Abu Dhabi, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – In the Persian Gulf region, only water can be more precious than oil, and Arab leaders are taking steps to protect their supply from possible sabotage by al-Qaeda militants or attacks by another potential foe.
Abu Dhabi, in particular, is taking no chances.
In October, the wealthiest emirate of the United Arab Emirates federation launched a pilot for the world’s largest underground reservoir, with 26 million cubic meters of desalinated water. Officials say they aim to protect it from oil spills or plant breakdowns, but others cite security fears.
Diminishing natural groundwater is a fundamental threat to Gulf Arab states. Abu Dhabi and its fellow emirates would have only four days of water if desalination plants were damaged.
“A desalination plant is a large factory sitting on the coast, something that you could easily blow up with a bomb or a missile. You could bring the country to its knees,” said Hady Amr of the Brookings Doha Center.
Abu Dhabi’s massive aquifer project is buried beneath the scorching sands of the Empty Quarter, a desert stretching from the UAE to Saudi Arabia. The completed reservoir will store 90 days of rationed water for its citizens.
Now, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman are interested in making aquifers, too, the project’s developers and analysts said.
“Iran and Iraq have rivers. We [other Gulf states] don’t. So in the future, they have the upper hand,” said Sami al-Faraj of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies.
The UAE risks depleting groundwater within 50 years at current consumption rates. Desalination capacity, which Abu Dhabi has quadrupled in the last 10 years, is at risk from natural disasters and oil spills in the Strait of Hormuz, where 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes.
“We need strategic storage against any type of emergency. We have no specific crisis in mind,” said Mohammed Dawoud, head of Water Resources at Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency.
But two sources close to the long-discussed project, to be built by the Arabian Construction and POSCO Engineering and Construction companies, said the project was also spurred on by growing fear of attack.
“They are concerned about unfriendly acts. It takes only a little effort to shut (a plant) down,” one source said.
Many see Gulf Arab states’ water scarcity as an Achilles’ heel. Saudi Arabia even considered transporting icebergs from the South Pole for water.
Gulf Arab countries are among prime targets of the global militant network al-Qaeda, which has an aggressive wing based in nearby Yemen. Several Gulf nations also fear the possibility of attack from Iran, their non-Arab Shiite neighbor. Cables released by WikiLeaks showed the extent of Gulf Arab states’ anxiety over Iran.
The UAE might be known for whimsical schemes, from artificial palm-shaped islands to Ferrari-themed amusement parks, but Abu Dhabi’s aquifer plan is no vanity project.
“We can’t plan (Abu Dhabi’s) Ferrari World and not think about water supply, or a World Cup in Qatar and not water,” Faraj said.
Although energy facilities are the most probable target for international impact, an attack on water resources could cripple a Gulf Arab state like the UAE.
“They don’t have any alternative to desalination plants,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Of their many vulnerabilities, this one is their most acute.