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Identifying coastal and marine priority areas for conservation in the United Arab Emirates.


The waters of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) host a diversity of marine and coastal habitats that are under increasing pressure from multiple anthropogenic activities related to rapid economic growth. In response, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) currently cover 12% of the UAE’s coastal and marine zones. The UAE National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan aims to increase the extent of protection to 14% by 2021, a target that exceeds current global commitments. We applied systematic conservation planning to (1) assess whether conservation features (i.e. species and habitats of conservation concern) are adequately represented in the current system of MPAs, and (2) identify complementary coastal and marine priority areas for conservation and management. Eight planning scenarios were produced based on different conservation targets, the inclusion (or not) of existing MPAs in the generated solutions, and the consideration (or not) of dredging (an activity linked with coastal development in the UAE). A gap analysis demonstrated that to achieve the targets set by experts for all conservation features, additional areas would need to be integrated in conservation plans and policies. Key coastal and marine priority areas were consistently selected for conservation across all planning scenarios. The findings of this work provide a basis for the identification of conservation priorities that can be embedded in the current network of MPAs by extending their boundaries, in post-2020 conservation strategies including plans for creating new MPAs, and in broader spatial planning initiatives.

Application in MSP:
Type of Issue:
Type of practice:
Stage of MSP cycle:
Key words:

Questions this practice may help answer: 

  • How to apply the Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP) for identification of coastal and marine priority areas?  
  • How to define conservation features for determining the priority areas for conservation?  
  • How the Marxan software can be applied for selection of priority conservation areas?

Implementation Context: 

The study was conducted in accordance with the United Arab Emirates National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, aiming to increase the extent of Marine Protected Areas to 14% by 2021. 

Aspects / Objectives: 

The study aims to provide support to the UAE National Biodiversity Strategy by identifying the priority conservation areas for reaching the established MPA targets.  


The Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP) was applied to identify relevant conservation features and priority areas for conservation and management. Based on the definition of conservation features, the study applied the Marxan software (a conservation planning tool) to draft 8 planning scenarios, based on conversation targets. The gap analysis was implemented to determine the gaps between the current and desired protection levels.  

Main Outputs / Results: 

This study provides a basis for the identification of marine and coastal priority areas for conservation that can be included in the UAE's strategy for the extension of existing MPAs.   


The methodology applied in this study can be used for MPA development policies in other regions.  

Responsible Entity: 

World Wild Fund in the UAE. 

Costs / Funding Source: 

Funding for this work was provided by the Emirates Nature—World Wild Fund in the UAE. 

Contact person: 

Daniel Mateos-Molina: (dmateos[at]enwwf[dot]ae)