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Environmental Orientalism in the Middle East and North Africa

By Selma Khan Riepma


Depictions of the environment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) inescapably include bleak scenes of endless deserts with camels walking through the dunes, an isolated territory with perhaps a pyramid and a minaret here and there. At the same time, for every such depiction of scarcity, an equally persuasive allegory of abundance exists in the observer’s imagination. Tropes like the Nile, the Euphrates and Tigris and Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oil fields brew in the environmental imaginary as a characteristic of MENA’s boundless wealth. From narratives of scarcity to narratives of abundance, one thing is clear. Social and political outcomes in the MENA are increasingly explained through geophysical elements. Despite the resource richness that is present, more recently, the region’s environment is portrayed as a fragile, scarce and hostile ecology.

Such environmental imaginaries are relentlessly promoted in various media. On the level of public consumption, we witness it primarily in films, the news and tourist advertisements. We see pamphlets promising an exciting Bedouin-styled camp in the inhospitable dunes, or we see movies set in the region visually demonstrated through an orange filter to remind us of the arid climate. These depictions fall into a deterministic interpretation of the environment in the MENA, emphasizing a strange and harsh ecology in contrast to the West, particularly Europe. On the level of decision and policy-making, these imaginaries are further reflected in the discourse of academic literatures, government and development agencies concerned with the region. In this way, prominent international actors have a tendency to be swayed toward determinism in their development discourse. Following the rhetoric of resource scarcity, USAID recently states in its ‘Water and Development Country Plan for the West Bank and Gaza’ report that “There are insufficient quantities of water available in the West Bank and Gaza (WBG) to meet Palestinians’ needs. And that “such disparate access to water among people living as neighbors in close proximity to one another is a source of potential instability”.

This is a great example of how the dichotomy of scarcity vs abundance comes into play, readily observed in the discourse surrounding Israel’s management and occupation of Palestinian water resources. Where some claim that Israel made the desert bloom (claiming some sort of water abundance) others point toward the scarce availability of water as a priori reason exacerbating the supposed conflict with Palestinians - thereby, completely disregarding that the source of instability is not solely one of water scarcity, but rather also of unequal distribution and appropriation. USAID’s analysis not only shows an aspect of environmental determinism, but also shows how such a line of reasoning is used in explaining potential roots of conflict in the region. The reality that development policies are devised on such determinisms, where power-relational dynamics are completely removed from the analytical framework, is worrying to say the least.

Roots and Implications

As an axiom of orientalism, environmental imaginary can be defined as “the constellation of ideas that groups of humans develop about a given landscape, usually local or re- gional, that commonly includes assessments about that environment as well as how it came to be in its current state.” These imaginaries are in no way static or concrete, since the narratives are based on a set of power dynamics that alter to varying degrees depending on the particularities of that time and space. Importantly, the author of the environmental narrative gains credit through its position on the dominant side of the power framework.

A large part of early Western characterization of MENA’s environment can be seen as a form orientalist depiction, in that the ecology was narrated by imperial powers (Britain and France primarily) as a “strange and defective environment” in stark contrast to Europe’s “normal and productive” environment. The Anglo-European colonial quest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also gave rise to this environmental imaginary which often characterized MENA as being “on the edge of ecological viability or as a degraded landscape facing imminent disaster”. This, of course, invites a familiar imperial rhetoric and justification for the need to restore and save the environment, namely through irrigation and reforestation projects that overcome the frail environmental management of local tribes and governments. This imaginary engendered an environmental degradation presumed to be caused by the local inhabitants’ lack of expert knowledge leading to overgrazing, deforestation and over-irrigation. Such depiction is often informed and produced on the behest of modernization and techno-political debates about development and civilizational capacity of managing land and resources, often concluding an incapability on the behalf of locals to negotiate modernity. Environmental orientalism then, manifests itself with the assumption that MENA is a primitive region with a weak capacity for environmental management, leading to resource conflicts and climate migration.

In creating these deterministic imaginaries of the Middle East’s ecology, a pretext is established in which the region is once again – legitimized for foreign rule in the name of environmental preservation. This argument certainly held true for deforestation practices since the late 1800s in Bilad al Sham (the Levant), where such environmental imaginaries established a narrative of deforestation that would enable acquisition of property by the Jewish settlers in Palestine in the guise of reforestation. It also holds true in more contemporary cases, especially in the narrative of overgrazing processes in North Africa where the indigenous are assumed to lack rigorous and scientific knowledge in comparison to ‘Western knowledge’. In her research on desertification in Morocco, Davis points out that the indigenous community has often been marginalized by state policy due to the widespread crisis narrative of desertification, thought to be caused by herder irrationality and the locals’ inferior understanding of the environment. Davis concludes that the preference of expert knowledge over local knowledge is a result of political, economic and administrative reasons that – among other elements – are enticed by international funding which conditions an acceptance of the expert debate.

Climate and Conflict


Conservationists have additionally repeatedly highlighted ‘overpopulation’ as a primal cause for environmental degradation in MENA. This argument is reflected in many cases, such as the discourse on water scarcity in Gaza due to overpopulation, or in describing Egyptian agriculture as determined by its overpopulation in ratio with the Nile’s resources, and the general incapacity of locals in the Middle East to manage the increasing population growth vis-à-vis resource depletion. Such rhetoric often overshadows the issues of power politics and distribution inherent to the cases. Common to all the instances described above, is the unproven causal link drawn between presumed environmental (mis)management and conflict. Despite having no empirical evidence showing that some sort of resource depletion or climate alteration leads to conflict, there has been a recent tendency to nevertheless increasingly analyze conflict in the MENA from this disputable lens.

Take the analysis of the Syrian civil war as an example. The war’s progression spawned a discussion on whether the origin of the conflict can be located in the preceding drought that occurred prior to the popular unrest. In this narrative, drought-related rural resource shortages are considered to have catalyzed rural to urban migration, bloating the numbers of the urban poor and finally igniting a revolutionary protest eruption. In this framework, climate change exposed the Syrian institutional inefficiencies of adaptive and managerial capacity. Notwithstanding the obvious political culpability, the Assad regime maintained its brutal oppression of the protests. This unevidenced argument gained a lot of currency with policy-makers like the UN. While it is true that a drought persisted, the severity of the environmental condition vis-à-vis its social impact is underexplained. Instead of jumping to such deterministic links, here again, it is worthy to also question the role of neoliberal agricultural policy and the intensification of land use that came with it, in our analysis of environmental conflict-inducing factors.

To be clear, patterns of post-colonial rule do –to a certain extent- pose a challenge of intensified land use due to large-scale industrial farming. Land and water grabs are illustrative of this malpractice. However, it is neither scarcity nor abundance that serves to wholly explain conflict, but rather their presence and the way in which resources and narratives are operationalized that leads to environmental degradation. In this way, it is important that we place our analysis in a wider frame of political economy and geopolitics. In this line of reasoning, resource conflict is to some degree imposed by the global market; and cannot necessarily be located in the ills of a singular managerial practice that supposedly stands in isolation from the global web. To that extent it is perhaps useful to question the extent to which neoliberal agricultural policy contributed to environmental deterioration. Finally, to clarify, this practice of ‘saving the environment in the name of development’ does not only pertain to foreign powers but also national governments, as we have witnessed in the marshes of Iraq, desertification policies in Morocco, and disparate tree-planting in the Palestinian territories by the Israeli occupation. However, in the context of international relations and development, environmental orientalism most urgently induces neo-colonial discursive frameworks that function in the name of humanitarianism, in this case environmentalism. Such polemic frameworks should be critically analyzed.


Disclaimer: the writers' opinions are their own and not associated with MENA Student Association.

Photo by Damir Babacic on Unsplash

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