American Studies, Environmental Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East Working Group Meeting II

Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East Working Group Meeting II

On April 3-4, 2016, CIRS held a second working group under its research initiative on “Geopolitics of Natural Resources in the Middle East.” On the course of two days, working group participants presented draft papers on a number of related topics including, amongst other things, on the politics of natural resources in the Middle East; scarcity and economic development; environmental and social mobilization; the securitization of natural resources in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states; “greening” policies in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf; Tunisian phosphate mining; coastal sand mining in Morocco; piracy and illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters; and illegal charcoal trafficking from Africa to the GCC states.

Georgetown University’s Harry Verhoeven initiated the group discussion by suggesting that there are three principal paradigms that can serve as a guiding analytical framework through which we can study the politics of natural resources within the Middle East. The first is a fundamentally positivist approach, which conceives of the natural world as a separate realm that is disconnected from the actions of human beings. Within this framework, politics is withdrawn from the equation, and development and environment can be reconciled, particularly through technological intervention and innovation. A second paradigm is resoundingly negativist and Malthusian, conceiving of human behavior as ultimately destructive in relation to the environment. A third paradigm suggests that human society and the environment are inexorably entwined; and thus, any conversation concerning the environment is fundamentally political.

Following Verhoeven’s largely theoretical discussion, Wessel Vermuelen presented a paper titled “Scarcity Derives Economic Development: The Effect of Energy Subsidies on Export Diversification in the Middle East.” Vermuelen tests the effect of energy subsidies on export diversification, particularly focusing on varieties of exports, and the number of export destinations. His research points out that energy subsidy reform remains a critical challenge in many developing countries, and particularly within the Middle East and North Africa. Subsidy reform is considered difficult to implement due to resistance from both the general population and the private sector. However, over the longer term, reductions in energy subsidies remain inevitable if the Middle Eastern states are economically integrated with the rest of the world and advanced economies in particular.

Building on Vermuelen’s paper, Jeannie Sowers offered an examination of “The Evolution of Environmental and Social Mobilization in the Middle East.” Through her research Sowers explores the changes and continuities in patterns of environmental mobilization as seen across the region. Sowers situates Middle Eastern environmental mobilization within broader studies of activism, social mobilization, and state-society relations. Her analysis draws attention to existing structural economic and ecological challenges across the region, and discusses which of these have proved more salient to environmental activism. Sowers also identifies the dominant forms of environmental mobilization seen in the Middle East, from the popular campaign (hamla), to the state-donor project (mashru’), as well as the mobilization driven by NGOs. In her paper, Sowers draws on the popular environmental campaigns that occurred in Egypt and Lebanon.

Jill Crystal shifted the group’s focus to the Arabian Peninsula, presenting a paper on “Securitization of Natural Resources in the Gulf.” Crystal examines the political construction of a broad security framework in the GCC states insofar as natural resources are concerned. She argues that when the GCC’s critical energy infrastructure was threatened by terrorism, governments created a language of anti-terrorism and developed a discourse of securitization to frame energy resources. After the Arab uprisings, new modes of authoritarian behavior have been observed across the region, and the securitization discourse has infiltrated a number of domains. Amongst other things, in her paper Crystal argues that the historical trade-off between political quiescence and economic satisfaction has been replaced by political quiescence in exchange for security.

Ali Al-Keblawy sharpened the focus on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf further through his paper “The Greening of the Gulf,” in which he claims that the landscape and vegetation of deserts in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have been significantly altered during the last fifty years by a variety of factors. These factors include: livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, urbanization and its attendants, oil exploration and production activities, and introduction of exotic species. Several other factors have slowed natural recovery of the desert vegetation after disturbance, some of the most notable of which include unpredictability and scarcity of rainfall, repeated drought, extreme high temperatures, intense sun light, high wind storms, and the low fertility of desert soils. However, many of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf paid too much attention to the recovery and greening of the deteriorated landscapes. Al-Keblawy argued that working with, not against, the harsh conditions of the environment would help in creating a sustainable green landscape. He suggests a number of alternatives that include, among others, plantation of native trees, genetic modification of crops, sea watering, and usage of halophytes.

Another paper, by Abbas Maleki, focused on “The Politics of Natural Resources in the Caspian Sea.” Maleki claims that the Caspian region today is a zone of interest to the United States, Russia, European Union, China, Turkey, Japan, Iran and India, largely because of its promising oil and gas resources. These resources exceed those of the North Sea. Under the bottom of this trans-boundary body of water, which is the largest lake in the world, there is four percent of the world gas and oil reserves. Given the amount of oil and gas reserves, Maleki argues that the geo-economic power has not fully surpassed more traditional, military control of territory in this context, which continues to be complex on several geopolitical scale. In his paper, he studies the geopolitics, ecosystem, energy politics and economics, and legal debates insofar as the natural resources in the Caspian Sea are concerned.

Francis Ghiles and Eckart Woertz’s contribution focused on “Tunisian Phosphates and the Politics of the Periphery.” In their paper, the authors presented a historic overview of Tunisian phosphate mining and its role in regional development. They also analyzed the politics of Tunisia’s periphery, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail’s role within it, and the emergence of new social actors. They presented a detailed examination of how such conflicts played out during the strikes in the phosphate mines in 2008 and after 2011, concluding with some thoughts on possible future developments.

Maria Snoussi provided a critical review on coastal sand mining in Morocco through her paper on “The State, Business, and Morocco’s Environmental Strains: The Case of Coastal Sand Mining.” Snoussi investigates the main causes that have impeded the authorities to effectively manage sand mining. She argues that these causes lie in the lack of comprehensive and integrated policies governing coastal sand resources, and the weakness and lack of enforcement of legal frameworks. This is compounded by a shortsighted vision on the potential value of the coast as a natural capital. Finally, Snoussi argues that only a decisive policy shift toward resource conservation, integrated coastal zone management, and legal reforms regarding sand mining could lead to a different outcome.

Afyare Abdi Elmi led a discussion on his research on “Piracy and Illegal Fishing from Somalia to the Middle East.” Elmi argues that Somalia’s territorial waters are of critical importance and that seventy percent of the Middle East’s transit goes through the Gulf of Aden. Elmi points out that the piracy that has been dominating Somali waters is rooted in a previous history of illegal fishing from vessels originating from Yemen, Iran, and other Middle East countries. Elmi provides a deep analysis of the political and economic explanations and consequences of the causes of piracy, the links to illegal fishing, as well as how this particular political economy is connected to the Middle East. His research suggests five principal causes: statelessness or weak statehood; profit; business opportunities; illegal overfishing; and toxic waste material dumping.

Finally, Illyaa Gridneff shared the findings on “Illegal Charcoal Trafficking in the Middle East.” Gridneff has investigated the economic and environmental consequences of the illegal charcoal trade in Somalia that have led to political tensions on the local, regional and international levels. His work suggests that illegal charcoal trade links Somalia to the Middle East and particularly Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In southern Somalia, acacia tress have been cut and burned to create charcoal and subsequently exported to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The demand for Somali charcoal, which is one of the world’s finest, and the income that comes with it, has led to competition over influence in Somalia between African Union forces and neighboring countries on the one hand, and aboriginal forces in Somalia, Al Shabab, on the other. The Somali charcoal trade, a source of income to Al Shabab, constitutes an environmental as well as a political and security threat to both Somalia as well as to the broader Middle East and Africa regions.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Jill Crystal, Auburn University
  • Ali El-Keblawy, University of Sharjah
  • Afyare A. Elmi, Qatar University
  • Francis Ghilès, Barcelona Center for International Affairs (Cidob)
  • Ilya Gridneff, Sahan Research
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Umber Latafat, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Abbas Maleki, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Maria Snoussi, Université Mohammed V, Morocco
  • Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire
  • Harry Verhoeven, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Wessel N. Vermeulen, University of Oxford
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS