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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Thinking Globally About Arabia

[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]

(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally? 

Does the Arabian Peninsula exist? If it does, what are the challenges for scholars in making sense of it? It has been a decade since Sheila Carapico provocatively encouraged careful reflection on a related set of questions. It is clear, and for thoughtful observers it always has been, that the Arabian sub-continent, from the very local to the more broadly regional, has a rich and complicated history. So, of course the Arabian Peninsula exists and there is much to be learned about it! But in saying this, I am reminded that these are banal and peculiar claims, rooted in an approach to understanding the world shaped by imperialism and the Cold War, and, especially by superpower and imperial efforts to organize the world geographically and materially. The “Middle East” in the Cold War, to take one example, became an object of superpower competition for various reasons—because of its natural resources and markets, because of its location, because of the postcolonial ideological and political struggles that were taking place there. A generation of experts in the 1950s and 1960s, a network that connected centers of learning with centers of power, undertook a massive project to remake the world conceptually. They organized ways for thinking about how we can and should know global geography and the people who populate places (i.e., the “Third World”). It is hardly insightful to point out that the Cold War recapitulated imperial racism and imperial power. But it also helped generate new forms of expertise like modernization theory and development discourse that suspended politics, that both enabled and encouraged scholars and others to ignore matters of power, of race, of empire, and so on. The period’s experts, wittingly or otherwise in the service of power, also played key roles in helping transform their expertise into a socio-technical reality; that is, in offering up new ways of thinking about geography, culture, society, and place, they also collaborated in the making of new social and material worlds. Through global war but also through “development,” they helped forge twentieth century global capitalism, the global neoliberal order, the proliferation of authoritarianism, and much more. We should be mindful, then, that area studies and the ways in which we theorize geography, particular spaces that seem “familiar,” like the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, have a complicated history that we should not necessarily reproduce. These matters are familiar to the field, of course, but they have stubbornly endured. Instead, we should focus on how geography and space, alongside a lot of other things, were made historically and politically. 

The history of area studies and its legacy still matter, then. When we think about it all, how should we think about geography and categories? Why should we theorize the Arabian Peninsula over some other kind of approach, some other kind of place? Why not the Indian Ocean? Or something else—something locally determined, something experiential? What happens if we take a view of Arabia from the South Asian subcontinent instead of from Western universities? Several contributors here have begun to do the work of rethinking this, including Ahmed Kanna and Neha Vora. There are other matters at hand as well. Why is it that the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf are still widely considered peripheral rather than central to how Middle East studies scholars see the field? This is both a conceptual and a geographic problem. It is also a historical one. In his work on Yemen, John Willis is pushing the field to think more clearly about deeper connections. So too is Madawi Al-Rasheed. There are others out there as well, including Michael Christopher Low, whose work on water and the Ottoman Empire is helping to bring the peninsula in from the periphery, both historically and materially. There is a clear need for more work that examines connections between the peninsula and Egypt, the Levant, etc. socially, culturally, and politically. There are unlimited possibilities and the result, I hope, would be thinking about multiple theories of multiple Arabian Peninsulas. 

In addition to geography, there are also lingering challenges about what questions and which forces matter. Carapico argued persuasively that relocating the peninsula as a project of scholarship was necessary as a means of moving away from what had been, and unfortunately remains, a stultifying emphasis on “the Gulf,” on oil, and on religion. These continue to be pressing challenges. The ongoing emphasis on oil, for example, is both understandable and also deeply frustrating. Of course, oil and the wealth it generates are hugely important in the region. But what can we know about it? What should we think about it and how should we struggle with the work it does? 

Over the last few years, a number of people—Bob Vitalis, Tim Mitchell, Mandana Limbert, Gwenn Okruhlik, Steffen Hertog, myself, and others—have challenged longstanding conventional views on how we should think about oil and its political influence. Collectively, this scholarship disputes the claim that oil’s impact on politics should be mainly understood through the wealth it generates. Instead, we have argued for an emphasis on labor, on the environment, on bureaucratic practices, on social and cultural practices and movements bound up with the materiality of oil infrastructure, of work, and so on. These challenges have sought to complicate a longer-standing approach to oil and wealth that suggests oil’s importance should be measured principally by how wealth is or is not redistributed. The argument boils down to a basic claim that the key to politics, and most importantly the key to understanding regional states and their relationships with their subjects, is the redistribution of wealth. There are a number of claims that extend from this: states that redistribute their wealth effectively will mostly be able to co-opt those over whom they rule and, so, fend off claims for political participation and deflate potential opposition. It is true, of course, that oil wealth matters and that understanding redistributive politics is important for thinking through various aspects of how states work. But it turns out that theory is not a particularly good indicator of politics, of dissent, or of how states operate in practice. And yet this approach lives on in both academic and more popular writing on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. There have been a proliferation of articles in the popular press about how content Qataris, Emiratis, Saudis, Omanis, and Kuwaitis are and have been in an era of financial plenty. To make such a claim, one must ignore popular mobilization, unrest, political protest, coercion, state torture, state terror, and the complicated histories of contention and counterrevolution that characterize all of these places. 

(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches?  How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches? 

For me, it is questions about geography and space—how to think about scale, the making and remaking of space (physical and symbolic, environmental and political), how people, politics, expertise, knowledge, and things (like oil and water) move within them—that have been and remain most important. In emphasizing these choices, though, I have not necessarily and still do not think that the Arabian Peninsula is the geography that is necessarily the most important to think about, at least not for me. So, if the Arabian Peninsula exists, my sense of why the answer matters may not be the most useful. 

Instead, my interest has been in global networks of experts and how the work of capital, science, technology, and the environment helped shape modern politics within those networks. I have argued that these matter because they helped shape the modern Saudi state, led to environmental devastation in the kingdom, influenced the development of petro-capitalism, and the rise of particular kinds of identities, and sectarian politics in the late twentieth century. These are not necessarily a geographically bounded set of interests, although to address these concerns requires thinking about space and place. And, I acknowledge that while I think they are important questions, they are also very narrow. They are particular and hardly exhaustive of the many possible ways scholars might and should approach the study of Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula, and so on. I do think, however, that they are critical questions—and in thinking about them and others like them we will be better able to flesh out a much more robust sense of the perhaps unlimited ways to work through the plural dimensions of the things we want to understand—about complexities, contingencies, experiences, about histories, about social lives, about Arabian Peninsulas. There is only so much each of us can do, however. For example, where I think and write about the “global,” those who have read my work know that Desert Kingdom is very much a work of situated analysis. Sure, I make larger claims about power in Saudi Arabia and the nature of the state and huge networks. But it is also very much a community study, a close consideration of one part of a much larger geography and network of actors. 

Aside from the work of Madawi Al-Rasheed, Tim Mitchell, Greg Gause, and Bob Vitalis, who was finishing America’s Kingdom while I was in Saudi Arabia for dissertation research in 2003, most of my scholarly influences came from outside the field. The most important were in the study of science, technology, and the environment—--Gabrielle Hecht, Bruno Latour, and Richard White. 

My book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Harvard, 2010) was an effort to make sense of politics in Saudi Arabia through the study of the environment and the political history of technology. In part, it was a personal response to calls by some historians of science and technology, a field that has generally struggled to think globally, to engage more critically about the nature of power and about politics outside the West. The book was also a reflection of my desire to diversify and complicate how Middle East historians think about politics and the region’s place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In making the case that some of the most important political processes in modern Middle Eastern history have been technopolitical and environmental, I also hoped to suggest that the politics of technology, the environment, and expertise were global, built into and caught up in often-vast networks of movement, exchange, and power. The book represented an attempt to disrupt familiar ways in which historians have thought about place, about centers of power, about relations between humans and non-humans, about mobility, about the political lives of science and technology, and why they do and should matter well beyond the specific contexts and disciplines in which academics too often live. I borrow most heavily from scholars of Science and Technology Studies (STS) who think about networks, about the politics of infrastructure and how science and technology both do political work and create unintended consequences. In Desert Kingdom, for example, I argue that Saudi Arabian authoritarianism—the Saudi autocratic state—was not a timeless historical condition. Rather, it was the outcome of various political and especially technopolitical practices that took shape in the oil fields, in water wells, in agriculture, desalination, irrigation networks and so on in the mid-to-late twentieth century. 

In practice, those who had the most important impact on me and my work were not Western scholars at all, but the Saudis and Bahrainis who accepted me and took on my project as their own. They were local scholars, librarians, and bookstore owners who have forgotten more about sources, private archives, and what matters than I can ever know. In addition to being gatekeepers of archives and sources, many of those on whom I depended and worked with had also long been engaged already in asking questions about local politics and in challenging state narratives about identity, about community and about the environment. Desert Kingdom not only acknowledges these local efforts to produce knowledge, but also relies on them. Chapter Five of my book, for example, attempts to reconstruct precisely the politics of doing history and producing knowledge in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. That attempt is deeply indebted to scholars, journalists, and activists—many of whom spent time in jail. Desert Kingdom, then, was only possible because of their efforts historically, but also of the efforts of other Saudis to secretly preserve sources, to then make them available, and to participate in a project to deliberate about them further. I was just plain lucky to be befriended and ultimately trusted by an incredible network of people in Riyadh, Manama, Qatif, Hofuf, Safwa, and elsewhere. I went to Saudi Arabia in 2003 to write a social history of TAPLINE, but the US invasion of Iraq and then the politics of having a Fulbright-Hays (which before me was virtually impossible for American graduate students) in a moment when the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda decided to become active made working along the Saudi-Iraqi border impossible. I was adrift for a few months in Riyadh when librarians, who were also active in the political reform lobby at the time, at the King Fahd National Library helped me locate records on my growing interest in agricultural and irrigation development projects was beginning to take shape. The US Embassy forced me to leave Riyadh in the early summer of 2003, so I relocated to the Eastern Province and Bahrain. I moved constantly back and forth between the two. I had an understanding of it at the time, but it is much clearer to me now how political my research was and why it mattered to my friends in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that we were collaborating in contesting the official narratives of the Saudi state and of Aramco. 

If I am honest about my own place in the study of the Arabian Peninsula, the reality is that I do not know very much and to claim otherwise would be to stretch my expertise. As a student of politics, and a student of environmental politics in one part of the Arabian Peninsula, it is more than a little discomfiting to consider whether or not I can or should comment on developments, on the history, or on social and cultural life further afield. The best I can do, I think, is carry out the kind of careful empirical work that historians are supposed to do and to raise big questions. By necessity the answers have to be bounded in various ways, not the least of which are word limits imposed by publishers! But questions should always be more expansive than the answers we offer. 

For example, I am currently working on a project that asks what is the relationship between energy and war from 1970 to today? While there has been much done on the relationship between energy and politics, especially on whether oil is a curse and whether it is an impediment to democracy, few people have thought critically about the relationship between oil and war. Like my earlier work on the environment, my approach to this question also focuses on geography—in how particular geographies and spaces are made, how landscapes and borders are militarized, for example, about how objects of war (everything from people, to aircraft carriers, to the alpha rays emitted by depleted uranium shells) move in these networks, about how they have been developed and deployed within the context of global capitalism, and perhaps more importantly, how they remade global capitalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  

My current book is both a history of American militarism and its pursuit of “energy security” in the late twentieth century Middle East. America’s Oil Wars (under contract with Harvard University Press) examines why and how American policymakers, oil companies, arms merchants, and a broad range of actors sought to protect and preserve a particular kind of Middle Eastern regional order, one dominated by politically vulnerable autocrats. American strategic considerations reflected a number of anxieties including Cold War rivalry and regional geopolitics. Mostly, though, American engagement and intervention in the Middle East boiled down to maintaining and preserving a privileged place in a global energy regime dominated by oil. American officials and thinkers created new kinds of expertise around the idea of energy security and then proceeded to forge both an approach to, and a militarized technopolitical order in, the Middle East to reflect it. The result was a global network in which oil and petrodollars flowed out of the Middle East and American weapons, experts, and military personnel flowed in. The United States, global oil companies, weapons manufacturers, and their allies in the region helped create a global military-energy system in the late twentieth century, one in which the movement of energy, capital, and weapons, along with the construction of a global network of military facilities and capacities all helped make war a permanent condition of Middle Eastern and American politics. The costs, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives as well as the environmental and human toll of the use of new kinds of technowar such as depleted uranium, have been devastating. These remain poorly understood and have often been delinked from the very energy system and technopolitical approach to oil that made them possible. 

If we think about the Gulf, literally the waters of the Gulf which move and on which objects move, how should that shape our understanding of politics, of connections, of mobility (the flow of energy, but also the flow of capital as embodied in warships), and so on? The answers to these questions will obviously have some bearing on how we think about society, politics, and the environments of the Arabian Peninsula—and I want to write about some of the ways this matters for Iraqis and Bahrainis, for example—but it is a project that is as much about how the Arabian Peninsula is a global space as anything. While I focus on energy and conflict, there is a ton of new work on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf (which focuses on the transnational, on movement, on political ecology, urban studies, space, geography, capitalism, class, etc.) that is hugely influential for me, including Ahmed Kanna, Pascal Menoret, Nathalie Peutz, Andrew Gardner, and Adam Hanieh.  

(3) “Sectarianism” seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of “sectarianism” as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created? 

Sectarianism matters. As both a historian and in a past life when I worked and wrote about Gulf politics for the International Crisis Group, I have written about sectarian politics. Its analytical value, however, is limited. It is more useful, I think, to approach sectarianism as something to be explained rather than as something with analytical power on its own. Its invocation by scholars, although much more by those who are less careful, often obscures more than it reveals. Contra considerable popular thinking about sectarianism and religious politics in the region, it is most important to acknowledge that whatever form it takes (as politics or as a form of cultural expression) sectarianism(s) have histories. They are not timeless. The extent to which sectarianism travels, becomes transnational, and moves is potentially explained by all kinds of things—from state politics to European colonialism. In addition to my unease with claims that sectarianism is a timeless feature of social and political life in the Arabian Peninsula, I am equally frustrated by commentary and what passes as an analytical conventional wisdom that conflates religious difference or religious identity with sectarian politics. 

Bahrain’s two-year old uprising immediately comes to mind. The vast majority of that country’s protest movement comes from the Shi‘i community, but claims that the revolutionary impulse there is driven by sectarian sentiment or politics misses the mark. Instead, it has been the Bahraini and Saudi state-led counter-revolutions that have been sectarian. The distinctions matter. The point is not to set aside sectarianism as unworthy of scrutiny or to dismiss it as irrelevant. But, as a shorthand analytic, those who rely upon it, especially in the media, are more often wrong than right. The consequences of this are considerable. To the extent that there is commentary on Bahrain’s uprising at all, the question of whether that country’s opposition is democratic or an Iranian fifth-column (a false choice in the first place) is often at the heart of things. This has the effect of suspending both meaningful analysis, but also of political engagement. The inability to move past the potential sectarian dimensions of what goes on in Bahrain often comes at the expense of fuller considerations of what is actually a pro-democratic popular uprising. 

Related to this is a familiar kind of historical amnesia. Shi‘i-Sunni political tensions in Bahrain have not been timeless. In fact, they are mostly rooted in the various ways that the Bahraini state responded to post 1979 political developments. Fearful that democratic claims made in the 1970s might grow in urgency, the Al Khalifa government seized upon the Iranian Revolution as a means to undermine democratic empowerment. Because a large section, although by no means all, of the country’s labor movement and progressive political bloc was Shi`a, the government recast them as Islamic radicals inspired by Tehran. It was a cynical, albeit familiar, manipulation of politics in order to consolidate autocratic power. Sectarian tensions followed in the 1980s and 1990s, and have resurfaced since 2005 or so, but there was nothing inevitable about this. 

Sectarian politics in the region have also hardly only been the outcome of local political competition. French, British, and American imperial maneuvering in the region—from the Mandate period through the era of American war-fighting over the last two and half decades—has cynically exploited religious difference, indeed has politicized it, for narrow gains surrounding oil and imperial interest. The sectarianization of local and regional politics, and subsequently of cultural and social life, is as much a global story, and part of global history, as a regional one. 

None of this is to deny that there are or have been internal sectarian forces at work. Saudi Arabia was built in part on the Wahhabis’ often genocidal enmity toward those they deem blasphemous, including religious minorities such as the Shi‘i. But even in Saudi Arabia, sectarianism’s genealogy is often muddled, complicated, contingent, and connected to powers both inside and outside the region. 

(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?   

Please see my response to the fifth question (next).

(5) Some argue that the Arab uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?

The uprisings certainly made clear that an entire generation of social scientists (not so much historians) was wrong about politics, about the resiliency of authoritarianism, and about the democratic aspirations of those in the region. But it would be wrong to say that the pre-uprising study of the region has little to offer. In fact, older traditions of the study of capitalism, of class, of social history, and so on have re-emerged as particularly relevant. If these approaches are familiar, the questions are different and they must be so. What accounts for the timing of the uprisings? What were the particular historical forces that drove them in some places and not in others?

While some questions and frames of analysis are still relevant, others are not. Is it still useful to talk about the legitimacy of monarchies? While the ability of oil states to generate wealth still shapes politics in those places, is it not time to finally dispatch with our preoccupation of the redistribution of wealth—not as a political project, but as the primary way of making sense of the region?

I hesitate to predict the future. I do think that there will be several concrete political effects of the Arab uprisings. One is that sectarian politics will likely be around for a while in spite of the best intentions of those revolutionaries committed to democratic change. Another is the further consolidation of anti-democratic state politics. Well before the uprising in Bahrain, and before the wave of popular politics that has emerged in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and elsewhere since 2011, the region’s autocrats were looking for ways to roll back reforms made a decade earlier. The Arab uprisings accelerated the authoritarian retrenchment. In addition, there has been a terrible coercive turn—from police brutality to the alarming rate of human rights abuses and the unabashed embrace of older forms of torture and state violence.

But if we have learned anything over the last two years, it is that in spite of state led terror (Bahrain and Saudi have earned special distinctions for being brutal) citizens in the region have nevertheless proven to be extraordinarily resilient. In fact, they are inspirationally so. I do not know if the uprisings will turn into revolutions or what might follow if they do, but the Arabian Peninsula is not a sleepy political backwater in which citizens and subject are content to revel in the wealth generated by oil. It is an era of contentious politics. And it seems that this will be the case for the foreseeable future.

There is a disturbing development that has followed the Arab uprisings when it comes to how observers talk and think about them. While sites like Jadaliyya and collectives like the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) have been critical, thoughtful, progressive, and have sought to expand the fields and terms of analysis in meaningful ways, there has been a simultaneous assault on informed commentary about the region and the forces at work.

Because technology and social media make it possible, there has been a remarkable proliferation of "expertise" about the Middle East and about the Arab uprisings. Most of it is terrible and has hollowed out analysis. How should we explain the rise of a new Western expert chattering classes on the Middle East? To be sure, there has also been growth in meaningful and smart analysis, including from journalists and other observers. Most importantly, there are lots of new and important voices from the region that have access and audiences. So I want to balance any criticism of new voices against the good.

In all honestly, I understand that my criticism of instant experts is self-indulgent and I will be honest about that. But it is also substantive. I am no longer amazed, but still deeply troubled, by the imperial nature of expertise—the comfort that a lot of people feel in commenting authoritatively about developments in places far afield from what they know for reasons that are, at best, unclear and, at worst, in the service of national interests and politics in the West.

Anne Marie Slaughter, the former head of policy planning at the State Department, Princeton University professor, and advocate of intervention everywhere (except Bahrain), is an obvious and perhaps too easy target. Whatever expertise she actually has (I honestly do not know) in Middle East politics, an understanding of the historical and political forces in the region, familiarity with language, and developments on the ground are not among them. And, yet, she has emerged as a super-analyst about everything from Libya to Syria. Perhaps this is simply the Tom Friedman effect, where the liberal intelligentsia latches on to familiar faces and voices rather than thinking critically about the world. But there is also something more pernicious about the rise of the new expertise on the Middle East. And this is because it resonates with the old politics of empire and the Cold War. For her part, Slaughter acknowledges rising death tolls and the horrors of regional war, but not very much about the structural forces, the global politics, or the complicity of Western power in helping shape the conditions of violence—whether that be support for authoritarianism or the forces of neoliberalism. So, expertise is thin and a particular kind of liberalism, one that does not challenge power, is rewarded with airtime and access.

There has also been a tendency to trivialize politics, to pass off snark as analysis. Humor has its place, of course. But crude caricature has become all too common. Foreign Policy magazine has perhaps most visibly sought to sensationalize the Arab uprisings and global politics more generally to sell subscriptions and to carve out space as a brand. I think of several instances in particular that strike me as representative and deeply troubling. The first, a fascination with list making and an effort to rank mindlessly (see the top-100 Global Thinkers list), has also contributed to the emptying of politics and analysis. Making lists is partly about collecting, including, and excluding. It is also partly about establishing authority and shaping both narrow kinds of knowledge as well as the social/political networks in which these are meaningful. Another was last year’s publication of Foreign Policy’s sex issue, which from cover to contents cashed in on the worst kinds of colonial feminism. These are gestures to the powerful, not the thoughtful, to self-promotion, not careful consideration. Even beyond recognized outlets, much of what passes for analysis out there is in reality a collective vanity project.

There are real political consequences to this. Aside from the marginalization of reasoned voices and counter-narratives, the scope of discussion, commentary, and what might be politically possible is also emptied out, or, is increasingly narrowly framed. Since the spring of 2011, amidst massive revolutionary upheaval and the spread of increasingly complicated politics, the debate in the United States—on Libya and Syria—was narrowed to a debate about intervention. Alternative political approaches and what we might consider “real” diplomacy were not and have not been evident. The only options, presented as humanitarian and liberal options, have been whether or not to expand and accelerate violence as a means to counter other violence.

This is a terrible place for analysis to be. In the end, though, should we really be surprised? Power rewards those who think the least critically about it, let alone challenge it. Long live the alternatives like Democracy Now!, Middle East Report, Jadaliyya and those who not only are politically engaged in meaningful ways, but are dedicated to expanding the range of discussion and politics as broadly as possible.


Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula
electronic roundtable contributions:

Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.

Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.

Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.

Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz. 

Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.

Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.

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