Background and Scope of the Project

This research initiative explores the geopolitics of natural resources in the Middle East. Hydrocarbons, petroleum and now increasingly natural gas, have long dominated discussions of the Middle East’s natural resources, particularly in terms of their impact on domestic, regional and international politics. Little concerted attention has been paid to the broader environmental parameters of the Middle East. This initiative constitutes an attempt to expand the focus to include the region’s many other natural resources, for example land, air, water, and food, but also study the regional environment as a whole, rather than merely the resources extracted from it. As such it adopts a holistic approach, attempting to integrate the study of the region’s diverse natural resources, its environmental constraints, and their various impacts on geopolitics.

Natural resources have shaped the Middle East more than most other regions. Hydrocarbon revenues have powered the rapid state-building efforts underway in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for instance. The very presence of petroleum explains the increasing external penetration of the region by the British, French and American powers in the aftermath of the Second World War. A 1945 US State Department memorandum described Saudi Arabian oil as a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Yet this has served to largely obscure the study of the diverse range of natural resources present in the Middle East. This is not to say that many of these, for example the quality of air in the modernizing Gulf states, can be completely isolated from the legacy of hydrocarbon extraction, but rather that they should be studied on their own merit.

This research project adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, accounting for a broad range of political, economic, social and geographic variables. Environmental history, an emerging field little applied to the Middle East region, forms one avenue of investigation. Contextualising the region as cohesive unit of study, it explores the influence of the region’s environment on its people, states and economies over the long term. Human relationships to the land are also accounted for, in terms of examining contemporary pastoralism in the Middle East. And the impact of natural resources on the processes of state formation in the region is another emphasis, as is their effect on economic diversification.

The research initiative accounts for broader concerns about the depletion of natural resources, and indeed their quality, across the planet. As such, one of the major contributions of this project is its emphasis on the environment and environmentalism in the Middle East, a much-understudied topic. For example, one avenue of study is the impact of coastal sand mining in Morocco. Sand, after fresh water, constitutes one of the most widely consumed natural resources in the world. Water scarcity, a global issue, but one that is particularly acute in the Middle East, is also investigated in the context of Yemen, which some have positioned as a harbinger for the region, and in particular the Gulf states. Food security is studied in the case of Syria, which before the civil war began in 2011, was one of the region’s notable food exporters. Aside from acute food shortages within Syria, the conflict led to rising food prices in neighbouring states, for example Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

The project also accounts for the emerging emphasis on renewable energies, for example solar and wind power. This is particularly relevant in the hydrocarbon-centric economies of the Gulf, as they attempt to prepare for the inevitable transition to a post-oil era. One of the leaders in this field is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has built one of the world’s largest solar power plants in the Abu Dhabi desert. The UAE is also notable for its state-led efforts to manipulate and morph its environment, as for example through its decade long effort to “green” the arid desert geography. These efforts to effectively manufacture natural resources are a particularly interesting facet of regional development.

Some of the topics that will be explored within the parameters of this project include:

  • An Environmental History of the Middle East: Continuities and Changes over the Long Term
  • Natural Resources and their Impact on State Formation in the Middle East
  • The Politics of Natural Resources in the Middle East: Curse or Cure?
  • The Energy, Water and Food Nexus in the Changing Climate of the Middle East
  • Man and Nature: Pastoralism in the Contemporary Middle East
  • The GCC States: Unsustainable Ecologies?
  • The Impact of Natural Resources on Economic Diversification in the GCC
  • Air Quality and State Development in the Gulf
  • Water Security in Contemporary Yemen: A Pauper Amongst Princes
  • “Greening” the Desert: Afforestation in the UAE
  • The Politics of Environmentalism in the Middle East
  • Renewable Energies in the Middle East: Harnessing Wind and Solar Power
  • South-South Relations: The Politics of Qatar’s Natural Investments in Sudan
  • The Shrinking Shores of Morocco: Sand Mining and its Effects on Coastal Erosion
  • Food Insecurity and Conflict: The Case of Syria

Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Water and Conflict in the Middle East.”