As requested by the Committee at its 30th session (Vilnius, 2006) a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN monitoring mission visited the property from 21 to 25 January 2007, including a 2 day field visit. The full mission report is available on the website of the World Heritage Centre. In addition, the State Party submitted a report, received by the World Heritage Centre on 14 March 2007.
The mission noted the efforts and commitment made since 1996 by the State Party to increase the capacity and resources available to address illegal activities in the property. However other problems are significantly jeopardizing the integrity of this property and the values for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List, in particular:
a) Boundaries of the property:
On 12 December 2006, the State Party sent the World Heritage Centre a draft version of a map on the new Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (AOS) boundaries, as requested in previous Committee decisions. The map and accompanying letter indicated an overall proposed new AOS protected area consisting of a 10,503 km2 buffer zone (where hydrocarbon extraction would be permitted) surrounding the proposed newly defined core zone and World Heritage property of 2,824 km2 (where hydrocarbon extraction would not be permitted). These new boundaries would represent a major (90%) size reduction from the current inscribed area of the property (27,500 km2), though retaining a sizeable buffer zone partially dedicated to biodiversity conservation, but allowing other uses which would not be permitted in the World Heritage property. The reduction in size and the change to a buffer zone with uses prohibited in World Heritage properties would not be compatible with wildlife conservation.
The mission was informed that the final and legal new boundary for the property would in fact be formally defined by a Royal Decree to be imminently passed into law. However, the exact nature of the decree was not communicated to the mission, making it impossible to evaluate it against the requirements of World Heritage Convention and Operational Guidelines. Royal Decree No 11/2007 took effect on 28th January 2007, three days after the departure of the mission from Oman and was formally communicated to the World Heritage Centre on 14 March. It reduces the AOS to an area of 2,824 km2, and formally identifies these new boundaries as those of the World Heritage property. There is no mention of a buffer zone, as had been proposed in the draft map provided to the World Heritage Centre. It needs to be pointed out that the procedure followed by the State Party is in violation of the Operational Guidelines, which requires the Committee to review and approve any proposed boundary changes before they become effective, based on an assessment by IUCN on how the proposed changes might affect Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) and integrity of the property. In particular, any significant boundary modification requires the State Party to submit a new nomination for consideration by the Committee through the regular nomination process (Operational Guidelines paragraph 165).
In the current situation, the entire area of 27,500 km2 continues to be a World Heritage property, as inscribed by the Committee, whereas under Omani law, the AOS now consists of only an area of 2,824 km2, while the lands previously considered as the AOS World Heritage property are now under no particular conservation regime and open to other uses.
The new boundaries for the AOS closely reflect the boundaries of surrounding hydrocarbon concession blocks. No evidence has been provided to IUCN or to the World Heritage Centre that the boundary redefinition takes into consideration key ecological, species or protected area management requirements as per the original nomination dossier of the property which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994. Such a drastic reduction in area is no longer adequate to guarantee the conservation of the values for which the property was inscribed on the World Heritage List and also raises serious questions as to the continuing integrity of the property and consequently, the potential for deletion from the World Heritage List.
b) Arabian Oryx and other key species status and management:
The mission observed a general declining trend in the status of key species, including the Arabian Oryx, the Arabian Gazelle and the Houbara Bustard, but with exception of the Nubian Ibex. The broader causal factors appear to be a combination of reduced availability of food sources due to poor regeneration caused by intense off-road traffic (the AOS is extremely flat and accessible almost in its entirety by off-road vehicles – resulting in fairly intense use, as evidenced by many tyre tracks in all sectors visited by the team); competition for food sources from domestic camel and goat herds, and continued on-site poaching, particularly for the Arabian Gazelle, the Arabian Oryx (the latter driven by collectors of live animals within the broader peninsular region), and the Houbara bustard throughout its large migratory range. The Centre was later informed of the draft Agreement on the Conservation of the Asian Houbara Bustard, developed by the range states of this species under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species, which remains un-ratified after several years. The mission was informed that aerial anti-poaching surveillance would soon be implemented in the area, and that the agreement under consideration between Oman and neighbouring states on environmental matters, which in part related to the trafficing of Arabian Oryx, was an internal issue, and did not provide further details.
The most recent monitoring results of the Arabian Oryx reveals a total wild population of 65 animals, but there is only one wild breeding herd comprising 4 females and 4 males. This contrasts to the situation of a wild Oryx population of 450 at the time of inscription.
Given the reduced protected range, the very low number of females of breeding age, the intense browsing pressure from domestic livestock and the on-going threat of poaching, the probability of extinction in the medium-term of this isolated wild population of Arabian Oryx is high. It must be noted that the Arabian Oryx Project maintains a population of approximately 250 Arabian Oryx, mostly female, within a well guarded 2 km2 enclosure in the heart of the AOS.
c) Property management, and institutional issues:
Many of the management issues affecting the property noted in the 2000 mission report are continuing or have increased in significance. These included the rapidly evolving settlement infrastructure along main road networks within the existing AOS boundaries, evidence of high livestock grazing-browsing pressure and the pervasive impacts throughout much of the AOS as a result of use by off-road vehicles. These aspects are both indicative of the rapidly changing socio-economic and development realities of the country and symptomatic of the urgent need to address these changes in a planning and adaptive management framework that involves the various agencies and local communities living in the area.
Management of the property is nominally under the responsibility of the Ministry of Rural Municipalities, Environment and Water. However, it appears that this Ministry has not prioritized the protected area component of its mandate and as a result, is not capable of fielding any staff to the property and effectively providing any control on activities there. On the other hand, the Arabian White Oryx Project, under the jurisdiction of the Royal Diwan, which originally focused on captive breeding and re-introduction of Arabian Oryx into the wild, has enjoyed long standing and strong support from the Royal Diwan and from external donors. Over time, it has expanded its range of activities to include broader management issues and currently has a staff of over 50 people and an important fleet of vehicles.
The 2000-2005 management plan was never formally approved and remained largely un-implemented. There is no current management plan in effect. A 5-year self-imposed moratorium on hydrocarbon exploration and drilling has come to an end.
d) Deletion from the World Heritage List:
The mission was informed that oil and gas exploration activities were planned to begin imminently on land immediately outside the newly proposed (2,824 km2) boundaries, but within the (27,500 km2) property as inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994. The mission informed the State Party representatives that the original 1994 property boundaries remain the only formal boundaries recognized by the Committee and added that any incompatible activities within these original boundaries would be considered a violation of the Convention and its Operational Guidelines. The World Heritage Centre followed this up by formal letter sent on 22 March 2007.
A response from the State Party, received by the Centre on 12 April2007, invites the Committee to delete the property from the World Heritage List during its 31st session, and commits itself to conserve the Arabian Oryx and ensure the viability of the sanctuary. Also in this correspondence, the State Party states that once new boundaries (including buffer zone) and a comprehensive management plan have been established, a new nomination can be submitted, if this is acceptable.