The Political Lives of Deserts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Deserts, like any geographic setting, are not sites where geopolitical dramas simply unfold or “touch down”; rather, they actively constitute geopolitical orders. This article shows how taking deserts rather than states as an entry point can provide a unique lens on geopolitics, state making, and empire. Investigating the political lives of deserts requires asking how they are imagined, narrated, and connected across space and time, and with what effect. To do so, I consider one case of desert-to-desert connection: a long but little-known history of exchange between individuals and institutions in Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula. Taking one example from this history, I show how the “desert” as an environmental imaginary figured in the University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory’s joint greenhouse and desalting plant, which was initiated in Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s. Primarily drawing from archival research in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Arizona, I also show how this project fit into shifting geopolitical relations in the Arabian Peninsula’s colonial relations, the rise of the UAE as an independent state, and the role of experts working in the service of broader political agendas of the state and the academy, as well as their own self-interest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-104
Number of pages18
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
StatePublished - 2020


  • Arabian Peninsula
  • desert
  • geopolitics
  • historical geography
  • political geography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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