The desert as laboratory: Science, state-making, and empire in the drylands

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11 Scopus citations


In December 2018, the University of Arizona was awarded a US$3.9 million contract from the Sultanate of Oman to develop research laboratories for the country’s “One Million Date Palms for Oman” initiative. This project is only the most recent example of a much longer set of collaborations between actors in the two regions, which began when Omani date palms were imported to the University of Arizona’s Agriculture Experiment Station in the 1890s. In tracing this history, I show how establishing state power in the US West was facilitated by the work of scientists and research institutions drawing on materials and knowledge from the Middle East. In the case of Arizona, the colonial project was advanced through the federally funded land-grant programmes at the University of Arizona, which aimed to entice white settlers to the territory through promoting commercially oriented agriculture. University researchers’ efforts to secure date palm imports from abroad illustrate how the settler colonial vision treated the desert Southwest as an analogue to the Middle East, but their personal laboratory for developing modern knowledge about desert farming. The case sheds light on the role of scientific institutions in consolidating state power in desert frontiers – a process that is depoliticised by framing the desert as a laboratory as a site for “modern” science rather than a site to be colonised.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-509
Number of pages15
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • US West
  • agriculture
  • arid lands
  • date palm
  • laboratory studies
  • settler colonialism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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