Dialogue Series, Environmental Studies, Regional Studies

Book Launch: Environmental Politics in the Middle East


On November 11, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) launched its recent book on Environmental Politics of the Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2018), edited by Harry Verhoeven, Associate Professor of International Relations and African Politics at Georgetown University in Qatar, who presented the research findings at a CIRS Dialogue. In Verhoeven’s words, the book tries “to unmask, to contest, to deconstruct some of the leading environmental narratives that have emerged throughout this macroregion.” He said that these storylines are not just the products of the Middle East, but of interactions between other parts of the world and the states, societies, and markets of the Middle East.

Verhoeven argued that the idea in which nature itself shapes political, economic, and social outcomes, has long been intuitive: “perhaps there is no better illustration of this than the old saying that ‘Egypt is a gift of the Nile.’ As if the mere fact that water flows down from the Ethiopian highlands—and from Lake Victoria in Central Africa, all the way to Egypt—in and of itself would explain all the political and social processes that have been happening in Egypt.”

Environment is often assumed to be, he said, “an exogenous and independent variable shaping the dependent variable”—that is, political, social, and economic outcomes. This notion has a very long history that can be traced back to many illustrious intellectuals. Verhoeven explained that the concept of “environmental determinism”—that environmental outcomes fundamentally shape political and economic thinking—was propagated by Aristotle, who held the idea that in certain types of topography, specific political civilizations would emerge.

Such thinking also underpinned the writing of Ibn Khaldun, who was, Verhoeven argued, perhaps the greatest thinker of the fourteenth century. Khaldun divided the world into seven different types of climatic zones, each of which had a specific outcome in the form of social organization, culture, and political systems associated with it. “The idea here, fundamentally, is that climate, the environment as an exogenous variable, shapes human outcomes,” Verhoeven said.

“Khaldun’s ideas were also used—or, more pertinently, abused—by European colonialism in this part of the world,” Verhoeven said. The classic British and French explanations for why the West was richer and more powerful than parts of North Africa and the Middle East, was in part environmental. Reading the historical chronicles, particularly of the French colonization in Algeria starting in 1830, he said, “one is struck by the repetition of how the French essentially blamed the local population for mismanaging natural resources and therefore justified seizing the land and expropriating its people.” Colonists defended their exploits on the basis that they had far greater knowledge of scarce resources, he explained, and rationalized their efforts as “making a contribution to humanity, and to civilization as a whole.”

“The very way we think about the environment, the way we represent it, the way we try to intervene upon it is not an apolitical exercise. It is an exercise that is essentially concerned with questions of distribution. Who gets what? Who is accountable for what? Whose narrative is told, and whose narrative is not told? Who has the authority to decide on whether to call an environmental problem, a development problem, or a security problem?”

Verhoeven said environmental determinism is still very present in the dominant patterns of thought about the links between the environment, economic development, and politics today. “Technocratic environmentalism” declares itself to be resolutely apolitical and carried forward by the planet’s most erudite minds. One of the world’s most influential economists, Jeffrey Sachs, proposes “a profession of rigor, insight, and practicality” using positivist methods. Technocratic environmentalists believe that science can be and should be a value-free endeavor. Politics in this reading is a corrupting variable, which should not be factored into explaining processes of environmental change, and that interventions should be left solely to experts. However, as Verhoeven explained, this opens the door for highly authoritarian decision-making, in which ordinary people are treated as ignorant and not worthy of participation.

A second, influential way of thinking about the environment, politics, and development, comes out of a more pessimistic tradition, Verhoeven said, which goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who warned that human capacity to shape nature was limited. This perspective holds that a point will come where population growth outstrips agricultural growth. Such a scenario would lead to a rebalancing of population levels through the combination of famine, war, and disease, or so Malthus prophesized, Verhoeven explained. Today’s discourse of so-called water wars or climate wars—the idea that when societies or entire regions run out of water and food they irredeemably are on a path to war—echoes Malthus’s dystopian visions, he said.  

The intuition underpinning “water wars” is the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” a parable about resource use inspired by the famously pessimistic Thomas Hobbes, Verhoeven said. This is the idea that when finite resources have to be shared, in the absence of an external authority which regulates the consumption of individual parties, communities will inevitably deplete the resource as it is in the interest of every individual to consume as much as one can. When these resources are essential for life, like water, people are willing to fight to the death over them, or so the parable goes. “People who believe in water wars are essentially telling you that they need some kind of ‘Leviathan,’ some kind of external central authority, that limits our consumption of resources and that protects us against ourselves,” he said. The empirical evidence, however, Verhoeven argued, suggests otherwise.

An alternative conceptualizing of how environmental factors, development, and politics are linked was illustrated by the thesis of one chapter of Environmental Politics in the Middle East, which Verhoeven presented. Every year, huge amounts of forests are destroyed in southern and central Somalia to bring charcoal to Middle Eastern markets for shisha smoking and grilling of meat. The Gulf appetite for the high-quality charcoal harvested from Somalia’s acacia trees directly contributes to environmental degradation, economic underdevelopment, and violent conflict. It illustrates how resource degradation in one part of the world is intimately linked to process of consumption and accumulation elsewhere. Not only is tree cover in southern Somalia reduced, deforestation driven by charcoal exploitation makes the land increasingly prone to erosion, flash-flooding, and chronic drought. Moreover, the taxation of charcoal by both jihadist groups like Al-Shabab and foreign interveners like the Kenyan Defence Forces contributes directly to the decades-long conflict that has been raging in Somalia.

Verhoeven concluded by restating the book’s central message: “The very way we think about the environment, the way we represent it, the way we try to intervene upon it is not an apolitical exercise. It is an exercise that is essentially concerned with questions of distribution. Who gets what? Who is accountable for what? Whose narrative is told, and whose narrative is not told? Who has the authority to decide on whether to call an environmental problem, a development problem, or a security problem?” The key point is thus that environmental and political issues cannot be analytically seen as separate, in this region or elsewhere. The issues at stake are fundamentally issues of power. The CIRS book is about the ways in which certain groups of people are branded as enemies of the state, are criminalized, and are shut-out of media access—ostensibly because of their activism around the environment, but really because of the way they challenge powerholders across the Middle East and North Africa. Environmental Politics in the Middle East is about “who has a right to say what, on which authority, and who is systematically—over time and over space—being excluded.”


Article by Khansa Maria, CURA Administrative Fellow

Harry Verhoeven is Associate Professor of International Relations and African Politics in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Qatar. He is the author of Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building (2015), and Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict (2016). He acquired his doctorate from the University of Oxford and was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge in 2016-17. He is Convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network and is coeditor of the new Cambridge University Press book series on Intelligence and National Security in Africa and the Middle East.