a woman in a hijab is looking at a laptop
Dana Al Marashi, the head of cultural diplomacy in the UAE, works with students at Sugarloaf School on coral replanting projects on May 22. CONTRIBUTED

The struggling Florida Keys’ coral reef has been getting help from half a world away, through an unlikely partnership between the local United Way of Collier and the Keys (UWCK) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Middle East.

In February 2020, the UAE gave $3.5 million to help the restoration of seven iconic coral reef sites in the Florida Keys. The funds are distributed by the United Way to local reef restoration organizations in support of Mission: Iconic Reefs, a 20-year plan by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners to restore North America’s only barrier reef.

The gift was part of a larger $10 million pledge to the state of Florida for various relief efforts following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Last month, a diplomatic representative for the UAE visited Key West to discuss reef restoration efforts and funding, marine science scholarships and an upcoming cultural learning exchange program, said Alissa Hudak, communications manager for the local United Way chapter. 

a man in a scuba suit swimming in the ocean
Dana Al Marashi, the head of cultural diplomacy in the UAE, snorkels at Eastern Dry Rocks off Key West last month to survey reef damage and learn more about her country’s support of restoration projects. CONTRIBUTED

Dana Al Marashi, the head of cultural diplomacy in the UAE, toured the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, which highlights the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that is managed by NOAA. Marashi also visited Sugarloaf School and participated in coral replanting projects with students to witness her country’s investment in action.

The diplomat met with marine sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman and United Way president Leah Stockton. She spoke on US 1 Radio about the UAE’s support, snorkeled at Eastern Dry Rocks, which is one of the seven critical reef sites targeted by Mission: Iconic Reefs, and met with local officials and residents at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden.

Over the last four years, UWCK has supported some 1.83 acres of coral outplanted on the identified reefs. This coral will grow, and the coverage area will continue to expand naturally to the healthy, sustainable coverage needed for the reef to flourish. So far, 8,400 volunteer hours, 199 interns, and 11 jobs supported these efforts through the partnership between the UAE and the United Way.

a group of fish swimming around a coral reef
The Eastern Dry Rocks off Key West is one of seven critical reef sites in the Florida Keys that is targeted for restoration by NOAA’s Mission: Iconic Reefs plan. CONTRIBUTED

“This is what friends do for each other in times of need. The UAE is delighted to be able to help the Florida Keys community in this special way and begin to restore its iconic coral reefs,” said Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the United States, in 2020 at the time of the gift. “We share the same planet and face the same challenges. That’s why the UAE is so proud to collaborate with partners in the US and around the world to better protect and preserve vital ecosystems.”

Despite their distance and differences, the U.S. and UAE have had strong diplomatic relations since 1972, according to the U.S. State Department. 

“The United States and the UAE enjoy strong bilateral cooperation on a full range of issues including defense, non-proliferation, trade, law enforcement, energy policy and cultural exchange,” the department website states. “The two countries work together to promote peace and security, support economic growth and improve educational opportunities in the region and around the world.”

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.