Marine & Environmental Sciences Faculty Reports


Coral Reef Status in the ROPME Sea Area: Arabian/Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



This report summarises the status of coral reefs in the ROPME Sea Area which includes Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE); there are no coral reefs in Iraq. The region can be split into three parts according to the local marine climate, which strongly influences the nature of the coral communities: the Persian/Arabian Gulf (hereafter called ‘the Gulf’); the Gulf of Oman; and the Arabian Sea.

The Gulf region was amongst the worst affected by coral bleaching events in 1996, 1998 and 2002, which reduced live coral cover in many shallow areas to less than 1%. There has been very little recovery, except in a few areas close to deeper water and away from additional human impacts. Coastal engineering, land reclamation and dredging are causing significant environmental damage along the mainland coast, particularly in UAE and Bahrain, while offshore islands are protected either actively (as MPAs) or passively (as military or industrial zones). Any future coral reef conservation effort must be concentrated on these islands in order to be effective.

Coral communities in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea remain in good condition, due in part to the mitigating effects of the summer monsoon upwelling that cools summer seawater temperatures. Coral cover in the Gulf of Oman is typically 30-40% at depths of 4-12 m, but live cover decreases very rapidly in deeper water. This range is consistent with earlier results and suggests that the condition of corals in the Gulf of Oman has not changed significantly in the past 10 years, although there is considerable temporal variability of live cover at some sites due to crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) outbreaks and periodic recruitment episodes. Unlike the Gulf, coastal industrial development in coral rich areas in Oman does not generally involve large-scale land reclamation or dredging, although the discharge of cooling water is a concern in one area. Fishing remains the major human threat to coral communities in this area.

100 Years ago: Reefs were almost certainly healthy. They were simple reefs, dominated by Acropora (staghorn) corals to about 4-5 m depth, then by massive corals (Porites, faviids) from 5 m to about 10 m. Their diversity was lower than in the Indian Ocean due to natural causes including limited recruitment since the last ice age (Holocene), severe annual variation of temperature, and extreme salinity.

In 1994: Corals remained in similar condition in most areas. However, nearshore substantial construction, landfill, and oil and civil development removed much coastal habitat. This applied to seagrass areas as much as to reefs, though the sedimentation particularly affected the nearshore reefs. There were few activities to conserve and manage coral reef resources. The Jubail Wildlife Sanctuary was the first MPA and it was established after the 1992 Gulf War.

In 2004: Coral bleaching events in 1996 and 1998 had a profound effect on these reefs. The entire shallow water staghorn zones were killed in many areas. In 2004, many of these areas have been reduced to rubble, with no sign of recovery, and the mobile rubble may be impeding new recruitment. Some sites do show some recovery, especially in deeper water where there is significant recruitment of faviid species that were previously relatively minor components of the reefs. Consequently there appears to be a shift in the species that are dominating the Gulf reefs. Levels of estimated reef destruction range widely within the region, from a low of 1% in Oman to a high of 97% in Bahrain. There is rising awareness of coral reef conservation issues, but the region lags well behind much of the rest of the world.

Predictions for 2014: The shallow Acropora reefs are unlikely to recover because forecasts for sea surface temperatures (SST) indicate that future temperatures will be unfavourable for coral growth. Deeper reefs will increase their coral cover, probably with a shift in the dominant species. As has happened in the past, continuing landfill arising from development will add stresses to nearshore reefs, causing further degradation.

Publication Title

Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004




Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville.

edited by Clive Wilkinson

Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network