Scholars and policymakers write on the Middle East and North Africa through a one-dimensional focus on geopolitics, war, corruption, and repressive regimes, which often overshadows complex environments and environmental challenges. When they discuss the environment, they have historically resorted to simplistic and deterministic accounts of scarcity and overpopulation. But even a cursory review of recent events highlights the socioecological complexity of life across the region. Consider the following three events in Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon.
During the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and again during the period of time in 2014 when ISIS held control of Mosul, longstanding concerns over the stability of the Mosul Dam came to international attention. Often called the most dangerous dam in the world, the Mosul Dam sits atop cavernous ground which requires constant reinforcement to avoid catastrophic breakdown and social and environmental devastation. Imperialist wars, sanctions, and regional strife have continually interrupted its engineering maintenance. These disruptions have also made it possible for the US Army Corps of Engineers and foreign contractors to profit from the dam’s most recent repair and reinforcement.
In 2015, one year after the concerns around Mosul Dam were raised, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt announced a massive infrastructural project to expand the Suez Canal, costing upwards of eight billion US dollars. Economic and environmental appraisals of the project were bleak, arguing the financial benefit was nonexistent and that the expanded canal could devastate the Mediterranean’s biodiversity. These daunting forecasts, however, did not put a damper on the state-sponsored country-wide celebrations of a new era of Egyptian megaprojects. Placing engineers at the heart of the country's path towards stability, Sisi claimed the expansion of the Suez Canal as a major accomplishment of his early rule.
Most recently in Lebanon, the Beirut blast represents yet another regional event where the supposedly discrete spheres of the technical and the political quite literally ruptured, constituting what Mazen Labban argues is environmental violence. Leaving behind ruin and rubble, the explosion sedimented new layers of neglect atop the already garbage- and sewage-plagued streets of Beirut. Engineers became central in managing and assessing the explosion’s damage. Civil engineers assessed the structural integrity of the city’s buildings and also sought to measure the impact of the explosion, which a research group recently determined was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history. Furthermore, investigators tasked forensic engineers with the challenge of determining not only technical failure, but also the politics of responsibility. The blast, as many trying to make sense of it argue, can only be explained by understanding how technical, political, and urban environmental neglect articulate together, causing an unbearable level of destruction and trauma.
In all of these instances, the relation between the technical, political, and the environmental becomes clear—if only through urgency, a spectacular display of state authority, or crisis. Without the proper analytical tools, the role of technical expertise in shaping and often depoliticizing environmental struggles becomes sidelined. While the academic study of technopolitics has an established geographical point in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf, this roundtable calls for renewed attention to the particular role of engineers and engineering in technopolitical and environmental projects within and beyond the “Middle East.”
What does a focus on this class of technical workers and body of knowledge reveal about historic and contemporary power structures of and struggles over the environment? This roundtable features a group of scholars whose research varies across histories, geographies, and engineered forms, spanning from water and sanitation infrastructures to dams and floating power plants. Across these diverse contexts, engineers are key actors that take part in designing, manipulating, and managing the environment. Engineers have implemented and designed the colonial and imperial infrastructures that continue to shape the region’s urban and rural environments. Engineers serve as managerial labor overseeing the nation’s dams, sanitation systems, extractive infrastructures, and electric grids.
Trained in their studies to be “problem solvers,” engineers often perceive themselves as uniquely positioned to control and render solvable the messiness of the material world. Through what contributor Gokçe Günel terms “technical adjustments,” engineering and engineers are closely tied with the development and reproduction of capitalism. The profession remains central for producing seemingly technical and apolitical solutions to the conflicts and ecological contradictions of capitalism, including the climate crisis and energy transitions.
We invited seven scholars from the social sciences and humanities to reflect on one of the following three questions:
Expertise, Power, and Environment: Who are the engineers in your research and how are they positioned vis-à-vis power structures and institutions, such as states, universities, colonial regimes, and corporations?
- Gökçe Günel, “Retrofitting Materials, Retooling Expertise”
- Shehab Fakhry Ismail, “Cairo’s Sanitary Engineers: Debating Growth and Efficiency”
- Shima Houshyar, “Engineering Water: Dams, Modularity, and State Power in Cold War Iran”
Gökçe Günel, Shehab Fakhry Ismail, and Shima Houshyar offer insight into how the engineers in their research position themselves as experts off the coast of Tema in Ghana, in the bureaucracies of colonial Cairo, and in the Dezful region of Khuzestan, Iran. Günel analyzes how Turkish engineers working on an floating power plant in Ghana were able to retool their training as ship engineers to become energy workers. Ismail shows how ideas about efficiency and growth among engineers in the United States resembled how colonial engineers understood and contested their role as experts in Cairo. He focuses on a debate that took place in the 1890s between sanitary engineers in Cairo concerning water consumption and sewage system design in relation to the city’s potential growth. Houshyar traces how networks of US and US-trained Iranian engineers mobilized their experience in the US West to construct the Dez Dam in Khuzestan. In each case, engineers work, study, and travel beyond what is demarcated as the “Middle East,” raising important questions about the labor, uneven development, and transregional networks of expertise shaping the environment.
Engineers and Methodology: How have you navigated the epistemological and ontological frictions and possibilities between engineering and the critical social sciences?
- Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, “How I Learned to Start Thinking Like an Engineer: Lessons from Palestine”
- Majed Akhter, “Engineering Nationalism”
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins and Majed Akhter address the epistemological differences they confronted during their environmental research on sanitation and water with engineers. Stamatoupoulou-Robbins, grappling with the role of Palestinian engineers in designing, maintaining, and contesting settler-colonial infrastructures, criticizes one-dimensional characterizations of engineers, reflecting on how her own assumptions changed throughout her research. Akhter, on the other hand, begins with his own background as an engineer to trace how he has come to understand how engineers working for the state in Pakistan, or engineer-administrators, produce nationalism through their technological interventions managing dams.
Technopolitics and Infrastructure: What do you think a focus on engineers and engineering can contribute to contemporary scholarship and struggles over infrastructure and the environment?
- Samer Alatout, “Technoscience, the Continuity of the Zionist Settler-Colonial Project, and Infrastructures of Elimination”
- Noura Wahby, “Gehood Zateya: Incremental Infrastructure from Below”
Samer Alatout and Noura Wahby each address how a focus on engineers invites new ways of thinking about struggles over infrastructure and the environment, particularly in relation to the state. Alatout argues that Zionist engineers articulated technical debates about water abundance and scarcity in Palestine in accordance with settler-colonial settlement and state-building agendas before and after 1948. Wahby argues that the state-led engineering of Cairo’s systems of water provision depends on auto-engineered infrastructures, or “infrastructures from below.” However, the state’s relationship to these informal engineering practices has shifted over time and often depends on the class background of the communities building systems of water access.