From Barren Wasteland into Productive Space: Abu Dhabi’s Environmental Development Projects, 1971-2004

By Victoria Hightower
Submitted to Session P4172 (Economic Development and the Transformation of Gulf Landscapes, 2015 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Environment; Technology;
The development of land became an important marker of newly independent countries’ development and modernization in the 20th century (Scott 1999). This development required that land be labeled as productive or unproductive based upon its applicability to the development schemes (Cronon 1995). In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, this tension between land use and land non-use was further complicated by the presence of vast stretches of desert, traditionally described as useless by foreign development experts, but defined as useful to the inhabitants of the region. This paper will explore how the emirate’s government conceptualized landscape rhetorically and physically as empty (barren) in the United Arab Emirates and how this conception was critical to constructing Abu Dhabi’s environmental and development policies, particularly during the reign of Shaikh Zayed b. Sultan (1968-2004).

The notion of the barren landscape is developed and expanded within Abu Dhabi rhetoric as an important antipode to the modern state, in much the same way that the notion of tabula rasa is applied to the historical narrative. It provides a convenient starting point through which to reinforce the “rags to riches” concept that typifies Abu Dhabi history. This rhetoric maintains that technology and state intervention can remedy the barrenness. In this narrative, the environment represents a significant lack in productivity and utility that requires the –scape to be reimagined, technologically, metaphorically, and physically (Appadurai 1990).

Environmental infrastructural development schemes including: Al Ain water transport schemes, cloud seeding, the institution of Masdar City, help to start the rehabilitation of the barren landscape. Despite the steadfast assertions that nature can be conquered, this narrative simultaneously valorizes specific ideas of conservation and preservation of land and landscapes that serve more often to fix these -scapes to a time/space relationship that never existed: nature parks, Green Mubazzarah, Sir Bani Yas nature preserve. These interventions and their identification with nature and the environment serve in turn to reinforce the nationalist conception of Abu Dhabi emirate as closer to Bedouin heritage and therefore more legitimate than its less traditional neighbors.

Using popular and promotional materials published by the Emirates Environmental Agency—Abu Dhabi, as well as British documents for the early years of federation, this paper will explore how these schemes helped to reframe and reclaim the notion of barrenness, by putting the so-called barren landscapes into the service of the national narrative.