Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gulf haven for exotic species

Gulf haven for exotic species
By Jonathan Fryer
BBC News

The Hawar Islands off the Gulf state of Qatar actually belong to nearby Bahrain, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice four years ago. The islands are potentially rich in oil and the Qatari authorities are still very angry about the decision. But, as Jonathan Fryer discovered, one beneficiary of the dispute has been the wildlife of the region.

Map showing Qatar, Bahrain and the Hawar Islands

The 16 islets of the Hawar archipelago used to be a favoured base for pearl fishing.

In the days before oil, pearls were the major source of wealth for Bahrain and its near neighbour Qatar. But the natural pearl trade collapsed in the 1930s, in the face of competition from cheaper, cultured pearls from Japan.

These days the bitter life of the divers, who would plunge into the sea at the height of summer in search of pearl-bearing oysters, is just a distant memory.

But Bahrain's ruler, King Hamad, likes to talk of the Hawar Islands as the "priceless pearls of Bahrain".

That is not just because Bahrain has consistently rebuffed efforts by Qatar to gain sovereignty of the islands.

Flora and fauna

Since 1996, Hawar has been Bahrain's most important nature reserve and the archipelago offers both naturalists and eco-tourists a rich diversity of birds, animals and sea creatures that is most unusual for the region.

Socotra cormorant (Image: Tommy Pedersen)
It is only a 45-minute ride yet one still gets the feeling of arriving somewhere tremendously remote

Indeed, the flora and fauna of Hawar have been the main beneficiaries of the stand-off between Bahrain and Qatar over the islands' ownership.

Oil and gas exploration has been kept at bay and the wildlife has been allowed to thrive. This includes a spectacular colony of Socotra cormorants, estimated to be 200,000-strong, which cover the sea like a vast rain-cloud when they take off.

Herds of dugongs or sea cows - some of which can reach three metres long - ply the coastal waters, grazing on sea-grass.

There are even Arabian oryx, the twin-horned antelope that had become extinct in the wild but which have been reintroduced in various sanctuaries in the Gulf region, including Hawar.

Officially the Hawar Islands are uninhabited, as far as humans are concerned. But that is not strictly true.

Separatist movement

Qatari offshore oil rig
Oil is the main export of both Bahrain and Qatar

The Bahrain Defence Force maintains a garrison there, just to make sure that the Qataris do not suddenly get frisky. Or that some individual or group does not settle on the islands and declare them independent.

That is not as fanciful a notion as it might sound, as one can find a putative Hawar Islands separatist flag posted on the internet.

So the soldiers run around the spectacularly barren landscape, keeping their eyes open for any intruder.

And there are several dozen other humans who work and sleep on the main island - the staff of a small but comfortable hotel resort that the Bahrainis have recently developed, catering for locals and foreign visitors alike.

Access to the resort is by speedboat from the jetty at Dur, on the main island of Bahrain.

It is only a 45-minute ride, yet one still gets the feeling of arriving somewhere tremendously remote.

The hotel and its large swimming pool, flanked by towering water-chutes, stand out incongruously against the natural backdrop.

Beyond the resort's perimeter fence, army jeeps scud by.

Culture clash

Bahraini families predominate among the guests, especially at weekends. Some appear totally westernised - the youngsters in particular, dressed in jeans and baseball caps.

From deep within the black shroud of the wife, a gurgle of laughter emerged that turned into a torrent of mirth, echoed by seabirds passing overhead
But there are also more traditional groups. The young wife who sat with her husband and two children at the table next to mine at lunch the other day was completely shrouded in an enveloping black robe.

And as she was wearing sunglasses, one couldn't even see her eyes. She had to lift up the long black face-veil that hung from above her nose every time she wanted to transfer a forkful of food into her mouth.

I wondered how this modest Islamic lady would react to the Filipina woman who had come out to Hawar that morning on the same speedboat as myself.

A very glamorous woman, she was accompanied by an unusually plain teenage daughter. As for the mother, age had not withered her, and designer clothes - including massive white platform shoes - added to her look.

She had enough luggage to sink the boat. Once installed in the hotel, she kept disappearing, only to re-emerge in yet another stunning outfit.

Exotic species

After lunch at the pool, the Bahraini family was again sitting near me, the husband and children in swimming costumes, but the wife still completely covered.

Then the Filipina arrived, swathed in a black fishnet robe, an attendant padding behind her with a pile of towels.

Her hair was immaculate and around her neck hung a splendid string of pearls. She peeled off the fishnet robe to reveal a bathing costume that would have turned heads even in Rio de Janeiro, as it totally exposed her buttocks.

I looked over to the family to watch their reaction, expecting some expression of outrage.

But instead, from deep within the black shroud of the wife, a gurgle of laughter emerged that turned into a torrent of mirth, echoed by seabirds passing overhead.

Undeterred, the Filipina - still in her pearls - stepped gracefully into the water, as the Hawar Islands welcomed another exotic species into its midst.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 June, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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