Picnics and Power Plays: How Environmental Politics Have Shaped the Middle East

The Middle East’s climate, topography, and natural resources are routinely cited as some of the most important factors explaining the region’s development. But at a recent Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) book launch for its research on Environmental Politics in the Middle East...
Thu Nov 15, 2018

The Middle East’s climate, topography, and natural resources are routinely cited as some of the most important factors explaining the region’s development. But at a recent Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) book launch for its research on Environmental Politics in the Middle East, Professor Harry Verhoeven, the editor, drew strong links between both ecology and politics to demonstrate how it is the interaction between the two that has shaped the history of the region, and determined its place in the global political economy.

“When people think of environmental issues in the Middle East, they ignore politics,” said Verhoeven to the audience of scholars, students, government officials, and members of the public in attendance. “This book stresses the point that discussion of the environment is an essentially political one, because it deals with accountability, political narratives, authority, security, who has power, and who is marginalized in the process.”

Held at the Georgetown University in Qatar campus, the CIRS Dialogue Series lecture presented an analysis of various contemporary case studies to show how, time and again, instead of the environment shaping a country’s development, human development is shaping the environment for political ends.

Verhoeven described how charcoal produced in war-torn Somalia for export to wealthy Gulf states as barbeque and shisha charcoal is driving both environmental degradation and sustaining local war and conflict through taxation. Noting the demands of protestors, he explained how the Gezi Park clashes in 2013 in Turkey were as much about green space concerns as they were about political representation in the decision-making process. He also reached back in time to show how Egypt’s history was rewritten in the mid-1800s to justify the state’s control over natural resources, which continues to define its political economy today.

“This book is particularly relevant for us at a time when we are witnessing real and worrying consequences of climate change, and a replay of the same historical examples of regional governments using mounting environmental crises to centralize political power,” said Mehran Kamrava, director of CIRS.

Environmental Politics in the Middle East was published by Oxford University Press/Hurst in 2018. Harry Verhoeven is Associate Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, and Associate Member of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He is the author of Water, Civilization and Power in Sudan and coauthor of Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa's Deadliest Conflict.