Science diplomacy sails on at the Red Sea against headwinds

Divers take coral samplings on shallow water reefs of the gulf of Aqaba. (Credit: Transnational Red Sea Center/Guilhem Banc-Prandi)

Scientists from Switzerland, Jordan, Israel, Sudan and soon Djibouti have joined efforts to study and ultimately protect the Red Sea's heat-resistant corals.

The Red Sea is one of the busiest sea routes of the planet and a breeding ground for geopolitical tensions. Mistrust and suspicion among bordering countries are commonplace in this sea water inlet that separates Africa's eastern coast from the Arabian peninsula. A Swiss-led project involving local scientists has been working for the past year to dispel some of that animosity to protect the Red Sea’s unique heat-resistant corals.

Launched by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in 2019, the Transnational Red Sea Center is an initiative allying science and diplomacy. So far, researchers from Switzerland, Jordan, Israel and, more recently, Sudan have joined forces to map out and study the coral reef along the gulf of Aqaba, on the northern tip of the Red Sea. A first trip to Djibouti is planned in the coming weeks, while there are ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to get them onboard.

The Red Sea’s unique corals

While corals across the globe have been deteriorating from the rise in sea temperatures, the Red Sea corals have shown to withstand an increase of one to two degrees celsius above the summer maximum. Understanding their heat-resistant capacity could provide some insight into protecting these essential marine ecosystems in other parts of the world.

But climate change is not the only threat out there. Rapid growth in tourism and pollution in the region is causing harm to these tough survivors.

Read also: Science diplomacy to save the Red Sea corals

“If we do something to try to save these unique corals from local environmental stress and destruction, we have to do it on a regional scale. This is an inescapable fact,” professor Anders Meibom, head of the Biological Geochemistry Laboratory at the EPFL and initiator of the TRSC, told Geneva Solutions.

First steps taken

The Red Sea has become the stage for a number of regional and international conflicts. Between the war in Yemen, the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict, disputes over the Nile river, and the military presence of foreign powers, such as Iran, Russia, the United States, China and France, confrontation can flare up at any time in the region.

Through Swiss diplomatic efforts, the project has slowly been making progress over the last year, despite an initial setback when the centre’s research vessel crashed a few days after setting sail over the summer 2021. Underwater monitoring stations have been set up off the coast of Jordan and Israel.

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A monitoring station set up underwater in the gulf of Aqaba. (Credit: Transnational Red Sea Center/Guilhem Banc-Prandi)

“We have deployed monitoring stations in Aqaba and Eilat that measure directly the physiological performance of the corals,” said Maoz Fine from the Israeli Interuniversity Institute of Marine Science in Eilat. The two stations are linked and provide real time, open source data, Fine told Geneva Solutions, noting that he was “proud” of the accomplishment. Fine is the discoverer of the corals’ ability to thrive in high temperatures and one of the instigators of the project.

The two port cities have also made official their collaboration by reactivating their integrated coastal zone management, which had been halted since 2006, according to Meibom. “I can say without exaggerating that the transnational red sea centre has clearly played a role in making that happen,” said the Swiss scientist.

Troubled waters ahead

But the collaboration between the two neighbours faces its fair share of difficulties. Despite a peace accord dating from 1994 and a recent strengthening of economic ties, Israel and Jordan’s diplomatic relations remain extremely fragile. A recent attack on Gaza by Israeli forces that resulted in at least 15 people killed sparked outcry in social media and in the streets of Amman in Jordan, where 60 per cent of the population has Palestinian origins, with calls to cut economic ties with Israel.

“Instability is not good for science, so a neutral umbrella under which we can operate in any case is really important,” said Fine. Expanding the project to other parts of the region has proven even harder.

“The political situation is such that even for the Transnational Red Sea Center at the moment it’s not easy to operate with or without the Israelis,” he said. “They're still making their way into operating in neighbouring countries. There's so much suspicion going on that it's not not easy.”

Science diplomacy, a long process

While the researchers admit that the project has been slow in getting off the ground – partly because it has had trouble gathering the necessary funds –, the project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Swiss authorities.

“All the ambassadors in the region have been outstanding, opening doors at the highest political level. This is of course, something that we as scientists will never ever have access to alone,” said Meibom.

So far, talks with Sudan and Djibouti have been fruitful and should lead to more monitoring stations along the countries’ coastlines hooked to Eilat and Aqaba. There are ongoing discussions with the more reticent actors, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but participants refuse to comment out of fear it could foil the attempts.

Swiss ambassador for science diplomacy, Alexandre Fasel, who is overseeing diplomatic efforts, doesn’t disclose any details either, but assures that he feels “confident” about the outcomes.

Meibom is hopeful that economic interests will make a convincing argument: “If you are about to build a major hotel chain project, like Saudi Arabia is planning to do, you’d want to know if one of the biggest attractions of the investment, which is coral reefs in this case, will be alive in 20 or 50 years. I would like to know that before I put a billion into it!”

Will the Swiss defuse years of tensions between these countries once and for all? Fasel cautions about being too overly ambitious: “You cannot just take a scientific project, and at once solve all the tensions and all the challenges of a hugely complex region. So it's really about compartmentalising things. First things first: Let’s make sure the scientific project can be conducted in cooperation with and amongst all the coastline states.”

However, he points to the opportunities that the initiative could open up in the future. “Once you have a science project like this one conducted successfully, a space of common purpose is created among the participants. That may lead to countries agreeing on shared interests, for example on protection measures for the corals. But it also builds trust among the participants, which then can open a window for further cooperation on other issues. But that is a slow process and we must be patient.”

Meibom is not not too worried about the time frame either. “The transnational Red Sea Center is really a decade's vision because that is the timescale on which climate change is affecting ecosystems,” he said.