Middle East
29 Oct 2018

The Middle East: sorting fact from fiction

Shattering common myths about the Middle East with the power of nature conservation

Much more than just desert © Saida Shigapova, Shutterstock
By Dima Obeidat

Many misconceptions have crept into international media representations of the Middle East, making this region one of the most misunderstood in the world. Here we bust six myths with examples from our conservation work in the region.

First things first, what exactly is the Middle East?

The term has been applied to a mix of countries and regions and, like shifting sand dunes, it does not have clear-cut political boundaries [see factfile for a current list of states]. Sharif Jbour, from BirdLife's Middle East office based in Amman, Jordan, says: “The Middle East is perceived by many nations as countries of the Arabian Peninsula along with Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt. To some, it’s known as the cradle of civilisation and the origin of Abrahamic religions; to others a region of ever-lasting conflict; and to many a land of desert and oil. The term itself and its origination is controversial, and is criticised for being ‘Eurocentric’. Economically, it contains some of the world’s richest countries as well as among the poorest.”

1. The Middle East is one big stretch of desert

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East is made up of many different ‘ecoregions’ that offer a vast array of fascinating species and breathtaking topography. “These include misty Eastern Mediterranean conifer-broadleaf forests,” says Jbour, “where conservationists are conserving giant Lebanese cedar trees; dry Syrian xeric grasslands and shrublands; and high-altitude montane woodlands and grasslands – where the majority of the Middle East’s endemic flora and fauna occur, including a subspecies of Arabian Leopard.
”Yes, there’s plenty of desert, but it is equally diverse in its biological classification: Mesopotamian shrub desert, East Arabian fog shrublands and sand desert, and four types of Arabian desert. But you can also venture into the Wadis of Jordan where canyoning, ecotourism and wildlife depend on the crystal-clear waters; or to the coral reefs off the Arabian Peninsula that shelter sharks, turtles and cuttlefish.

Wadi Mujib, Jordan © RSCN

2. The region is too full of conflict to be concerned with conservation

With the civil war in Syria, the growing refugee crisis, and the unstable situation in Iraq and Yemen, it can be easy to see only the negatives in the region. But nature – be it its variety and beauty, or the services it provides – has a way of bringing people together in hope.
Take a project recently launched in the West Bekaa region of Lebanon, which is rekindling a traditional Islamic method of land management called Hima to empower young people to become leaders of change in the protection of their water resources, whilst conserving local natural habitats. Or a project in Faqou**, a very poor and arid area in Jordan, where hydroponic technology is being used collectively to secure food for the local people’s livestock. By relieving pressure on the land, wildlife like the Nubian Ibex Capra nubiana is thriving as a result. Just this year, BirdLife brought scientists, politicians and donors to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates for the first ever international Flyways Summit, which was based on a collaborative approach that promotes the conservation of migratory birds across borders.

3. Middle Eastern women are oppressed and passive

Of course, this is far from the truth; many women in the Middle East are well-educated, ambitious and influential members of society with key jobs at conservation organisations in the region. Full of ambition and spirit, Professor Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat perfectly embodies the role of a female leader in the Middle East. As the Chair of the Life and Earth Science department in Saint Joseph University, Kharrat is a woman of many roles, including lecturer, plant geneticist and co-founder of Jouzour Loubnan, an NGO that reforests degraded land in Lebanon. Her work has also helped to create unique Plant Micro-reserves in Lebanon** to protect endangered plants such as the Sofar Iris: “As scientists, we have a role to spread awareness about the unique richness of the area and to build the skills of local people to manage and protect their biodiversity,” she says.

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Professor Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat at Ehmej Plant Micro-reserve, Lebanon © Olivier Langrand


4. The Dead Sea area is devoid of life

Although its name implies otherwise, the Dead Sea isn’t lifeless at all; birds like Arabian Babbler Argya squamiceps and Dead Sea Sparrow Passer moabiticus, both threatened by habitat loss, are adapted to life in the dry lowlands and shrubs around its waters.
Here, despite harsh, dry conditions, a society of Jordanian farmers has joined efforts with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN, BirdLife in Jordan) to replant native trees, making a safe haven for these birds, whilst helping to ensure a sustainable water supply. Now called Sweimeh Eco-Park, the people of Sweimeh view this project** as a representation of their “confiscated” heritage. “For decades, we have been forced to retreat from areas we used to cultivate and farm, while powerful companies replaced our farms with luxury hotels and resorts. That’s why Sweimeh Eco-Park is so important to us; its birds and trees represent our heritage and culture,” says Khalid Al-Ja’arat, President of Sweimeh Association Charity.

Nature aplenty in West Bekka Hima © Fouad Itani

5. The Middle East is all about oil

Even though the region is considered the largest producer of oil, there has been a noticeable growth in the renewable energy sector. Governments across the Middle East have committed to renewable energy targets as part of their energy mix. This will result in the construction of more wind farms and powerlines across the landscape, which may harm soaring birds that pass through the region. The BirdLife Migratory Soaring Birds Project was created to support the region’s transition to renewable energy whilst also considering bird and other biodiversity concerns.

6. The Middle East is not a priority when it comes to biodiversity conservation

The Middle East is a major bridge connecting three continents, so is an incredibly important flyway for migratory birds. No less than 400 Key Biodiversity Areas in the Middle East are identified specifically to inform the conservation of priority species and their habitat, including rare species like Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius (Critically Endangered). BirdLife in the Middle East is also growing as conservation priorities emerge, with nine Partners and affiliates, and over 14 projects granted by CEPF** in the region, some of which reach remote communities that have not had the capacity to defend their causes before. There is a growing movement of civil society here to make a difference, as well as shattering a few misconceptions along the way.

**denotes projects funded by CEPF (the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund). In the CEPF Mediterranean Biodiversity Hotspot, BirdLife International, its Middle East Office and Partners DOPPS and LPO are the Regional Implementation Team. Find out more at www.birdlife.org/cepf-med