When you hear the word UAE, a vivid picture of enormous sand dunes and camels immediately comes to mind. The UAE has many different topographical features and is surrounded by water on both sides. The majority of vegetation cannot survive in an extremely salty sea that warms to planet-beating temperatures in the height of summer. However, there is a forest that is not only surviving but also thriving in a remote area of Abu Dhabi, where salty waters lap sun-drenched shorelines, providing a natural refuge for wildlife and an extraordinarily tranquil escape from the bustle of the UAE’s cities and deserts. On the northeastern tip of Abu Dhabi’s Al Jubail island, where shallow tidal waterways spill out into the crystal-clear Arabian Sea, is Jubail Mangrove Park, a green expanse of grey mangrove trees. Just before the pandemic, Abu Dhabi’s Jubail Mangrove Park was established as a tourist destination. It now features a classy wood-clad reception area and a network of inviting boardwalks that weave through the trees and over the water, providing up-close views of the local flora and fauna. Despite being only a short drive away, it’s a peaceful world away from the glittering skyscrapers and heat-hazed bustle of downtown Abu Dhabi. Here, visitors can pass the time listening to the birdcall, the lapping of the waves, and the wet slap of leaping fish. When the tides are high enough to allow small boats to enter the heart of the forest, veteran guide Dickson Dulawen leads frequent kayak or electric boat tours of the mangroves. “Being here is a healing process like yoga, especially at sunrise or sunset,” he says. It’s a great place to unwind if you’ve had a particularly bad day.
Mangroves have healing properties that benefit not only humans but also other species. Scientists claim that by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, fostering biodiversity, and postponing the effects of climate change, resilient trees are also assisting in the restoration of the environment. On the water, in one of Jubail’s vibrantly coloured kayaks, you can follow guides like Dulawen to see the mangroves at work. Depending on the tides, tours are offered both during the day and occasionally at night. Dulawen points to the throngs of tiny black crabs that scurry on the sand beds surrounding the base of the mangroves as he leads the way out through a man-made channel. He claims that plants and crustaceans live in harmony with each other. While hiding from predators in the branches, they disperse seeds, break up the heavy, salty sediment, and consume fallen leaves, all of which encourages root growth. Those roots are beautiful to see. Grey mangroves send out a star-shaped network of cable or anchor roots, and these roots then sprout their own miniature forest of tubes, known as pneumatophores, which stick out above the water like snorkels and allow the plant to breathe.
Dulawen invites a closer examination of the mangrove leaves, which seem to be sweating salt, as he pulls the kayaks up onto a spotless sandy beach that only appears at low tide and is a picture-perfect desert island. They can grow in seawater that would be toxic to other plants as a result of the process. Dulawen names a few additional plants that contribute to the local ecosystem. There is salt marsh samphire, which resembles the plant frequently used as a food ingredient and is green and stubby. According to him, local Bedouins have long used it as a remedy for gassy horses or camels. The parasitic plant known as desert hyacinth, which has a yellow flower blooming on the samphire’s roots, is frequently used medicinally, according to Dulawen, including as a natural Viagra substitute. The mangroves should be intolerable while on the water in the relentless heat of an Arabian summer afternoon. However, a dreamlike quality permeates the air as bathtub-warm waves splash over the kayaks as Dulawen gently points out a list of plants and animals. Green herons and crab plover birds flit about the trees, landing to stalk across the soft sediment. Over the moving seagrass, upside-down jellyfish can be seen in the clear water. Turtles are frequent guests, Dulawen said.
This area of Abu Dhabi is peaceful in part because it is off-limits to the jet skis and other pleasure crafts that buzz along other stretches of coastline. Dulawen and his fellow guides assist by diligently collecting any stray trash and shooing away intruders. He exclaims with pride that “there is no other place in the UAE that can compare to here.” “The natural wildlife and the water’s clarity. It’s perfect. And things only get better. In recent years, mangrove areas have expanded in both Jubail and Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangrove Park thanks to public and private planting initiatives. Three new trees are planted for everyone that is cut down due to development elsewhere. According to John Burt, associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, who can occasionally be seen paddle boarding around the emirate’s waters as part of his team’s research to map the grey mangrove’s genetic information, this is an environmental success story. In his words, mangroves are “ecosystem engineers,” constructing not only their own habitats but also the ideal environment for a vast array of other species. He claims they are a hub of diversity. The crabs are pleased with their agreement with the mangroves. Fish are content because there is enough food for them to feed their young. The fact that those young become commercially valuable harvests in deeper waters makes fishermen happy. The birds are content.
According to Burt, “many, many species of birds flying between Africa and Eurasia” use these mangroves as a migration route. “In the autumn, we’ll see a lot of birds stopping to rest and eat in that area because it’s important not only for providing habitat but also a ton of energy in the food web through dropping leaves,” said the researcher. There is also another thing. Super-resilient mangroves in Abu Dhabi may hold the key to predicting how ecosystems around the world will adapt to global warming and rising sea levels, as well as assisting in mitigating some of the causes of climate change in our age.
According to Burt, they serve as a “blue carbon sink,” a marine ecosystem that absorbs more carbon than it emits. According to him, a significant portion of the energy used in photosynthesis is directed towards the root system as they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Insofar as development doesn’t disturb the area, that is CO2 sequestration. “And when they die, all the CO2 it pulled out of the atmosphere will stay there.” It may be able to partially offset the air pollution caused by our consumption of fossil fuels. The professor also claims that Abu Dhabi’s grey mangroves could serve as a model for species survival elsewhere in the world because they thrive in the unusually salty waters of coastal desert lagoons that, in the winter, can actually get uncomfortable for a typically tropical species. His group is examining particular genes in the local plants that are linked to “environmental robustness,” such as resistance to salt and to extremely high and low temperatures. When considering Indonesia or Thailand, for example, and wondering what will happen to adapt to climate change, he says, “I think that’ll be useful information.” The same hardy genes that Abu Dhabi’s trees possess may also be present in mangroves in other parts of the world, waiting to be activated in the right environmental conditions. And it might be a good sign to see those genes in action in Abu Dhabi. It demonstrates that there is hope for systems like these, according to Burt.
The sun sets into an orange sky as Dulawen, and I return to solid ground and take a stroll along the Jubail boardwalks. Another serene setting, made even better by a viewing tower that provides views of the dense leafy canopy. A few couples and families are taking in the scenery in the peaceful cool of the evening, including guest Balaji Krisna. It’s a good location and not too far from the city, he says, if you want to go outside and commune with nature. It is the only location in Abu Dhabi where there is this much greenery.