Known affectionately by many as Major Ali, Ali Saqar Al Suweidi (who served in the Gulf War, hence the alias) is fighting for an altogether different cause these days. Suweidi is the president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), and he is determined to teach the people of Dubai – both Emiratis and expats – how to look after the UAE’s environment, particularly the sea. ‘The sea is in my blood,’ Suweidi tells Time Out. ‘My father and my grandfather were pearl divers. They taught me to take care of nature.’
EMEG is the only organisation in the UAE dedicated to conserving marine life. Together with clean-up projects and wildlife protection drives, the group is now offering free activity days at the EMEG nature reserve in Ghantoot for families, schools, corporate groups and anyone else who’s interested in learning a little more about the natural environment and how to preserve it. There’s bird watching, natural history scavenger hunts, stargazing, mangrove-planting and more on offer, and it’s all provided free of charge.
Suweidi says it’s vital to make opportunities such as these available to people in the region. ‘We must educate everybody in the emirates,’ he says. ‘I’m doing this for my country. Nobody is foreign in Dubai – there are no “locals”. Everybody who lives here is from Dubai, and we need to take care of each other.’
At the end of a day with EMEG, groups are often able to camp overnight on the beach in Ghantoot, giving them the chance to experience one of the few unspoiled beaches in Dubai. EMEG’s presence ensures there is no litter, and the site offers a deserted sanctuary away from the noise and bustle of the city, with not a crane in sight (or any other people, for that matter).
While focused on marine life, EMEG has also spearheaded other environmental projects. Suweidi tells us that in 2006, his team helped to relocate 4,000 reptiles (including snakes and giant lizards, many of which were endangered) from the area around Dubai Airport to the private wildlife reserve owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai. ‘I spent months fighting companies to translocate these reptiles,’ says Suweidi. ‘My mother was a Bedouin from that place – she lived there all her life and knew all the plants and reptiles.’ His work honours his mother, who recognised the value of nature.
EMEG, while still relatively unknown, has achieved a great deal since its inception three years ago. Removing tons of rubbish from harbours, building artificial reefs to bring more fish to the UAE’s waters (one of which attracted more than 130 types of fish, Suweidi tells us) and even helping Nakheel to relocate an entire coral reef to preserve it from construction work are but a few examples. Suweidi says the latter project, one of the most wildly ambitious we’ve ever heard of and a world first, has been very successful. He says 95 per cent of the relocated coral has survived. ‘You cannot believe it. It’s like magic,’ he adds.
Another ongoing project of Suweidi’s is, of course, Sammy the whale shark. ‘I am against this,’ he says of the shark held captive in the Atlantis hotel’s aquarium. ‘It is very bad to see this kind of thing and I’ve been fighting for more than six months to free it. It would be very good for Dubai.’
Suweidi is also concentrating on cultural projects to preserve the heritage of the UAE. With EMEG, he offers a cultural day teaching people how to make bread like the Bedouins, play traditional games (such as ‘bobbing’ for coins in big bowls of flour) and is even planning to offer pearl diving trips for tourists.
But he says the most important mission for EMEG is to preserve the UAE’s natural environment, whether on land, in the sea, or through heritage. ‘This was a very poor country, and [the new wealth] can all go [at any moment],’ he explains. ‘The culture and the nature, that is what will stay. ’ He smiles. ‘I am more rich than the businessmen because treasure is in the mind.’
EMEG’s activity days are free of charge and take place daily with prior arrangement. The group is also planning to offer pearl diving trips for a fee. Call 04 363 0582 or visit www.emeg.ae for more information.