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The blue economy is valued at $3 trillion. What’s the Middle East doing to protect it?

Countries are taking a piecemeal approach to protecting the ocean, but joint solutions could yield better results.

The blue economy is valued at $3 trillion. What’s the Middle East doing to protect it?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Life in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is intricately linked to the sea, from the Gulf and the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. As elsewhere, maritime trade, energy, tourism, and fisheries depend on marine resources. 

This “blue economy” – a flexible term covering the use of ocean resources to benefit economies, livelihoods, and ocean ecosystem health – could be worth $3 trillion by 2030, the OECD forecasts.

In recent years, regional governments have begun to recognize the imperative for conserving and restoring ocean ecosystems. In 2020, the UAE became the first MENA country to join the Global Ocean Alliance, an international association of nations aiming to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. 

The now 72-member group has since been joined by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar – an early start to the kind of joint action needed to safeguard oceans for future generations.

But policy action remains on an individual country level for now. 

In January, the UAE launched the region’s first advanced marine research vessel, Jaywun, to study and monitor the marine environment and biodiversity. In line with national climate neutrality targets in 2050, the laboratory ship supports several environmental initiatives, including monitoring ocean life and the “blue carbon” it captures. 

More recently, the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) launched an integrated program to monitor plastic waste in the marine and coastal environment. The moves build on ocean conservation within the country, home to 16 marine protected areas.

Nearby Oman has established 13 marine reserves and conservation areas, with projects for natural and artificial coral reefs, mangrove forests, and 25 fishing harbors to organize the artisanal fishing sector.

Saudi Arabia is committed to protecting 30% of its terrestrial and marine area by 2030. 

And at the COP27 climate summit last year, Egypt announced the Egyptian Red Sea Initiative (ERSI), with up to $15 million from USAID pledged towards combating climate change and its devastating impacts on the Red Sea’s 2,000-kilometre coral reefs. The nation is currently formulating a national strategy for the blue economy.

Even on common issues such as marine waste, MENA policy approaches differ. As a recent World Bank blog pointed out, even countries within the same sub-region, such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, are taking different approaches that often don’t synergize.


But although each coastal state has territorial rights to the waters extending out from its shore, the world’s oceans form a dynamic, interconnected ecosystem. Campaigners believe it is time for regional governments to take a transboundary approach to ocean sustainability.

“It is key to ensure that we have a regional platform so all the stakeholders can leverage resources to adhere to roadmaps that have come out of the various COP meetings,” says Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Founder of Goumbook, a UAE-based social enterprise dedicated to promoting sustainability. In June, Goumbook organized the first MENA Oceans Summit, supported by MOCCAE. 

Antonelli Abella says measures such as creating marine protected areas, implementing effective fisheries management, reducing marine pollution from plastics and industrial run-offs, and supporting renewable energy projects can contribute to ocean conservation.

“Collaborative efforts, knowledge sharing, and adopting best practices can help scale up and speed up the protection of critical marine areas,” adds Antonelli Abella. 


Ocean-based businesses point to the need for more stringent policy action around marine protection – particularly as the blue economy grows. Since 2009, UAE-based Ecocoast has supplied over 400,000km of marine barriers to protect coastlines and waterways in over 60 countries worldwide. 

Its recent work has included partnering with Dutch non-profit The Ocean Cleanup on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and supplying Europe’s largest marine barrier for the River Schleldt to prevent marine debris from entering the North Sea.

As the marine protection sector matures, new players are entering the market, said Ecocoast co-founder and Director Dana Liparts. While the trend indicates the attention marine protection is gaining globally, it also means the market requires closer scrutiny.

“What we are seeing in this more mature market is lower quality products and materials being used in the name of marine protection, which have the potential to cause more harm than good to the marine environment,” Liparts said. “We urgently call for stricter regulations that control what products and technologies we use to protect the marine environment to ensure we are not causing a bigger marine or landfill problem.”


Recognition of the need for common frameworks has been building in the wake of the pandemic. Plastic pollution costs MENA countries about 0.8% of GDP, on average, every year, according to the World Bank. This pollution threatens livelihoods that depend on the sea. 

The Mediterranean’s blue economy alone generates $450 billion annually – but it is also one of the world’s plastic pollution hotspots.

In May, the World Bank brought together several regional nations in a virtual knowledge exchange to focus on marine pollution, the second such meeting since 2021. More than 100 representatives from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, the West Bank, and Gaza swapped strategies and best practices around plastic pollution. 


The UN says that Earth’s oceans, which generate 50% of the oxygen we need, are also the planet’s largest carbon sink. This is because they absorb 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and soak up 90% of their excess heat.

Ocean stewardship, in short, can improve climate health.

Just one type of marine plant, seagrass, plays a vital role in carbon sequestration. As Rouba Abou-Atieh, Executive Coordinator at the Convention on Migratory Species Office in Abu Dhabi, explained at the MENA Oceans Summit, “The marine ecosystem, with its vast expanse and intricate biodiversity, serves as a vital carbon sink, absorbing and storing substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. Within this tapestry of life, Seagrass meadows emerge as extraordinary champions.” 

Accounting for 10% of the ocean’s blue carbon storage capacity, seagrass can capture atmospheric carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. 

If implemented to a high standard, nature-based solutions can contribute to improved environmental health, climate change mitigation, and more broadly towards a sustainable blue economy, adds Marina Antonopoulou, Director of Emirates Nature – WWF. “Nature offers a range of socio-economic benefits, can be the cornerstone of human wellbeing, and support a climate resilient economy.” 

Here, there are also lessons to be learned from other markets. The MENA region can adopt internationally successful practices, such as sustainable fishing techniques from Nordic countries, coastal zone management strategies from Australia, and innovative European renewable energy solutions.

As Antonelli Abella says, “Earth is a delicate balance of interconnected environments. So the sea covers 70% of its surface, and plays an extraordinary role in sustaining life. If we can’t sustain our seas, they can’t sustain us. It’s time to redefine the relationship.”

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Keith J Fernandez is a senior editor, writer and content strategist with more than 15 years experience across digital, broadcast and print. He has worked with and contributed to Gulf News, The National, Al Hilal Publishing and Digital Ink Media. More