfastly pursue oil reserves. This quest for oil and the inexorable march towards “making the desert bloom” substitutes water with oil and fish with plastic. 

There are five primary threats to the Gulf. First are the disproportionate effects of climate change on the Middle East. Temperatures have increased and rainfall has diminished. Secondly, the oil economy devastates the Gulf through physical damage and pollution. Dredging, extraction, production, and transport destroy the corals. This continuous discharge causes chronic contamination, which degrades ecosystems. Especially sensitive ecosystems like the corals. There is also the constant threat of oil spills. On October 2, 1980, 100,000 barrels’ worth of oil exploded into the Gulf when a well off the coast of Bahrain blew out. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration reported that corals fifteen miles north of the coast were oiled. What’s frightening is that while some effects are obvious, so many are invisible. How does oil affect mating? How does it alter embryonic development? What about kelp and its capacity to produce oxygen? The answers to these questions are unknown and little researched.

There is, though, considerable research on the effects of universal urbanization on the environment. This research yielded bleak results that fault the growing urbanized population and the middle class with inflaming environmental woes. There is increased demand for fish and meat, increased demand for water, and increased demand for prime waterfront real estate—all of which create a slew of problems in the Gulf. One of the worst consequences of an otherwise positive change (the  Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran’s increasing gross domestic product) is the construction of islands. Nakheel, a developer owned by the Emirate of Dubai, has built islands along the coast that have increased the coastline from 70 to 1500 kilometers. The majority of the coral habitat in Dubai has been buried by sedimentation. 

A less dystopian consequence of increased economic power and urbanization is pollution. Wastewater from agriculture deposits nitrates into the Gulf, leading to algal blooms similar to those causing the annual Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Desalination, often perceived as a faultless solution to water scarcity, outputs brine. This hyper salinated byproduct of removed salt from seawater is deposited back into the Gulf. Which, let’s recall, is already significantly saltier than Hawaii’s surrounding waters and other comparable bodies of water. This is all worrying, but two facts make the corals’ situation alarming. First, these problems are additive, not linear. They compound and are causing deep environmental degradation that makes large-scale decline nearly inevitable. Secondly, people are simply not aware of the corals’ existence and their crucial role in the Middle East. 

The nature of the present calm is precarious. We must acknowledge the threats to it. These corals maintain the environmental security of the Middle East. When they are threatened, so is the region. Environmental security is a nexus of the complex web of ecological health, economic well being, and national security of an area. Consider, for example, how having limited resources will affect the economic productivity of a state, thereby threatening its national security. Or, how when national security of a region is threatened, its environment and economy are threatened. Or, how a lack of capital incentivizes countries to sell their resources away. Without environmental security, the sustainability of the region is vulnerable.  

Ecologically, the Gulf’s coral ecosystems are vital. They account for the majority of its biodiversity, the most essential ecosystem service that the environment provides. It preserves the longevity of the ecosystem, maintains organism abundance, and ensures the capacity of the ecosystem to provide other ecosystem services. The corals’ health, then, determines the health of the Gulf.

It is therefore disturbing to think about the rate of coral decline. A study led by Dr. Colette Wabnitz estimates the past and future effects of climate change on the corals. 70 percent of the Gulf’s corals have disappeared in the past couple of decades. Of the 30 percent remaining, 27 percent are under threat or at critical stages of degradation. This is especially worrisome considering that climate change is but one of five compounding problems threatening the Gulf. 

Another problem, development, has severely reduced coral cover. In Bahrain, the coral cover had dropped by 50 percent in the 1980s. It now has nearly zero percent coral cover. This is a permanent loss of biodiversity, habitat, and nursery grounds. We’re caught in a positive feedback loop that decreases and decreases biodiversity. 

However, biodiversity is by no means the only ecosystem service that the corals provide. They protect the coastline against violent waves and erosion. Corals are also a source of recreation, which, while undoubtedly an end in itself, is also a source of income. The tourism industry in the Middle East is just beginning to grow, and activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving are in demand. In the wake of coral degradation, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran will not only have to shell out resources to recover the corals: they will also have to find ways to account for the ecosystem services that are no longer being performed. 

Economically, the loss of the corals’ ecosystem services is debilitating. The effect is twofold: not only will the GCC and Iran have to fund research and innovation to compensate for the loss of ecosystem services such as coral protection and recreation, but they will also lose potential profit. The Gulf economies are reliant on oil, but they are attempting to diversify through an emphasis on renewable energy. However, fisheries are their second most important natural resource, after oil. Marine ecologist Peter Sale led a study that found that the Persian Gulf has eight times the fishery resources than the Gulf of Oman.

Yet overfishing and coral damage has led to a decline in catch potential. As the environment degrades and economies falter, national security is put at risk. The damage threatens food resources because biodiversity in the Gulf derives from coral, and fisheries comprise a considerable portion of food. “Arab exceptionalism,” a term coined by Peter Rogers, a professor at Harvard University, references the emergence of food security as the main driver of conflicts in the region. So, strong ties connect the degradation of corals to the national security of the region. 

Peter Gleik of the Pacific Institute warned that water is a “trigger for conflict,” meaning that through scarcity or lack of access, resources can become the catalyst that sends nations into conflict. There are existing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leader of the GCC, over oil, and other limited resources. Proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya continue to exacerbate this conflict. The shortage of resources associated with the loss of corals in the region augments the likelihood of direct conflict between the two countries materializing. Water shortages and the effects of climate change threaten to exacerbate political tensions, as Waterbury-Greenwood pessimism postulates. This has already happened before: the 1991 Persian Gulf War was an armed and violent dispute over oil rights. 

Moreover, water has been used as both a weapon and a target in conflicts. During the Gulf War, Iraq purposefully dumped oil into the Gulf, using pollution as a strategy for fighting. For corals, this would create a negative feedback loop of violence and degradation. Therefore, coral degradation puts national security at risk, as well as ecological health and economic vitality. These are pillars of environmental security, and, when threatened, degrade the sustainability and longevity of the region. 

The loss of the corals themselves is heartbreaking, but the effect that their loss will have on the stability of the region is distressing. The ramifications on the world are unfathomable. John Burt, a marine biologist at New York University in the Emirates, proclaimed that “the Persian Gulf corals offer hope.” Their capacity to survive in such an extreme environment—temperature fluxes and all—point the way towards understanding how coral reefs worldwide can survive climate change. Even the ones in Hawaii. For all the Hydroflasks and public sentiment and eco-consumerism, Hawaii’s corals are not saved. And they won’t be unless they can weather climate change.

So, these aren’t separate stories. They’re interconnected and woven and dense. As we allow unilateral narratives to distort universal truth, the moral of the story is left unheeded: our oceans are dying, and we are killing them.