Recently, I have returned from an eco-water exploration journey of the second Arab state in the Middle East that recently signed normalization agreements with Israel – the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Photo credit: Noam Bedein, #middleeastecotourism
I concluded the first year of the Abraham Accords by exploring and building relations across the UAE. You can peruse the insight from the UAE’s leading news website about what I came to learn from the UAE and what can be applied for the benefit of the efforts to preserve the Dead Sea.
Thanks to the Bahrain Embassy in Tel Aviv that connected this writer to professionals and key officials in the kingdom who examine the ocean, water and environment conservation, this enabled exploration of the kingdom in an environmentally focused manner, creating an unmediated encounter with key Bahrainis.
I learned firsthand about the historical water-cultural identity, which was lost in some ways to the average Bahraini. It became immediately apparent that the challenge to save the Dead Sea could create empathy with the locals on a deeper level, referring to Bahrain’s lost water treasures and resources which are in great need of protection and rehabilitation.
In the long run, a Middle East alliance for water sustainability can have a positive impact on saving the Dead Sea, which is lacking regional cooperation.
Just go back to the Israel-Jordan-UAE energy-water deal breaker, which brought the Middle East one step closer to Saving the Dead Sea, impacting its water sources.
I happened to arrive in Bahrain on February 14th, which a decade ago marked the date of the Arab Spring that ignited the Middle East, including Bahrain, which was called The Day of Rage, a name given by protesters in Bahrain. Strolling around the Souq in Manama on the first evening, gatherings for memorials near a Shiite Mosque and heavy police presence were present.
On this symbolic day, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made an historic visit to the King of Bahrain, Hemed bin Issa al-Khalifa, and the heir apparent, the Prime Minister of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamed al-Khalifa.
“Our goal in this visit is to turn this peace from peace between governments to peace between people, to convert it from something ceremonial to something significant … Israel’s goal is a network of alliances in the region, moderation and a common position against common challenges.” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Feb 14th, 2022.
These words struck a deep nerve.
This was the first time an Israeli Prime Minister ever visited the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf, so almost all the local newspapers in Bahrain covered the visit in colorful front pages. Saving printed copies of the Bahrain media was a way to preserve historic moments for posterity.
There is certainly some tension in the kingdom in the Arab Gulf regarding Israel and certainly not everyone supports normalization with the Jewish state. For this reason, there were those who were not willing to meet. However, the feeling of welcome was uplifting. For a number of Bahrainis this was their first opportunity to meet someone from Israel, face to face.
It was exciting to meet those who visited Israel for their first time, following the Abraham Accords, through Israel-Is and Sharaka, to hear their perspectives and positive experiences that Israel has impacted on them.
Bahrain- Between Two Seas
Short video exploring Mashtan Island in southern Bahrain.
Throughout history, Bahrain has been called the “Land of Immortality” or “the Great Paradise”, as it was known for its freshwater springs and palm tree fields. The name of Bahrain in Arabic means between two seas. Two types of water surround the land, freshwater and saltwater.
The Kingdom of Bahrain has deep roots in the past, dating back more than 5,000 years, as it has been home to many cultures as well as a vital link between cultures, making it a commercial center and a sea crossing point between East and West, strategically located in the Arabian Gulf.
Bahrain has been well known since ancient times for its pearl fishing, which was considered the best in the world until the 19th century.
Bahrain’s Water Challenges Today Today, Bahrain is among the top ten countries in the world that could suffer from a water crisis in the next 25 years. The Kingdom of Bahrain is an arid state that has been declared by the UN agencies since the 1950s to be accepted as a water-scarce region.
The Kingdom of Bahrain, despite being the smallest in the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), contains one of the highest population densities in the world and its population is growing, while it contains the lowest freshwater resources in the world, which affects the availability of freshwater. The share of fresh water among the population of Bahrain is declining.
It was fascinating to explore Bahrain’s futuristic urban communities that address some of these challenges. Durrat Al Bahrain is the second largest artificial island in the country and the development of a marina of this project is the first of its kind and the largest in the Middle East!
The $7B mega-islands project is expected to accommodate up to 60,000 residents and another 5,000 visitors daily upon completion.
Short video exploring Durrat Al Bahrain- https://youtube.com/shorts/Gptmm7alRoM
Bahrain’s Ocean and Marine Conservation
Today, there are no rivers, streams flowing continuously or lakes.
The country obtains groundwater from the lateral flow of the Dammam aquifer.
Accelerated economic development and population growth along with mega projects built in Bahrain in recent decades, mainly due to the ‘oil boom’, have increased the demand for water, as groundwater is used as the only natural water resource supported by desalination facilities.
More water is expected to be extracted from the reservoirs to meet the growing demands for domestic, agricultural and industrial needs that will cause an increase in salinity due to the intrusion of more saline water from the sea.
In recent decades, extensive coastal development has been carried out in the Arabian Gulf that has included excavations, restoration, shutdown projects, underwater piping facilities and extensive pollution. These are the main factors in the displacement of corals across the bay, which has had a devastating impact on the marine living environment.
I first learned from Bahrainis that a few years ago the King’s son held a traditional fishing competition among fishermen for catching the largest and most impressive fish. The result was dismal for the medium-sized fish caught and the king’s son experienced up close the devastation to marine life at sea following the accelerated development of the kingdom, and ever since he sees great importance in creating awareness for marine conservation alongside the future developments.
In recent years a questionnaire has been distributed among students of the National University of Bahrain. 85% of the population involved in the study were unaware of the serious water problems and thought that since Bahrain as an island surrounded by water (sea water) should not be a problem.
Although there are many challenges to Bahrain’s ocean and marine conservation, the immediate need is to create environmental-water awareness and water-sustainability education and must be supported by the Kingdom.
In order to reach sustainable solutions, the mass public needs to care first and foremost.
One of the highlights of the eco-trip to Bahrain was engaging marine biologists from the Reef Arabia, who are constantly developing practical reduction and compensation solutions to deal with the severe impacts on the Gulf, with the task of planning, building and deploying artificial reefs.
Reef Arabia has suggested that an artificial reef can do more than provide a utilitarian habitat for fish species. When properly designed, it blends in with the environment in a natural and aesthetic way.
They combine their vast knowledge in the ecology of the Arabian Gulf with innovative methodologies for the production of concrete reefs, which integrate naturally and beautifully in the absorbing environment.
Halel Engineer, director and manager of Reef Arabia, is also one the kingdom’s main consultants and leaders of ocean and marine conservation in Bahrain. Halel grew up with the Bahrain Ambassador to Israel, HH. Khaled Yousif al-Jalahma, who initially connected us together.
Thanks to Bennet’s visit, the following morning I was privileged to have my very first Bahraini famous traditional breakfast at the Souq with Halel and her sister, joining us to the table, Ambassador Khaled, tired from the previous historical visit, but seemed very pleased, positive and optimistic for the near future.
Meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain Eitan Na’eh and an official meeting at the Bahrain Supreme Council for Environment, I summarized my ecological journey across Bahrain with the challenge now is to promote cooperation between the countries starting with the development and branding of the Kingdom’s environmental tourism which can serve as a local outdoor educational motivator, and to take part of the regional ecotourism infrastructure to increase international delegation visits.
Such a development will drive more cooperation between Israel and Bahrain in the context of preserving the water environment and sustainability, with the hope to promote solutions for the preservation of water treasures connected to the heritage and identity of our people.