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Life lessons: Abu Dhabi is the best place for a new SeaWorld

The late Mahatma Gandhi said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. So when the President, Sheikh Khalifa, issued a Federal Law to directly address the issue of animal cruelty in the UAE we knew exactly where the country’s moral compass was pointing.

Everything from the ownership of exotic or wild animals to the treatment of household pets and urban wildlife was covered, with strict penalties, including jail terms and fines, to anyone who commits animal abuse.

When I first posted the article on my social media pages the announcement was met with cheers and love from all. However, one question was raised: “So why is SeaWorld coming to Abu Dhabi?”

Abu Dhabi has agreed a partnership with SeaWorld to build a marine theme park on Yas Island, the first SeaWorld outside of the United States.

In the past few years SeaWorld has come under increasing scrutiny from animal rights organisations, activists and the public due to its treatment, captivity and breeding of marine mammals, namely the performing orcas – better known as killer whales – that were the centre of the 2013 documentary BlackFish. The “star” of BlackFish, an orca called Tilikum, died recently.

The documentary hit SeaWorld hard, attendances dropped, profits in 2015 fell by 84 per cent, and a new chief executive, Joel Manby, was announced in mid-2015.

SeaWorld has done a lot to change. Last year it halted its orca shows and breeding programmes, and shifted its focus to education and awareness. Now where does Abu Dhabi fit into all of this? Well, I think it is important to first state Abu Dhabi’s position on the environment in general and more specifically the marine environment.

The emirate has always placed incredible importance on wildlife and development in which the wildlife thrives as well as our economy. When the dugong – or sea cow – was put on the endangered list the Emirates Environment Agency developed programmes that have seen dugong numbers grow in the UAE to become the second largest population of dugongs worldwide after Australia, at approximately 7,000.

It has established Marine Protection Areas to protect habitats and species across the UAE (of which there are 60). Furthermore, it continuously set in place regulations and programmes to support fishery resources and provide stakeholders the necessary resources and information to make more responsible decisions.

When SeaWorld comes to Abu Dhabi, what exactly is it going to look like? Well, in addition to SeaWorld Abu Dhabi being the first SeaWorld outside the US, it will also be the first SeaWorld without orcas. Before SeaWorld Abu Dhabi actually opens SeaWorld will launch a 4-R – research, rescue, rehabilitation and return – facility on Yas Island. This is for organisations to better understand the marine life of the UAE in order to create programmes and regulations to better protect and support it. In its defence this work isn’t new to SeaWorld – to date it has rescued more than 25,000 animals and continues to donate millions of dollars to environmental research and initiatives around the world.

However, this is the work that Abu Dhabi wants to attract and ensure is at the centre of SeaWorld’s presence in the emirate.

For any organisation that wants to pick a place to potentially harm animals or wildlife, the UAE would be the last country it would want to be in.

I can’t speak for SeaWorld, but what I can speak of, however, is how my country looks to the future. We are not perfect, but we work hard to be a country that builds and prides itself on the growth and sustainability of wildlife. They are national treasures for us and if SeaWorld is looking to build a corporation that creates experiences that matter for the environment and the people alike, Abu Dhabi might be the best place to start.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati ­columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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