American Studies, Environmental Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

The Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East Working Group I

The Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East Working Group I

On September 27–28, 2015, CIRS convened the first Working Group under its research initiative on “The Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East.” The session was attended by ecologists, geologists, economists, political scientists, and other scholars with expertise on environmental issues in the Middle East. The purpose of the meeting was to present key geopolitical and environmental concerns in the Middle East, and to identify gaps in the existing scholarship on the subject. Over the course of two days, participants debated a number of topics that not only covered a general overview of geopolitics and natural resources in the region, but also included case studies on environmental conditions in specific countries.

The Working Group opened with a debate on applying the theoretical framework of “geopolitics” to the topic of natural resources in the Middle East. Straddling vast reserves of oil and natural gas, this region has been vulnerable to a host of geopolitical forces since the beginning of the twentieth century. Major powers, including European countries, the United States, and Russia, have historically attempted to remain influential in the resource-rich states of the Middle East, and these dynamics of external intervention relating to regional resources have had a substantial impact on the region’s political economy. More recently, shifts in the energy sector accompanied by a significant decrease in global oil prices may end up impacting the geopolitical arrangements in the region. Working group participants considered the possibility of waning U.S. interest in the Middle East as a result of diminishing dependency on Persian Gulf hydrocarbons due to the American surge in domestic shale oil and gas production. Asian powers, including China and India are emerging as key consumers of Middle Eastern hydrocarbons, which could also have geopolitical consequences for the region. Additionally, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brings attention to the role of transnational non-state actors and regional natural resources. Working Group participants discussed ISIS’s conquest of territory around the Tigris-Euphrates river system, paying particular attention to the question of whether ISIS is strategically attempting to build a “water” empire or whether it is primarily interested in controlling territory and oil. There was a general consensus amongst the group to conceive of geopolitics, in the context of this research initiative, as a general metaphor for examining the multiple transnational, regional, and domestic dynamics through which politics intersects with the management of environment and resources in the region.

Natural resources have significantly impacted state formation in the Middle East. There has been a continuing sense of instability in the region over the course of the past few years, particularly since the Arab Uprisings and the growth of ISIS. The oil-rich regimes of the Gulf, including that of Bahrain—the primary Gulf state to experience its own significant Arab uprising—were largely able to maintain political stability, and contain any attempts at anti-regime political mobilization. Working group participants as such highlighted the difference between the GCC and other Arab countries in relation to the Arab Spring, and attributed the Gulf states’ relative political stability to their exceptional status as wealthy oil and natural gas states, and the institutional path dependencies and resilience of the regional rentier bargains. In addition, natural resources have also affected economic diversification in the region, not only within the GCC but also as seen in the broader Middle East. Gulf economies are built around capital derived from an abundance of natural resources and an unlimited access to relatively cheap (migrant) labor, as a result of which the theory on economics of scarcity does not appear to apply to this context. Scholars discussed the kind of economy that could actually be built as a result of these particular conditions prevalent in the GCC. There has been an assumption that rentier states are doomed to fail in terms of achieving substantial economic diversification, as the existing political economy does not encourage innovation or high labor productivity. Over the past decade or more GCC countries have attempted to encourage economic diversification through pushing forward state projects on innovation and focusing efforts on the creation of knowledge-based economies. Many of the Gulf states also rely on portfolio diversification and Sovereign Wealth Fund investments as a means by which to move away from their dependence on hydrocarbon based revenues.

As is the case globally, the Middle East has increasingly been adversely affected by climate change. Some of the environmental concerns facing the region include critical groundwater depletion, water salinity, increasing temperatures, and pollution. Additionally, the paucity of rivers and lack of hydropower and coal deposits have proven to be persistent obstacles faced by the states in the region. For much of its history, people in the Middle East have relied upon an abundant livestock with largely sheep and goats being kept due to their ability to handle the climate. However, things have changed with the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves, and states have stepped in to manage the resources with fossil fuels becoming vital to rentier politics. There has been growing urbanization which has led to rural marginalization and degradation of traditional agricultural hubs in the Middle East. Rising income levels have also caused rapid lifestyles changes and the development of consumer culture in the GCC which has a direct impact on environmental resources, straining existing water and energy sources and leading to discussion of how to curtail waste and consumption patterns. While discussing the political ecology of renewable and non-renewable resources and how the GCC landscape has been shaped by its fossil fuel industry, participants raised the need to develop a more robust literature on environmentalism, environmental attitudes, and environment behavior in the Gulf as only a fragmentary collection of data on these topics exist. Since large numbers of foreigners reside in the Middle East, the discussants also stressed the need to learn more about the attitudes and behavior of non-nationals in Gulf in relation to conservation and environment.

In addition to a general overview of the region, the Working Group included country specific studies to highlight certain environmental problems. Mining of a less known natural resource – the sand, to meet the increasing demands of the global construction industry was examined. According to statistics, sand in Morocco is being extracted at a greater rate than it is being renewed. This has a severe impact on the environment resulting in degradation of coastline, destruction of wetlands, rising sea levels and subsequent flooding. Hence, sand mining poses a threat to the Arab World where most of the capital cities are located on the coast. The issue of aforestation and “greening projects” in the United Arab Emirates was also discussed. Dubai has a vision to establish the first Middle East rainforest for educational and cultural purposes by 2020. However, most of the species being used for that purpose are exotic ones that rely on too much water which exacerbates the already water-stressed conditions in the Emirate. During the Working Group experts discussed the need to counter current greening trends in the GCC and invest more energy in researching how indigenous species that use less water and have the ability to withstand high temperatures could be more broadly planted. Across the Middle East there is also a need to invest in genetically engineered crops that have stress-tolerant genes to withstand the frequent droughts that have been recently plaguing the region.

The discussants noted that the Middle East is a very water scarce region, expected to experience acute water shortages in the near future as a result of population pressures and climate change. Rising temperatures and a decrease in precipitation have adversely impacted the water levels. There are more heat waves, prolonged droughts and destructive floods in the region than before. For example, Yemen is facing a serious water crisis with UNICEF anticipating the country to run out of water by 2020. The majority of the population in Yemen lacks access to safe water, and water-borne diseases are widespread. There are studies which attribute the current state collapse to the severe water crisis in the country. Water scarcity is the most direct environmental issue for the Middle East, and has a major impact on food security as agricultural production depends on water availability. Water shortages are devastating for the Yemeni economy as the country is also increasingly food insecure and need to enhance domestic agricultural production. In order to address water and food security concerns, GCC countries have established institutions to increase domestic production despite the precarious nature of their water resources, and also to develop overseas farmland in order to secure their food imports. For example, Qatar, amongst other GCC states, has acquired farmland in Sudan and well as in other destinations, although to date none of these efforts has led to active agricultural production overseas.

While the participants in the Working Group addressed a multitude of topics ranging from geopolitics to environmental problems in the Middle East, they all acknowledged that there is limited scholarship and data available on the environment in the region from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Through this research initiative the hope is to fill some of the existing gaps in literature. 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Madalla Alibeli, United Arab Emirates University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Farid Chaaban, American University of Beirut
  • Jill Crystal, Auburn University
  • Laura El-Katiri, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies
  • Ali El-Keblawy, University of Sharjah
  • Clement Henry, National University of Singapore
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Martin Keulertz, Texas A&M Nexus Group
  • Laurent Lambert, SESRI – Qatar University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Maria Snoussi, Université Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco
  • Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire, Durham
  • Wessel N. Vermeulen, University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Eckart Woertz, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs

Article by Umber Latafat (SFS ’16) and Zahra Babar, CIRS Associate Director for Research