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A French Atlas of the Gulf States

[Cover of Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier, [Cover of Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier, "Atlas of the Gulf States"]

Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier, Atlas of the Gulf States. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Mapping as a French Academic Tradition and its Critics

It seems that English-speaking geographers and urbanists publish many fewer atlases, and draw fewer maps, than their French and—at least until recently—German counterparts. In France, there has been a frenzy of publishing atlases of everything and everywhere since the 1990s. What was first, at the advent of digital cartography, limited to academia, soon became a larger movement covering many topics and countries or regions of the world. The academic tradition of regional geography contributed to the launching of scientific books illustrated by various digitally processed cartograms and other varied infographics. The series "Dynamiques du territoire," which geographer Roger Brunet launched in the 1990s, was pioneering in this perspective, with more than twenty-five books. But soon, other publishers followed a similar path, which soon transformed into an editorial highway. This is particularly the case with the publisher Autrement, which has also translated and/or adapted historical atlases initially written in English. With less than a hundred pages, these books, intended for the general public, have transformed the genre, pushing colored and attractive images and illustrations at the expense of text, limited to short notes. They offer interesting introductions to many subjects and areas, particularly those associated with current geopolitical issues such as Atlas de l'Islam dans le monde or Atlas mondial de l’eau.

Using a more demanding approach, the team of Le Monde Diplomatique and its famous cartographer, Phillippe Rekacewicz, have introduced a series of critical atlases, dealing with globalization, global conflicts, and environmental issues. In so doing, they are subverting the usual canons of mapping, often viewed by its critics as a tool in the hands of (military) powers, rather than an instrument of revolt and awareness. The former is probably the reason that, since the cultural and post-colonial turn of the 1990s, English-speaking academics seem to be wary of such intellectual products, seeing them as instruments of domination that utilize oversimplified—if not altogether flawed—categories intended to impose facts on the ground that in reality do not exist. Indeed, most governmental statistical data contribute to the legitimation of borders that often continue to be irrelevant.

Translating the French Atlas into English

Written by Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier, Atlas of the Gulf States is a recent English translation of the 2011 work published by Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne. I used the atlas in a course I taught at Paris Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi in 2014, and found it was a very useful tool for the students, because of the clear maps on a variety of subjects, as well as updated information in an easy-to-read format. I therefore wanted to review it for an English-speaking audience, locating it in the academic tradition from which it stems, and highlighting its benefits as well as its limits. In 118 pages, it offers a general interpretation of the “territorial” changes of the Gulf region through five chapters, entitled: “A Strategic Place between the Sea and the Desert”; “The Heart of the World's Energy Reserves”; “A Speedy and Radical Transformation”; “Dissimilar Territories”; and “Urban Societies.”

Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier are both geographers. Cadène has written about India and published Atlas de l'Inde. Dumortier, who has lived in several Arab countries, is the editor of Oman contemporain, and author of an Atlas des Religions as well as Géographie de l'Orient arabe. Both have taught on a more or less regular basis at Paris Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi. They have coordinated CITADAIN, a project about urbanization in the Middle East, the Gulf, and India that allowed them to carry out their research, the results of which are found in this book. Indeed, even if Atlas of the Gulf States looks like a handbook, and reads as a synthesis, it is the result of fieldwork carried out throughout the region. The authors are not tapping into existing and easy-to-access databases. Instead, they have collected, criticized, and harmonized various kinds of data, before translating them into maps and other graphics, accompanied by a short and clear, but nuanced and rigorous, text.

Several Scales of Analysis

As is common in French geography, the book’s structure follows several scales of analysis, from the regional level to the urban one. By choosing to deal with the Gulf as a whole—as opposed to more common, divisive renditions such as the “Persian Gulf” or the “Arabian Gulf”—the authors highlight the understudied uniting factors of this region. In the rare occasions where other scholars in this field have attempted to tackle both sides of the Gulf at once, they have done so by reducing the narrative either to oil geopolitics or to constructed categories of sects, such as in the Atlas of Middle Eastern Affairs. In addition, Cadène and Dumortier emphasize the shared physical and environmental conditions, as well a long history of interconnections, both at the local scale—such as economic, cultural, and migratory relationships—and the regional scale—namely the myriad links with East Africa and the Indian world. In so doing, the atlas also provides the reader with little known information about the southern regions of Iran and Iraq.

Other levels of analysis also prove useful, namely the one addressing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. In a welcome move, the authors’ explanations transcend superficial analyses that are usually limited to oil wealth, and delve into the ongoing economic diversification that is not restricted to tourism, finance, and real estate. They highlight the new industrial sectors, such as the aluminum or steel industries, and the consolidation of trade, including regional trade towards Iran and Africa. They analyze the coordination of infrastructure programs throughout the GCC states using various examples: electricity, highways, bridges, and high-speed trains. The specificities of the different countries of the GCC are also clearly underscored. The distinct political histories, as well as cultural, geographic, and environmental specificities, are not ignored (for instance, regarding the availability of natural resources, oil depletion in Bahrain, and plentiful hydrocarbon in Qatar).

One of the most telling points of the atlas is the analysis of the territorial construction of the United Arab Emirates. It is well known that the international territorial borders of the emirates, as well as of Qatar with Saudi Arabia, and their maritime borders with Iran, have long been, and in some places still are, contested. In a series of fascinating maps, the authors uncover the very complex marquetry of the United Arab Emirates. In this federal state, the seven emirates have interwoven and entangled territories, with a series of enclaves, nested spaces, and shared places. This specific territorial history, the sequel of networked territorialities rather than of the construction of Westphalian states, helps us better understand the contemporary making of space in the Gulf city-states. Andrew Gardner recently reflected upon the fragmented landscape of Doha, and proposed understanding it as the result of a combination of the Qatari ruling family’s will to assert its cultural sovereignty on “the flows of foreign matters” and of new economic governmentalities typical of the era of globalization. But seeing this map, I could not help thinking of a historical legacy of ruling space not as a homogeneous matter, but as a complex set of allegiances and networked relations resulting in a differentiated space.

The original and sophisticated maps and infographics clearly demonstrate the abovementioned processes. They encompass statistical cartograms and other well-designed diagrams, in addition to more classical maps featuring political and administrative borders or land uses. Such clarity and aesthetics, combined with the wealth of data, make this atlas a very useful pedagogical tool.

Urban Societies? Beyond Growth, Looking for Internal Differentiation

The last part of the book’s analysis, dealing with the urban scale, is somewhat less successful. It is surely useful. In line with their concern for showing the diversity of urban profiles beyond the well-known metropolis, the authors indeed engage in a breathtaking effort of mapping all the secondary regional cities, including frequently “off-the-map” places like al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian shore or the Eastern emirates. This is of course a compelling achievement given the lack of prevailing studies and research on these areas and the difficulty in accessing relevant information. Nevertheless, this part is weaker than the other themes the book tackles. This is perhaps because it uses modes of representation that rely mostly on land use maps with few details that do not reveal well the wide variations in the urban morphology within the urban landscapes of the region, which feature many contrasts between dense areas, spectacular skylines, and sprawling suburbs. Some photographs between the chapters compensate partly for this shortcoming.

In addition, while several maps showcase the growth of urban spaces since the 1980s, one can also regret that internal changes in the morphology, such as densification, are not presented. In contrast to this, the authors excessively utilize the sometimes-grandiloquent master plans of the main metropolis, where a number of forecasted projects will never happen. The authors themselves make this point by mapping three abandoned projects on the seashore of Dubai.

The inclusion of several other themes, such as urban transportation or ethnic and social segregation, would have also significantly strengthened the book. Except for the successful achievement of the Dubai metro, the hegemonic car seems to have led to massive congestion everywhere—a central challenge that many governments have been trying to deal with. In addition, the book fails to tackle the consequences of the sedentarization of Bedouins (see Pascal Menoret on Riyadh, and Farah al-Nakib and Claire Beaugrand on Kuwait for recent contributions on this issue), or labor camps—the focus of other recent research (for instance, a very interesting article by Tristan Bruslé about Qatar, in addition to Andrew Gardner's work). More precisely, this chapter could have addressed the everyday urban micropolitics that offer a less polished image of these urban transformations. Of course, comprehensive data for mapping such phenomena is sparse. But other approaches and modes of representation could have been used, like documenting a few telling cases of urban ethnographies.

One can also interpret these absent themes as the sign of persisting barriers between English- and French-speaking academic works on the region, despite recent common initiatives, like the Boom Cities: Urban Development in the Arabian Peninsula conference in 2012. In this respect, the translation of this atlas into English represents an excellent tool for disseminating visions and approaches. The richness and the quality of this book, despite these minor critiques, make it an invaluable tool for researchers and teachers seeking to present a dynamic vision of this region. Let us also hope that its astonishing price ($195 hardcopy, which is eight-fold its price on the French market) will not impede its circulation.

[I would like to warmly thank the editors of this review for their insightful comments and suggestions.]

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