Introduction: Environmental Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire and Marc Lynch, The George Washington University

Environmental politics is no longer a marginal topic in Middle East Studies. Climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, desertification, soil erosion and depletion, waste, and a wide range of other environmental issues have moved to the center of scholarly inquiry across multiple disciplines. The study of the environment, defined as a set of relationships co-produced by human activity and non-human physical and biological processes, has become a vibrant and growing field of study. For Middle East Studies, this has been reflected in a number of influential works, including in the fields of environmental history (Davis 2007, Davis and Burke 2011, Mikhail 2013, Davis 2015); the history of science, technology and infrastructure (Mitchell 2002; Meiton 2019); the history and politics of labor and fossil fuels (Vitalis 2007, Mitchell 2011) the transnational history of specific resources (Barak 2020); the role of natural resources in state formation (Jones 2010, Verhoeven 2017) and environmental geography and anthropology (Barnes 2014, Scaramelli 2021), among other incisive and excellent works. In addition, Middle East Report and Jadaliyya have mainstreamed the coverage of environmental questions in the Middle East through their attention to new scholarship. These publications also increasingly address the linkages between environmental studies and closely interrelated issues of public health, war and conflict, forms of knowledge production and deployment, and center-periphery relations (e.g. see MER Issues 296, 297, and 298).

While some political scientists played key roles in the turn to environmental studies in the Middle East, mainstreaming the environment into politics and policy studies of the Middle East has lagged behind other disciplines. Research in political science has largely focused on linking climate change with conflict, scarcity and instability, (for a critique of simplistic linkages, see Daoudy 2020) or analyzing dimensions of rentier states, the ‘resource curse,’ and its impacts on development and governance (Luong and Weinthal 2010, Lowi 2011, Ross 2012). Those projects speak to profoundly important questions and have added a great deal to the public discussion on the importance of addressing environmental issues as part of a broader range of security and economic concerns. Political scientists in international relations and political economy also tackled early on the conflict and cooperation possibilities around management of shared rivers and waterbasins (Lowi 1993; Waterbury 2002, Zawahri and Mitchell 2011). A limited but growing number of scholars have grappled more explicitly with environmental politics, social contestation, and governance in the region (e.g. Hopkins 1992, Sowers 2012, 2018; Fikret and Arsel 2016, Abu Rish 2017, Kurtiç 2022), and the unequal vulnerabilities imposed by the man-made climate crisis (Sowers, Vengosh, and Weinthal 2011; Rabinowitz 2020).

Our motivation in this collection, from the virtual workshop in which the ideas were first presented to this publication, was thus to bring political science into broader dialogue with an emerging, rich multidisciplinary literature that helps change the questions we ask and how we address them. Rather than take concepts such as the environment or climate change as a given, we aimed to problematize them from a diverse range of theoretical and intellectual perspectives. Is the desert truly empty and who owns it?  Are all citizens (and non-citizens) equally affected by environmental degradation and the climate crisis?  How do ordinary people experience dramatic changes in the quality of their soil, their water, and their air?   What purposes do high-profile, state-led environmental showcases (such as NEOM and Masdar City, or declarations of moving towards Carbon Zero) really serve?

In February 2022, therefore, POMEPS convened a virtual workshop bringing together interdisciplinary contributions from anthropology, public health, political science, history, and human geography. Their geographic scope includes Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, and other Gulf countries. Many of the papers highlight the importance of field-based research in producing insightful analyses, and all raise important and innovative questions that should inform future research in this area. The papers grapple with the complexity and diversity of environmental politics and issues across the Middle East. In doing so, they contribute to important trends that have emerged in international and comparative environmental politics more broadly. These include growing attention to issues of environmental justice, rights and equity, particularly for local and Indigenous groups; urban environmental challenges and politics; the study of a broader array of environmental issues in different places; and expanded geographic and cultural diversity in both authors and cases (see Sowers, Vandeveer and Weinthal, forthcoming).

The papers explicitly take into consideration the temporality of ‘the environment’, in which change over time is intrinsic to analysis. Contrary to popular environmental imaginaries that position the Middle East, and particularly its deserts, as degraded, static, and value-less lands, several of the papers illustrate how human-natural interactions can be productive and restorative but require sustained investment over time. The papers by anthropologists Taraf Abu Hamdan, Kali Rubaii, and Ekin Kurtiç highlight the labor and local expertise needed to sustain viable soils, crops, and pastoral livelihoods, even as the authors highlight the political, economic, and military decisions that have undermined these practices and the communities that sustain them.

In “Soil, Dirt, Earth: Deserts, Rural Communities, and Power in Jordan,” Abu Hamdan shows how the Jordanian state fosters ‘rural development’ schemes in the arid and semi-arid steppe lands that unreflexively reproduce conditions of degradation and marginalize rather than empower the supposed beneficiaries. She notes that nomadic populations are often still blamed for problems of overgrazing and land degradation, rather than the long history of state policies forcing sedentarization and enforcing border restrictions. Initiatives that transfer tribal land to state and private ownership, to foster investment in agriculture or tourism, have had a poor track record. She argues that the putative employment benefits for local people often turn out be temporary, while state allocation of property rights often deepens clientelism and rural inequality.

Ekin Kurtiç also explores a space once considered peripheral to the Turkish state, but now figured as central to the project of state-driven ‘modernization.’  Her paper, “Living with Future Submergence: Dams, Temporality, and Sacrifice in Northeastern Turkey,” examines how residents in the town of Yusefeli, which faces imminent inundation from the rising waters of the Yusufeli Dam, grapple ambivalently with their national ‘sacrifice.’  She vividly shows how residents embrace statist and AKP party narratives, in which dam-building is essential to Turkish development and that their river valley is an ‘ideal’ spot to build the largest dam in Turkey. At the same time, however, they seek to negotiate the terms of this sacrifice, through advocating delays and compensation.

If Abu Hamdan and Kurtiç grapple with structural violence that stems from technocratic state interventions, Kali Rubaii’s paper explores how small farmers cope with the direct violence wreaked by war, occupation, and sanctions in Iraq. In “What Displacement Teaches Us About Surviving Changed Climates,” Rubaii reminds us that both war and the sustained preparation for war are major contributors to global warming and environmental degradation. Her work looks at how small farmers originally from Anbar and Kurdish areas cope with, and adapt to, displacement induced by war.  She thus asks, as Kurtiç does, who is forced to make sacrifices and how they manage these displacements. Thanks to war and sanctions and ongoing violence, Rubaii’s farmers are cut off from irrigation and basic services, and their new lands face dessication, soil degradation, and conflict-related pollution. Some of the coping responses she documents are evident in conflicts elsewhere, particularly in Palestine. Rubaii’s Iraqi farmers are ‘resilient’, in the anesthetized global language of climate adaptation, but they are also suffering, in the words of one of her interviewees, ‘loss upon loss.’ Many of these losses are to some degree irreversible, whether in terms of land productivity, family health and income, or the sense of continuity and dwelling in a stable landscape and climate over time. Rubaii argues that since more people will be living in a completely different climate as global warming intensifies, the experiences of internally displaced persons– and returnees who come back to changed landscapes– foreshadows the experiences of many others in the region.

Other local environments in the Middle East also pose serious environmental health risks.  Moving from ethnography to epidemiology, Barrak Alahmad’s paper, “Climate, Environment, and Health of Migrant Workers: Lessons from Kuwait,” takes a public health perspective to explore the unequal health impacts of climate change on noncitizens and citizens. Migrant workers in Kuwait are subject to residential segregation, extreme outdoor occupational exposure, and limited access to healthcare. Alahmad shows that migrant workers have a higher risk of dying on very hot days or in dust storms than Kuwaiti citizens. The climate crisis thus exacerbates health inequalities associated with citizenship, caste, class, and other forms of social stratification.

Much of the Gulf states’ sustainability agenda has consisted thus far of brazen greenwashing of large-scale construction and energy projects. As Deen Sharp notes in his paper, “Arab Climate Urbanism: An Ecological Fix?”, however, this is not the only element in emerging urban initiatives in the Arab world.  The term ‘climate urbanism’ refers to mitigation and adaptation efforts undertaken at the city level across key sectors, including transport, housing, energy, and waste. City governments began these initiatives over the past two decades and built networks linking cities on climate action around the world.  Sharp argues that emerging forms of climate urbanism in the Arab world exhibit some distinctive features, including top-down control rather than bottom-up initiative. The Arab states generally control urban governance and budgets and prefer high-profile megaprojects, as evident in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco as well as the Gulf states. Arab climate urbanism is further marked by financialization, through issuing ‘green bonds’ (including sukuk bonds deemed compatible with Islamic ethics), the development of green building codes, and renewed interest in investing in public transit systems. Since the urban areas of the Middle East and North Africa are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, Sharp suggests that Arab climate urbanism will play an ever larger role in the environmental politics of the Middle East.

Exposure to environmental risk is unequally distributed not only within but among countries. State capacity to manage these risks—and to benefit from them by creating and exploiting business opportunities associated with environmental sustainability— often reflects prior levels of wealth. Tobias Zumbragel’s paper, “Between ‘suffering’ and ‘surfing: Environmental Sustainability Management and Its Transnational Dynamics on the Arabian Peninsula,” compares how Saudi Arabia can ‘surf’ a global wave of business interest in sustainability, even as its wartime actions—alongside those of the Huthi movement and other armed groups—exacerbate environmental ‘suffering’ in Yemen.  In most of Yemen, the impacts of the war– in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Huthi movement are the most influential belligerents– have exacerbated vulnerabilities to climate-related disasters. These include the intensifying frequency of damaging flash floods, cyclones, intense heat, and dust storms. Degradation of basic services and steep price increases for food and fuel have deepened hunger and acute malnutrition, led to large-scale outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, and intensified local pollution. In neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, the monarchies have fostered state-owned enterprises focused on renewable energies with global investment portfolios, engaged in global climate diplomacy, and marketed their mega-projects under the rubric of sustainability. In areas of Yemen under their de facto control, Zumbragel notes that the Saudis and the UAE are investing in renewable energy projects as part of projecting soft power regionally.

The last four papers in the collection examine the environmental narratives and policies promulgated by state agencies, environmental scientists, the media, and social movements. Authored by political scientists, these papers tackle some enduring questions in the study of comparative environmental politics. Under what conditions do environmental movements build cross-class coalitions and/or link environmental issues to economic and political critiques? What possibilities are there for substantive environmental action when states like Turkey remain wedded to rapid industrialization?  How do narratives established in the long colonial period inform state projects of modernization and technocratic development?  Who defines what constitutes waste and who benefits from its collection, disposal, and reuse?

Langlois and Daoudy’s work analyzes state narratives about environmental degradation to ask why some social movements are able to link environmental issues to national concerns. They argue that Jordan’s monarchy was able to limit popular discontent with water scarcity, while in Lebanon, environmental campaigns contributed to broader critiques of the national political system. Langlois and Daoudy note that the monarchy shifts blame for water scarcity to individual consumption and outside forces (such as Israel), and portrays national supply projects, such as the Disi aquifer project that supplies Amman, as essential to the country’s sovereignty and security. In Lebanon, in contrast, the authors argue that environmental grievances—particularly through the #YouStink and #SaveBishri campaigns— became part of contentious politics at the national level. It is worth noting that these earlier crises were in some ways harbingers of Lebanon’s dire predicament today, which is fiscal, political, and environmental, including the pollution and urban devastation wrought by the August 2020 explosion of improperly stored fertilizers in Beirut’s port.

Lauren Baker’s paper takes up the issue of trash and waste, building upon a growing interest among Middle East scholars in tackling one of the foremost environmental issues in the region. The hazards of open dumping, accumulations in ‘vacant’ lots, canals, and plots, and the air pollution generated from open burning, are indictments of governmental failures at both local and national levels. Baker’s paper, “The Sanitization of Garbage Politics,” situates this issue in nested spatial and governance scales, including the increased generation of waste from capitalist consumption globally and the tendency of multinationals and large-scale waste companies to displace existing communities of wastepickers, sorters, and recyclers. Echoing a theme made by Langlois and Daoudy, Baker notes that sanitation efforts often focus on changing individual consumption and disposal habits, rather than the broader political economies that structure waste production and circulation.

The notion that environmental issues need to be embedded in broader questions of domestic and international political economy runs through all the papers in various ways.  Murat Arsel and Fikret Adaman in their paper “Environmentalism without Environmentalists?: Climate Change and the State in Turkey,” present a pessimistic account of environmental evolution in Turkey.  Formal political parties and forces in Turkey have not seriously incorporated environmental issues into their agenda, while the criminalization of protest and narratives of sacrifice detailed by Kurtiç undermine local environmental movements from scaling up in the way that Langlois and Daoudy suggest happened in Lebanon.  For Arsel and Adaman, neither the remnants of the old republican coalition nor the Islamists under the AKP have grappled with the structural causes or consequences of environmental degradation, which “cannot be resolved either by economic growth or state violence.”

Environmental politics and governance across all the contributions remains very much enmeshed in unequal center-periphery relations, elite commitments to industrialization, and technocratic interventions that focus either on large-scale prestige projects or disciplining individual and communal behavior. These visions of state-society relations have much longer historical trajectories. Khaoula Bengezi’s paper, “New Constructions of Environmental Orientalism: Climate Change Mitigation Solar Power Projects in the Sahara Desert,” links contemporary calls for building massive solar plants in the Saharan desert with older forms of ‘environmental Orientalism.’ Echoing Abu Hamdan’s findings on Jordan’s rural development initiatives, Bengezi suggests that state elites, popular media, and the development industry reprise old colonial tropes with new twists, in which ‘useless’ and empty deserts can be made productive with the application of foreign technocratic expertise to build large-scale solar facilities. As historian Diana Davis (2015) and others have argued, attributing environmental ruin and desertification to indigenous activities, alongside promises to (re)green the desert, has underpinned settler colonial ventures from Palestine to Algeria.  Bengezi cautions that the long lives of these imaginaries overlook both the actual trade-offs of large-scale solar power in these environments, such as water usage, and fuel the continued political and economic marginalization of local communities.


Cited works:

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