The United Arab Emirates Today: Abu Dhabi Has Been Converted from Desert Land to a Land of Gardens

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THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES TODAY: Abu Dhabi Has Been Converted From Desert Land To a Land of Gardens

By Habeeb Salloum

Virtually unknown to the vast majority of people in the outside world, a large slice of the United Arab Emirates has been transformed from scorching desert lands into fields of greenery. The dream of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the country's architect and long-time president, of turning his country into a green and productive land, is daily being fulfilled.

In Arabia, as in all other arid lands from time immemorial, the desert dwellers have dreamed of making their barren soil green. In an illustration of that dream, the very conception of Paradise held by the Muslims is a land of green trees and flowing streams--an image that could only have emerged, as did Islam, from the desert fastness of Arabia. Sheikh Zayed has turned this vision into a living reality by investing oil revenues in the billions.

Since the dawn of history, the region of Arabia now called the UAE has been one of the most arid places on earth. There is little rainfall and not one river system is to be found in the whole country. For millennia the land has been barren--that is, until the UAE gained its independence in 1971.

Some two decades of dedicated work to change the harsh environment of the country has reversed desertification to an appreciable degree. Thousands of square kilometers of arid land have been reclaimed from the desert and transformed into life-giving soil.

When, in 1971, Sheikh Zayed became president, the country had only 2,530 hectares (6,250 acres) of cultivated land. Calling on foreign advisers to suggest ways of reclaiming desert land, he received no satisfaction. They all advised that the local climate was not conductive to farming. In Sheikh Zayed's own words: "Foreign experts told us that it was impossible to plant anything in our harsh and hostile terrain. We told them `Let us try.'"

Not heeding the experts' advice, Sheikh Zayed allotted funds for vast reclamation projects to increase the agriculture and forested areas. By the early 1990s, thousands of hectares had been brought under the plough and the green expanse in the country had grown extensively--470,000 hectares (1,616,370 acres) now are being cultivated.

The transformation of vast stretches of barren desert into waving fields of wheat and orchards laden with fruit, and towns with streets of sand into garden cities is virtually unmatched in the annals of mankind. Today, the people look with pride upon their achievements in agriculture that have made their barren soil into a land producing fodder, fruit and vegetables.

Due to the cultivation of the land and generous subsidies to farmers, food production has increased by leaps and bounds. The number of farms, which the government prepares and gives free to farmers, has increased from 7,759 to 20,000 over the past few decades. The total of vegetables produced has risen from 20,000 tons in the early 1970s to 538,000 tons in 1992.

This has made the UAE self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables that can be produced in the region, which comprise 60 percent of all of its agricultural needs. Among other local crops, beans, cucumbers, eggplants and peppers not only are now grown on reclaimed land, but in 4,000 greenhouses--built at no charge by the government for local farmers--which dot the country.

There is even a surplus of some commodities for export. UAE watermelons and tomatoes are sold throughout the Gulf states and UAE strawberries and cut flowers are to be found in many Europeans markets. In addition, new crops like button mushrooms and olives have been introduced and are thriving.

In 1977 the UAE had fewer than 2 million palms, producing some 30,000 tons of dates. By 1993 the number of date palms had risen to nearly 21 million--and still is increasing by 200,000 trees annually--producing more than 250,000 tons of dates. This has made the country one of the most important date producers in the world and has given rise to a whole new date-processing industry. …