A huge water-themed resort rises on Dubai's coast.
A huge water-themed resort rises on Dubai's coast.

The Seas of Arabia

Poets praise their treasures. Profiteers deplete them. Activists now seek to preserve them.

His face was like a walnut shell, and his eyes squinted with a lifetime of gazing into the white-hot glare of Arabia. The shamal was blowing off the sea in scorching gusts, making even the date palms droop. "It is the western wind," the man said in a raspy voice. "I feel its warmth."

Behind him, the village of Film, notched into the mountains of Oman's Musandam Peninsula, shimmered like a brazier. Goats panted in the shade cast by upturned boats and the walls of a mosque. Just breathing made me feel as if my nostrils might burst into flame. Sami Alhaj, my Yemeni dive partner, said: "Underwater, with the corals, we get a little piece of heaven. Above water, with this wind, we get a little piece of hell."

We soon fled the inferno and descended into paradise once more. Color marked our passage between worlds as vividly as temperature did. Where the colors of land were those of the spice suq—pepper, cinnamon, mustard, mace—the undersea world was drenched in the sumptuous hues of a sultan's palace. Long, waving indigo arms of soft corals mingled with pomegranate fronds of feather stars. Speckled-gray moray eels, whose gaping mouths reveal a startling burst of yellow, leered out of crevices, while butterflyfish flitted past in tangerine flashes.

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