Toby Smith

The Shifting Sands

Areas of the Middle East are at the tipping point of destroying the natural environment of global migrant species and endemics. Unique, green, pristine, threatened ecosystems lie largely unrepresented or unprotected.  The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are beginning to diversify their economies towards eco-tourism and ecosystem services with vast potential.

There is a long-term goal of promoting wider understanding and capacity building of UK based NGOs and conservation groups and thus supporting sustainable landscape and tourism development.   This photography project and a proposal for extension by Toby Smith explores the potential for partnership and collaboration across the conservation and business sector with links emanating from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Background – Written by Toby Smith

In January 2016 I was invited by NYU Abu Dhabi and the Imagine Film Festival to travel to the United Arab Emirates to produce new photographic works.  I immediately set about researching the wider-area and reaching out through the conservation networks I have access to in Cambridge where I was historically the artist-in-residence at the Cambridge Conservation Institute.

Collaborators and academics at Cambridge, immediately warned me of the grave loss of habitat and  enormous changes to the Arabian Peninsula where incredibly rapid economic growth,  development and urban expansion has destroyed vast swathes of the coastline. 

The loss of coastal habitats of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the greatest threats to global ecology and biodiversity, especially breeding and migratory birds of the West Asia and East Africa and the African-Eurasian flyway. This loss is  coupled with threats to other coastal migratory and localised species including dugongs, turtles, unique flora and fauna and rich ecosystems such as coral reefs. The situation is of immediate and global concern.

A global analysis of Wetlands International and Audubon Count surveys in January 2016 was cross-references with data from 1983 from 24,606 sites in 120 countries.  For the 600+  species that use the Arabian Peninsula, at some point in their life cycle,  451 are in decline. The rate of decline was highest in the Middle East with an 85% decline since 1990 . By 2017  many more  species will have been added to the list of ‘Globally Threatened’ or ‘Near Threatened’ species if habitat loss continues.

The remaining tidal flats and associated coastal habitats of the Arabian Peninsula may currently be one of the two most threatened and important coastal ecosystems in the world.  The intense pressure continues as economic development promotes an extraordinary rate of conversion due to housing, industrial, port and marina development of the coastal zone. Other causes of habitat loss and degradation include a decline in water quality linked to pollution, increasing salinity in the Arabian Gulf and climate change.

A current ecological crisis could catalyse a future economic crisis with loss of vital ecosystem services values such as fisheries, disaster risk reduction, capacity to store carbon (especially mangroves) and tourism. The latter being of critical national strategy where the Arabian Peninsula is attempting to diversify from an oil-based economy.  Habitat loss will have knock-on impacts up and down the West Asia/East Africa Flyway.  At present, awareness of this issue in the Emirates is not high enough on the agenda. 

However, there is hope. Sufficient diversity and scale of sites do remain untouched but many are not yet recognised of classified as protected sites.   These areas now harbour an increased density of migratory and resident wildlife.


Al Wathba Reserve – Exemplary of Optimism and Landscape Protection

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a complex of surface water bodies, both natural and man made, around 40km southeast of central Abu Dhabi,. Established in 1998 by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan it was the first place in the Emirate to be designated for protection by law and was declared a Ramsar site in 2013.  The site has been recognised by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance and joins a list of over 2,000 other internationally recognised wetlands around the world.

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve covers a relatively tiny total area of five square kilometres, comprising wetlands, sabkhas (salt flats), fossilised sands and dunes. Despite its relatively small size, it teems with life. The presence of so many different habitats and types of vegetation within one compact area has attracted more than 250 species of birds along with an abundance of aquatic life and 37 rare plant species.

Even more exemplary than the biodiversity is the fascinating back-story that catalysed the protection of Al Wathba, its sustainable funding and even mandatory inclusion in the UAE school curriculum. Al Wathba historically was nothing more than a water-outflow from one of many desalination plants in the UAE. However, amateur naturalists began exploring the marshes that grew organically amongst the constant stream of saline water that was attracting wildlife.

After several years the marshland was regularly visited by enthusiasts and Emirati’s wishing to get closer to wildlife and the natural landscape. A chance encounter of the Sheikh with the area and his natural understanding of the value of biodiversity led to an immediate funding guarantee to protect and maintain the reserve. 

To Instill Pride of Association,  Optimism and State Protection

The goal foremost of this photography project is to raise awareness of the importance, diversity and value of the remaining habitats that do not yet have the protection or profile of listed UAE nature reserves.  I aspire to diversify the current aesthetic code of UAE away from that of disturbed sand, steel and salt towards a palette that includes  greenery, biodiversity and sustainability.  In so doing I will also be creating a project that will be attractive for both exhibition,  domestic and international publication.

After numerous consultations with various NGOs and environmental groups working in the Middle East it is clear that negative pressure or accusations of environmental abuse by  Western Media will have little effect.  To gain traction or effect positive changes within a state governed by absolute monarchs the imagery and reportage needs to appeal to the value and importance of what remains  not loiter in the melancholy or accusations of what is lost.  Expertise and partnerships need to be developed not fingers waved.

With proven case studies such as Al Wathba, the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx (a desert antelope) and falconry protection groups we know that  Emirati residents and internal policy makers alike yearn for a sense of pride and natural history in their environment long since the passing of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.


Working together with the researchers at Cambridge and in Abu Dhabi we have identified 8 areas of significant natural beauty and bio-diversity across the Emirates. Their visual diversity and aesthetic beauty is profound but they all share the similar risk of not yet having national protection from private development. The photography will focus on the wider ecological value and rich-content of these landscapes.

Exemplary and confirmed sites include:


Musandam Peninsula

Accessed by Sea Kayak Expedition – 4 Days

Sheer limestone mountains,  rising above 2000m, plunge vertically into deep jade coloured creeks.  The network of sheltered coves harbour a rich abundance of aquatic life and can be compared in relief to the Norwegian Fjords.


Khor Kalba Estuary

Accessed by Sea Kayak and Rib – 3 Days

One the UAE’s last remaining estuary habitats, rich in Mangroves and migratory birds.   Khor Kalba is the most significant site of bio-diversity site on the Eastern shore and is immediately threatened by the encroaching development of Kalba city.


Jebel Hafeet Mountain and Surrounds

Accessed by 4×4 and foot – 5 Days

The mountainous centre of the Emirates is perhaps the most unquantified scientifically.  Only last year several insects, reptiles and plants new to science were discovered in the valleys leading from the mountain peaks to the desert floor.  As the UAE road network expands rapidly into the cooler altitudes these remote wadis are being fragmented and made accessible to development.


Bul Sayeef Marine Park Extension

Access with EAD enforcement agents – Helicopter and Rib – 3 Days

Ironically, one of the most important marine conservation sites is within kms of Abu Dhabi downtown. Luxury camping trips, bird hunting and fishing trips plague the reefs and islets that are within range of a weekend’s flotilla of high speed leisure boats. Environment Abu Dhabi have agreed to me accompanying their enforcement team as they challenge and educate those flaunting the new regulations.


Extension of Bu Tinah Nature Reserve

Diving Expedition by Houseboat – 4 Days

Bu Tinah is a tiny archipelago amid extensive coral formations and seagrass beds visited by Dugongs. Bu Tinah Island, rich in biodiversity, lies within the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve with a territory of more than 4,000 km squared. The biosphere reserve is the region’s first and largest UNESCO-designated marine biosphere reserve. Ironically the designation of the reserve and its profile has led to a rapid degradation of the unprotected areas to the North.

Confirmed Project and Academic Partners


University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI)

Toby has recently completed a  year long artist’s residency at the Institute and has been invited to remain as a permanent research associate. This association has the specific goal of fusing photographic output, media publication and public engagement with academic rigour and areas of critical conservation focus.


Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI)

As the host entity to UCCRI,  CCI is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK. It is based in the David Attenborough Building in central Cambridge.

CCI seeks to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity and the natural capital it represents and, through this, secure a sustainable future for all life on Earth. The CCI partners include, critical to this project, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Birdlife International,  IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and the WCMC (World Conservation Monitoring Centre).


NYU ABU DHABI and Imagine Science Film Festival – Abu Dhabi

Imagine Science Film Festival was hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi in February 2016. In this inaugural year Toby was commissioned to shoot a short 4 day project on then UAE coastline. This briefest of commissions is what catalysed this entire project synopsis and begun the relatioonship.

Imagine Science and NYU Abu Dhabi have pledged their continued support of the project including offers of accommodation and a possible exhibition at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Gallery in 2018.


Environment Abu Dhabi (EAD)  – State Conservation Agency

EAD were instrumental in facilitating both knowledge and access to several restricted sites across the UAE during the project preview. This included but was not limited to Al Wathba and Bul a Sayeef. They have pledged their continued support of this project which includes access permits and use of EAD speed-boats and staff for access to protected marine areas.

Established in 1996, EAD is committed to protecting and enhancing air quality, groundwater as well as the biodiversity of the desert and marine ecosystem.


Fotofest – Houston, USA

This ambitious project has the backing in kind of Fotofest – Houston with an interest in exhibiting the work in their 2020 edition.


Confirmed Exhibition Interest in the Final Project


The David Attenborough Building, Cambridge

Jointly organised by Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, Oxford University and Zoological Society of London.  Partnered with Global Earth Optimism Summit, Smithsonian Institute and Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Exhibition at the David Attenborough Building –   this new campus acts as a centre for the Cambridge conservation ‘cluster’ – the largest grouping of nature conservation organisations and university researchers in the world. 


NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery – Abu Dhabi

The NYUAD Art Gallery presents museum-quality exhibitions of art and culture across historical and contemporary topics, with a special emphasis on subjects of both regional concern and international significance. Its curatorial platform supports scholarly and experimental installations, artist’s projects, and landmark exhibitions.

Located at the entrance to NYUAD’s campus, the spacious gallery is equipped for exhibitions in all media, allowing for both experimental and traditional museum installations.  Admission to the Art Gallery is free and open to the public.