UAE tackles plastic bag threat to wildlife

Despite its modern trappings, this desert region is a traditional, patriarchal society


It is a classic movie moment. An impossibly youthful Dustin Hoffman has recently finished college, in Mike Nicholson’s film The Graduate , when a friend of the family calls him discreetly aside and tells him in the most solemn tones: “I just want to say one word to you. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

Bad advice, Dustin, at least as far as the manufacture and sale of plastic shopping bags is concerned. Here in Ireland, a levy of 15 cent was introduced in March 2002 and this went up to 22 cent in July 2007, the idea being to reduce litter.

Now the United Arab Emirates is getting in on the act and its ministry of environment and water has announced a ban on the circulation and marketing of non-biodegradable plastic products by the beginning of next year.

The effect of plastic bags on marine life is one of the factors behind the ban. A short film called The Turtle – which can be viewed online at – shows how these wonderful creatures tend to consume the bags, thinking they are food. The plastic raises their buoyancy to such an extent they can no longer dive and they starve to death.

Following the death of Pearl, his father’s favourite turtle, in this manner, the star of the film, played by Ahmad Al Dahouri (14), launches a campaign against plastic bags. The message is that more than 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic in the ocean.

However, the initial moves to ban plastic bags in the UAE came when studies indicated they were the cause of up to 50 per cent of the deaths of camels in that desert land.

Camels choked
Experts at the ministry said examination of the remains of camels in the desert region of Falaj Mualla in 1997 showed the animals had choked after swallowing plastic bags.

Noel Dempsey of Fianna Fáil was the minister who brought in the plastic bag levy in Ireland. As well as reducing litter, it turned out to be a nice earner for the Revenue who took in €3.5 million between its introduction on March 4th and the end of June 2002. Northern Ireland is going one further and, as of April 8th next, a levy of 5p applies to plastic and paper bags there.

The UAE is a good place to get in touch with your inner Lawrence – or indeed Laura – of Arabia. As well as turtles and camels, it has a great tradition of falconry. This has provided an excellent means of hunting down a supplement to the meagre diet available in the desert.

The handler hid in a hole in the sand to catch the falcon. A leather hood was placed initially over the eyes of the bird as part of the taming process. The falconer named his falcon and in the first few weeks of training remained with the creature at all times so that a strong bond of trust would develop.

The chief quarry of the falcon was the Houbara Bustard – that’s a “u” not an “a”. The meat from the latter was regarded as an aphrodisiac and perhaps that is one of the reasons it is now almost extinct as a wildlife bird in the UAE.

Nowadays, falconry is controlled by law and the falcons are returned to the wild after the hunting season. Prior to their release they are given a medical check-up at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which was established in 1999 and is said to be the largest institution of its kind in the world.

For all its modern trappings, this is a traditional, patriarchal society. It is a federation of seven hereditary sheikhdoms. Theconsultative assembly, the Federal National Council, consists of 40 members, 20 of whom go through an electoral process.

Women have played a limited role in political life. That is changing and earlier this year Dr Amal Al Qubaisi (43) became the first woman to chair a session of the council.

An architect by profession, she studied for her PhD at the University of Sheffield. In 2006, she became the first woman to be elected to the council. “Many approached me to say: ‘Don’t waste your time,’” she recalls. She said to herself at the time: “You have a 100-to-one chance.” But she made it in the end. “I felt it was a win for the UAE women. People believe in us.”

Subsequently named deputy speaker, she strongly supported a supreme court ruling giving a woman the right to travel abroad with her children even if her husband objected. Energetic and articulate, she is a new voice from the Middle East and a pioneer in UAE terms.

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