Why ecosystem restoration should be high on Arab region’s agenda

Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 31 July 2021

Why ecosystem restoration should be high on Arab region’s agenda

Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Experts want a more collaborative regional approach to restoring ecosystems ravaged by war
  • UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was launched this year for the revival of endangered habitats

DUBAI: Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait and its subsequent liberation during the 1991 Gulf War.

The establishment of major encampments for hundreds of thousands of allied troops, military fortifications and roadways, together with the remnants of munitions, including depleted uranium, left over from combat operations, have left deep and lasting scars on the terrain.

But more devastating still was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s deliberate policy of burning an estimated 700 Kuwaiti oil wells as his forces retreated and the spillage of an estimated 11 million barrels of crude into the Gulf — one of the worst oil spills in history.

Most of this gigantic oil slick came ashore on the Saudi coastline, killing wildlife and devastating fishing communities along an 800 km stretch from the Kuwaiti border to Abu Ali Island and Jubail Industrial City.




An abandoned Iraqi Soviet-made T-62 tank sits in Kuwaiti desert 02 April 1991 as an oil well at the Al-Ahmadi oil field is burning in the background. (AFP/File Photo)

“Although they removed lots of the oil for reuse, much of it damaged marine fauna and there was air pollution,” Samira Omar, director of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), told a recent conference on ecosystem restoration.

“Nearly $3 billion from the UN Compensation Commission has been invested for restoration and rehabilitation from destruction and burning of oil wells during the Kuwait war.”

Approximately $1 billion of this was awarded to Saudi Arabia to undertake environmental remediation and restoration activities, overseen by the Kingdom’s General Authority of Meteorology and Environment.

Omar says other states in the region can learn a great deal from the experience of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. “We have great opportunities to collaborate together with the Kingdom in learning from our restoration program,” she told Arab News.

“Since we have a lot of similar environmental problems and conditions, it’s a very good opportunity for scientists from KISR and Saudi Arabia to work together in a regional project or program, whether in marine or land ecosystems.”




Clean-up workers pump oil from a man-made reservoir into waiting trucks 18 March 1991. Oil released by the Iraqi army during the Gulf War continues to drift south in the Arabian Gulf. (AFP/File Photo)

Indeed, with their shared shoreline, whatever happens in Kuwait affects the Kingdom also. Likewise, any environmental restoration program launched by Saudi Arabia would no doubt benefit neighboring countries, including Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.

“Any policies issued by these governments to reduce the impact of overgrazing for example, or any demographic changes in land use, will be very useful for the region,” Omar added.

Along with other GCC countries, Saudi Arabia is accelerating action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November.

It has unveiled a National Renewable Energy Program — through which it aspires to meet 50 percent of its domestic energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 — and launched the Saudi Green Initiative, a project to plant 10 billion trees in the country to mitigate its CO2 emissions.

Riyadh has also initiated the Middle East Green Initiative to work with other Arab states to plant an additional 40 billion trees across the region — representing the world’s biggest reforestation program.

INNUMBERS

* 700+ - Kuwaiti oil wells set on fire during the Gulf War.

* $3bn - War reparations used for Kuwait eco-restoration.

* 50%+ - Saudi renewable energy generation by 2030.

The Kingdom has also pioneered the “circular carbon economy,” an integrated strategy for tackling emissions while enabling economic growth that was endorsed by G20 leaders under last year’s Saudi presidency.

Omar was among a host of experts taking part in a virtual session of SER2021, the 9th World Conference on Ecological Restoration, which took place in June. Participants warned that without a collaborative approach involving regional governments, businesses and civil society groups, environmental degradation would only continue.

The conference coincided with the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The decade runs from 2021 to 2030, which is also the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and the timeline scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The UN General Assembly proclaimed the UN Decade following a proposal for action by over 70 countries from all latitudes. It is a rallying cry for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature, and aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems, and restore them to achieve the global sustainability goals.




Kuwaiti reporter Barak al-Hindi stands on charred ground 12 March 2003 in front of a destroyed oil tank during a visit to the al-Ahmadi oil complex outside Kuwait City, which was destroyed by retreating Iraqi troops as they left Kuwait at the end of the Gulf war in 1991. (AFP/File Photo)

Climate change, overfarming and a slew of other man-made disasters have already taken a devastating toll on Middle Eastern ecosystems, degrading soil quality, polluting waterways, destroying biodiversity and displacing rural and coastal communities.

Vast numbers of fish — one of the Gulf region’s main sources of food — have been killed off by chemical changes in the oceans caused by pollution, rising temperatures and nitrification from the excessive use of fertilizers.

“We need a collective effort at the regional level with rules and regulations on fishing, pollution and waste management,” Omar said.

Plus, with winter temperatures expected to exceed 2.5 degrees above the historical average by the middle of the century — and five degrees higher in the summer months — experts concur that collective action is needed to avert climate catastrophe.

“With sea levels rising, the many islands off the coast of countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are at risk because they have important resources that should be preserved for generations,” Omar said.

“This water rise can also impact the biodiversity of these islands, so a good restoration plan should be considered for them and the coastal zone.”




Boats anchored along the Red Sea coast, in Saudi Arabia, on January 5, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Other challenges to regional ecosystems include urbanization, overgrazing, deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and pollution. These have been particularly pronounced in Jordan.

Moreover, ongoing conflict in the region and the influx of refugees in recent years, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, have placed tremendous strain on soil quality, grazing pastures and food systems.

The situation is similar in Lebanon, a country that has endured years of conflict and which has struggled to provide even the most basic waste collection services.

To address these strains on the environment, while also working to resolve intercommunal conflict, the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) has created a raft of educational programs and youth groups that bring local Lebanese and Syrian refugees together to serve a common goal.

“The LRI’s continuum is a perfect tool for approaching restoration in the region,” Maya Nehme, LRI’s director, told the World Conference on Ecological Restoration.

“In a country with political issues like Lebanon, stability and continuity are rare, so getting the concept of repairing ecosystem function into the mindset of a population, such as in Beirut, that’s trying to repair their windows after the blast that devastated their capital, is not easy.”




The Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) has created a raft of educational programs and youth groups that bring local Lebanese and Syrian refugees together to serve a common goal. (Supplied)

One of its schemes, designed to help communities avoid overgrazing and to prevent pastures being reduced to dry scrub, works with local shepherds to map out areas where their animals can feed, while other fields are left fallow to recover. “New grazing approaches are assisting with fire protection and prevention,” Nehme said.

“Shepherds have become the guardians of the sites. LRI also implements important and highly successful community reforestation programs — working across a wide variety of ecosystems in Lebanon to preserve and restore biodiversity.”

It is activities like these at the local level that will help the Middle East restore its ecosystems. But, in the words of Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, founder of Jordan’s Royal Botanical Garden, it is a unified regional strategy that is urgently needed to help prevent further decay.

“Many of the issues we are facing can be addressed with restoration and it is a really vital tool that we can use. Our ecosystems have an intrinsic right to life and to exist,” she told the conference.

“As stewards of the earth, we have a duty to ensure that we manage it, not just for utilitarian purposes, but to hand it over to the next generation. We don’t own it.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
Updated 58 min 43 sec ago

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
  • Thursday’s spasm of violence saw seven Shiite Muslims killed

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the top Christian cleric, said on Sunday that it was unacceptable for any party to resort to threats or violence after the worst street bloodshed in the country in more than a decade.
Thursday’s spasm of violence, in which seven Shiite Muslims were killed, came amid rising tensions over the investigation of last’s year’s port blast. Rai said “no one is above the law and judiciary” in a Sunday sermon.
Rai said “we must free the judiciary from political interference” and “sectarian and partisan political activism.”
Lebanon’s Council of Ministers must meet, take decisions and respect authority, he said.
The Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah group opposes the investigation and has called for the lead investigator into the blast, Judge Tarek Bitar, to be removed. (Reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Alex Richardson)


Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden
Updated 17 October 2021

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden
  • Iranian destroyer Alborz was escorting two oil tankers when they were attacked by five pirate ships

TEHRAN: An Iranian warship on Saturday prevented an attack by pirates against two oil tankers that it was escorting in the Gulf of Aden, the country’s naval chief said.
“Navy commandos were successful in repulsing this morning the attack by pirates against an Iranian commercial convoy in the Gulf of Aden,” said navy commander Admiral Shahram Irani, quoted on Saturday by the official IRNA news agency.
“The destroyer Alborz was escorting two oil tankers when they were attacked by five pirate ships,” he said, noting that Iranian shots were fired, forcing “the attackers to leave the area.”


Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
Updated 17 October 2021

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
  • Mohamed Al-Sadat has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi

CAIRO: The fate of dissidents languishing in Egypt’s prisons has long been under scrutiny, but one veteran is leveraging his political prowess in a bid to have them released.
Mohamed Al-Sadat, 66, nephew of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, the first Arab leader to strike peace with Israel, has long been a fixture of Egypt’s political scene.
Now, he has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under the uncompromising administration of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
“Dialogue with the state’s institutions isn’t just a one-man job, there are many others in close contact... but lately we’ve been successful in using a language that is being listened to,” he said in his plush office in an upscale Cairo suburb.
“This has been effective in some cases (of political prisoners) being re-examined,” he said.
Forty-six prisoners were freed in July, including prominent activists such as rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry.
But as many as 60,000 political prisoners are serving time in Egyptian jails, according to human rights defenders.
El-Sisi, a former army chief, became president in 2014 after leading the military ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi a year earlier.
He has since overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Those jailed for criticizing the political status quo have included academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, comedians, Islamists, presidential candidates and MPs.
But Sadat is less concerned about the conditions that led to their arrest than with securing their release.
“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in these security agencies where they undertake an examination of specific cases that we’ve raised, whether from a humanitarian or legal perspective,” he explained.
With a portrait of his uncle, a Nobel laureate for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, gazing down on him, Sadat was careful not to appear too critical of El-Sisi’s human rights record.
He insisted that on-off pressures imposed by US President Joe Biden’s administration have not influenced Egypt’s willingness to improve its often condemned record on human rights.
“I don’t agree that it (reform efforts) all stems from international pressures or a new US administration, that’s not really appropriate to say,” he maintained.
El-Sisi enjoyed a close working relationship with former US president Donald Trump who said the Egyptian leader was doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” in reference to counter-terrorism and regional instability.
But Biden kicked off his term this year by vowing no more “blank checks” to El-Sisi.
However, with Cairo’s critical role in brokering a cease-fire between the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and Israel after fighting broke out in May, ties with Washington have significantly warmed.
Leading an “International Dialogue” delegation comprised of lawmakers and media personalities to Washington last week, Sadat went on a “charm offensive,” according to one attendee of the meetings.
The dialogue included meetings with State Department officials, think tanks, policymakers and Egyptian activists.
“Sadat’s not the boss. He is there as a figurehead or elder statesman,” the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.
“Maybe El-Sisi wants to get his DC invitation and this is the way,” the participant added.
Sadat, who once mulled a presidential run in 2018 against El-Sisi, describes himself as an “honest broker” and “messenger” but not the decision-maker.
“We’re told by judicial officials that some inmates will be released after looking over their case files again. We then tell their families. That’s the process in a nutshell,” Sadat said.
For one former detainee unable to leave Egypt because he is on a no-fly list, Sadat’s role has been crucial in negotiating his case with the interior ministry.
Describing him as “genuinely sympathetic,” the detainee, who requested anonymity, said: “He’s treading a very delicate line ... He’s interfacing with security agencies and civil society activists.”
“He’s the man of the hour really when it comes to human rights.”


Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
Updated 17 October 2021

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
  • Crisis surrounds probe being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast

BEIRUT: Members of parliament hid in their homes on Saturday in fear of assassination by Hezbollah gunmen as new turmoil in Lebanon threatened to spiral out of control.

Security services advised MPs from the Lebanese Forces party not to venture out amid growing tension over a judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swaths of Beirut.

“Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces,” party media chief Charles Jabbour told Arab News. “There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder, which Hezbollah has practiced before. The solution requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state.”

The crisis surrounds the investigation being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast. The ministers claim the judge’s actions are political, and have refused to cooperate.

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Tensions erupted into violence last Thursday, when seven people were killed after gunfire erupted during a Hezbollah and Amal protest against the investigation in a mainly Christian area of central Beirut.

Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday he supported Judge Bitar, who had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case. “I stand by the ... investigator,” El-Khoury said. He said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar, and faced no pressure to do so.

The minister held crisis talks on Saturday to discuss the investigation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Supreme Judicial Council president Suhail Abboud and public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. They decided to invite Bitar to a meeting of the council on Tuesday.

“Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the problem,” a judicial source told Arab News.

There was also support for Bitar’s investigation from a surprising source —  former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian bloc. “The Free Patriotic Movement is for continuing the probe, revealing the truth and putting those responsible on trial,” Bassil said on Saturday.

Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and is widely thought to be angling to replace him, is under US sanctions for alleged corruption, and for having ties to Hezbollah.


Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
Updated 17 October 2021

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
  • Germany, Turkey hope cooperation prospers between both countries

ISTANBUL: Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday vowed continuity in Germany’s relations with Turkey that included both cooperation and criticism of Ankara as she paid her final visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Merkel and Erdogan developed complex but close relations over the German chancellor’s 16-year term that navigated the perils of Turkey’s tumultuous ties with the West.

Their personal bond was instrumental in helping Europe manage a refugee crisis in 2016 and calm simmering tensions in the east Mediterranean last year.

Merkel also helped iron out some of the difficulties that have crept into Erdogan’s relations with Washington and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders had lunch and private talks in a presidential villa overlooking the Bosphorus on the latest leg of Merkel’s parting foreign tour.

“I have always said that our collaboration was very good in the years that I worked with Mr. Erdogan,” Merkel told reporters after the talks.

The 67-year-old German leader said her “advice” to Turkey today was to expect “the same thing for the coming government in Germany.

“The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognised by the next government,” she said.

Erdogan referred to Merkel as his “dear friend” twice during the closing media event.

But he also hinted at the difficulties Turkey might have in promoting its interests after Merkel formally gives way to a new coalition government taking shape in Berlin following elections last month.

“If there had been no coalition government, (Germany’s) relations with Turkey might have been easier. Of course, it is not easy to work with a coalition government,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan headed Turkey as prime minister when Merkel became the first woman to head Germany in 2005.

The two have since shared a long list of differences and numerous testy exchanges on issues ranging from Turkey’s crackdown on human rights to its military campaigns in Syria and Libya.

But Germany also played a central role in defusing a crisis in the east Mediterranean last year that erupted when Turkey began searching for natural gas in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Analysts say Merkel was more sympathetic to Erdogan’s position because of the presence of an estimated 3 million ethnic Turks in Germany.

She has also been sensitive to Erdogan’s threats to let an estimated 5 million migrants and refugees temporarily living in Turkey under a 2016 deal with the EU to leave for Europe unless Ankara’s interests are respected by Brussels.

After admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in 2015, she stressed Turkey’s role in preventing a repeat of such large-scale migration to Europe and helped engineer a deal for Turkey to stem the flow of people seeking to cross the Aegean Sea.

“Their relations were very difficult in many respects but they managed to establish and maintain working cooperation,” analyst Gunter Seufert of the German Institute for Security and International Affairs told AFP.

Seufert predicted that the new German government will be more “sceptical” about extending the terms of the Turkey-EU agreement on migrants or continuing arms sales to Ankara — particularly submarines.

“With the new chancellor, no matter who they will be ... it will be more difficult to coordinate the European policy with Turkey to the level and degree Angela Merkel did.”