‘Uruq Bani Mu’arid Protected Area
Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO
Riyadh and Najran Regions (Imarah)
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‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid is one the largest Protected Areas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with around 12,000 Sq. Km. It was established by a Royal Decree in 1995 for the purpose of protecting the natural landscapes of the Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali desert and to be home for the reintroduction of the flagship species of Arabia including the Arabian Oryx, Al Reem Gazelle and others, all within their original natural habitats from which they were extinct in the past.
Uruq Bani Mu’arid is located on the western edge of the great sand desert of Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali, south of the great Tuwayq Escarpment within the Riyadh and Najran Regions of the country, some 700 km to the south of the capital of Riyadh. The nearest large city is the city Najran some 300 km to the south of the protected area, and several nearby towns and villages are distantly located to the north west of the area including Al Sulayyel, Wadi Al Dawasir, and Sultanah.
The protected area is totally state owned with recognition of traditional use rights mainly related to camel grazing. The area is managed by the Saudi Wildlife Authority, the national agency mandated with the establishment and management of the national protected areas system plan since 1986. To date, there are fifteen protected areas established by the authority throughout the country.
The area is classified into three management zones each corresponding to one or more of IUCN protected areas categories according to their management objectives and use control measures. This includes Natural Reserve (IUCN 1a Strict Nature Reserve, II National Park: ecosystem conservation and recreation); Resource Use Reserve (IUCN VI Managed Resource Protected Area: sustainable use of natural ecosystems), Controlled Hunting Reserve (IUCN V and VI Managed Resource Protected Area: sustainable use of natural ecosystems).
Under the national management classification arrangements, the protected area is divided into three zones: a core Natural Reserve with around 30% of the total area, Managed Grazing Zone with around 30% of the total area, and a wider Controlled Hunting Reserve (no hunting zone) with around 40% of the protected area.
A development buffer zone is currently being considered to the east and west of the protected area with the aim to mitigate possible urban development to the west and natural resource use to the east.
There are eight management stations with more than one hundred fulltime staff deployed for the area management. The team is equipped with more than twenty off-road vehicles and full-coverage radio communication. The area is also part the aerial monitoring system administered for key protected area by the authority.
An updated management plan for the area is currently under preparation and is foreseen to be completed and endorsed by the national authorities by the end of 2019.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Iconic Landscape: ‘Uruq Bani Ma‘arid is situated along the western edge of Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, renowned as probably the largest continuous sand sea on Earth and the only major tropical sand desert of Asia. Further, Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali desert embraces the best representation of the iconic wilderness of Arabia, however, with a greater ecological integrity than other large areas of Arabia as it was not subject to overgrazing historically.
Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali is one of the Earth’s most spectacular desert landscapes, with perhaps the world’s largest longitudinal sand dunes, overlying the southern end of the limestone Tuwayq Escarpment. Uruq Bani Ma’arid Protected Area harbors greater biological diversity than all other parts of the Empty Quarter, with a range of habitats including sand dunes, limestone cuesta, vegetated wadis, gravel plains, and inter-dune corridors.
Fauna: ‘Uruq Bani Ma‘arid is currently the focus of the most successful reintroduction program for Arabian Oryx in the world, and is probably the last place where Arabian Oryx were observed in the wild. Further, the area harbors large viable populations of the Arabian sand gazelle (al-Reem), and mountain gazelle (al-Idmi).
Ostrich eggshells are found in the area, and a reintroduction experiment of the ostrich was recently undertaken using the closest living relative of the native species. Other important faunal taxa in the area include the Asian Houbara, Lappet-faced Vulture, Ruppell’s Sand Fox, Sand Cat, Rub‘ al-Khali Hare (an endemic subspecies of Cape Hare). Endemic and near-endemic reptiles also occur in the area such as Jayakar’s Sand Boa, Arabian Sand Skink, Small-scaled Dhabb, and Desert Monitor.
Flora: the flora of the sand dunes is characterized by Arabian endemic dominant plant species and subspecies, such as Calligonum crinitum ssp. arabicum, Cornulaca arabica, Tribulus macropterus var. arabicus, and Limeum arabicum. Other common species include Cyperus conglomeratus, C. macrorrhizus, Haloxylon persicum.
The flora of the limestone cuesta is characterized by Acacia tortilis, A. oerfota, A. ehrenbergiana, and A. hamulosa with stands of Ziziphus spina-christi var. divaricata, Maerua crassifolia, Moringa peregrina, and Commiphora myrrha, as well as Leptadenia pyrotechnica, Haloxylon salicornicum, Ephedra foliate. The area is also home to a wide range of herbaceous and annual plants as well as Grasses, which are uncommon in Ar-Rub‘ al-Khali, including Panicum turgidum, Lasiurus scindicus, Centropodia fragilis, and Stipagrostis drarii.
‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected area is considered an important plant are as it includes globally threatened taxa including the endemic Ziziphus spina-christi var. divaricate for which the protected area is the only known place of record in the world. The area also includes national endemic, near endemic, regional endemic and range-restricted species, including Limeum arabicum, Cornulaca arabica, Calligonum crinitum ssp. arabicum, and Tribulus macropterus var. arabicus.
Cultural Heritage: in addition to its globally significant natural heritage, Uruq Bani Ma’arid has an noteworthy significance of associated cultural heritage including the historical village of the al-Faw which is believed to be the capital of the first Kingdom of Kindah. The archeological site reveals various features such a residential areas, roads, cemeteries, wells, equipment and tools.
Criterion (vii): Uruq Bani Ma’arid represents a superlative natural phenomena and areas of exceptional natural beauty of the iconic landscape of Arabia; with its spectacular sand dunes riding on the great Tuwayq Escarpment. The area represents the globally significant geomorphic feature of the largest sand sea on Earth; possibly containing the largest longitudinal sand dunes on the planet. The area is believed to have the only free-living population of the Arabia Oryx, largest free-living population of al-Reem Gazelle in their natural landscape, thus forming a unique case for the unique portrait of the desert.
Criterion (ix): the area embraces a number of globally significant on-going ecological and biological processes related to the evolution and development of terrestrial ecosystems and communities of endemic Arabian desert plants, all functioning in severely harsh climatic conditions including Limeum arabicum, Cornulaca arabica, Calligonum crinitum ssp. arabicum, Tribulus macropterus var. arabicus and Ziziphus spina-christi var. divaricate.
Criterion (x): the area contains the most important and significant natural unfenced habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity, including threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation: the Arabian Oryx Oryx leucoryx, possibly Arabian sand gazelle Gazella subgutturosa; and the only recorded site for the endemic taxon Ziziphus spina-christi var. divaricate. Further, the area provides safe refuge to several other globally significant fauna including al-Idmi Gazelle, Sand Cat, Sand Fox, Ar-Rub al-Khali Hare, Lapet-faced Vulture, and Arabian Houbara.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected area is of sufficient size and adequate configuration to include all key natural values and their associated attributes manifesting their global significance. The area includes all key habitats supporting the viable population of the Arabian Oryx, al-Reem Gazelle, al-Idmi Gazelle and other faunal taxa. The area harbors the most pristine parts of the plant diversity regions of the western part of Ar-Rub al-Khali desert.
Further, the area includes the best representation of the natural landscapes associated with the great sand sea of Rub al-Kahli, one of the world’s most renowned desert landscapes which is still not represented in the world heritage list, and in their most known pristine state.
There are no adverse threats facing the protected area. The area success represents a source of national and local pride and commitment, and enjoys the support of almost all national and local stakeholders. This is well-supported by the presence of a strong legal status and management regime and zoning along with the availability of competent management team on site which is well equipped and trained.
Nevertheless, the area suffers from occasional illegal hunting of Oryx and Gazelle by people mostly coming for outside of the area. Although limited, a single incident of such a threat could be detrimental to the area’s wildlife population.
Extended periods of droughts is the second most significant threat to the protected area as it affects the availability of food to the area’s herbivores.
Visitation for recreation and ecotourism is never free of impacts. The authority has prepared visitation regulations, a code of conduct for tour operators, and requires that all tour operators are trained in Leave No Trace principles and skills. The area rangers are also regularly trained on Leave No Trace principles and skills. An eco-lodge was established in the area in cooperation with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, as a pilot phase of what could be a more elaborate tourism development program in the future.
In response to the above, the management plan of the area will include strengthened provisions on management oriented scientific research and monitoring, improved governance mechanisms with focus on local communities participation and enhanced awareness raising through ecotourism and environmental education.
The protected area is by law excluded from all oil and gas prospecting, exploration and extraction.
Comparison with other similar properties
The protected area standouts very clearly when compared to similar landscapes and bio-geographical regions from the region and globally. Its high relative levels of biodiversity in terms of both plants and animals exceeds many of all comparable deserts in Asia and Africa in terms of level of endemism, number of species and their conservation status.
It is believed that there are no other comparable sites from the world where viable free-roaming populations of key faunal taxa such as the Arabian Oryx and al-Reem Gazelle take place.
The iconic sand sea of the great Ar-Rub al-Khali desert is well recognized natural landscape representing a gap in the world heritage list according to several global reviews and thematic studies. The area includes the best protected representation of the renowned global phenomenon.
The area compares very strongly with other similar regional and global landscapes such as the northern parts of the African Sahara, the Western Desert of Egypt, and the Western Deserts of Iran; in terms of number of faunal and floral taxa, relative endemism especially in plants, and number of globally threatened species especially in animals.