Natalie Koch, Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia (Verso Books, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Natalie Koch (NK): As a US political geography professor for over ten years, I have focused nearly all of my research on international contexts—first I was studying Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and then the Gulf countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The places I spent so many years traveling to—like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—were all deserts. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona—the heart of the Sonoran desert—so I was always filtering those experiences through my understanding of the desert. I saw so many similarities between these three different arid regions and how people related to and understood desert landscapes. But I never reflected on the direct links between the places until I heard about the Saudi dairy company, Almarai, acquiring an alfalfa farm in Arizona. I was shocked by the news itself, but at the same time, I realized that deserts are not just cultural and natural landscapes to compare, that they actually have rich histories of direct political connection and exchange. So this was the initial spark that sent me tumbling through dozens of stories, past and present, about how the two deserts I know best—Arizona’s Sonoran desert and the Arabian desert—are directly linked. And very quickly, I found out that there was a long, long history that had never been told in the comprehensive way that I try to do in the book.

J: What did you uncover about the Saudi farm and Saudi Arabia’s historical connections with Arizona?

NK: The dairy company Almarai that bought that alfalfa farm in Arizona in 2014 is actually headquartered just outside Riyadh, in a place called Al Kharj. This had been a favorite spot for the first Saudi king Abdulaziz, or Ibn Saud. He tried to set it up as a royal farm in the 1930s and he eventually pulled in Aramco (then the Arabian-American Oil Company, and now Saudi Aramco) to manage the operations. But in the early 1940s, an American geologist Karl S Twitchell (who had spent some of his early years mining in Arizona) convinced the US government to fund his 1942 Agricultural Mission to Saudi Arabia, ultimately aiming to develop the Al Kharj farms and curry favor with King Ibn Saud. This lay the groundwork for another US government-funded mission to send a team of Arizona farmers Al Kharj, with the idea that they could bring their special desert expertise to expand the farm and modernize Saudi agriculture.

The State Department also organized several royal family visits to tour Arizona agriculture—first in 1943 by princes Faisal and Khalid (both of whom would later become kings of Saudi Arabia) and then in 1947 by Crown Prince Saud al-Saud (who would also become king). And this second visit to Arizona was pivotal in kicking off Saudi Arabia’s dairy industry in the early 1950s; when Crown Prince Saud became King Saud and took over the Al Kharj farm, he insisted on getting a “Grade A dairy” (as he called it) like what he had seen in Arizona. Flash forward many decades and a shocking regime of state agricultural subsidies, and it is precisely this early home of Saudi dairy that Almarai and its nearly 100,000 cows are based. This kind of circularity is something I saw over and over again with this project—a seemingly modern point of connection actually having much deeper roots.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

NK: When I originally framed this book, I felt it was relevant to many debates and literatures in the academy—including a remarkable mix of scholarship in human geography, history, environmental history, science and technology studies, anthropology, Middle East and Gulf studies, the American West, and so on. But more broadly, the book tries to explain the long history of connections between Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula through the concept of “arid empire.” When American settlers and the US military first started to colonize the place that we now know as Arizona after it was acquired in 1848, they really did not know how to deal with the desert environment. But early advocates of US expansionism thought that they could use ideas and approaches from the “Old World” deserts of the Middle East (including farming techniques, plants, and animals, etc.) to conquer the American “New World” deserts. So with “arid empire,” I am trying to capture the wide-ranging political, scientific, military, and cultural system that was needed for American settlers to take over this territory and build US empire domestically.

I also join the discussions about the global histories of empire, showing how this domestic approach to colonializing the desert southwest was made possible by importing animals, plants, and political tools from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as how this circled back to the region later. So as US empire started to expand beyond North America, Euro-American settlers and their descendants learned that they could sell this desert expertise abroad, and started to build new colonial networks in the Middle East around the stories of their common arid lands experiences. So in this sense, “arid empire” is not just about domestic empire-building, but is also about US empire-building in the Arabian Peninsula since the mid-1900s. In tracing these circuits, the book develops some of my earlier writing on desert geopolitics to show how the “desert” becomes a narrative resource. In this sense, it is less about the physical characteristics of desert environments and more about how people breathe life into their stories of the desert and how they put these stories to work through a constellation of desires and beliefs about deserts.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NK: This book builds directly on my effort to think about Gulf geopolitics beyond mainstream approaches to conflict and fossil fuels, and to instead examine the role of science, expertise, and techno-futures in building and bolstering state power in the GCC. Part of this included my earlier research on American and American-style higher education in the Gulf, and how this helped us see US-Gulf relations in a different light. Arid Empire covers many of the same themes by focusing on the long history of the University of Arizona in connecting Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula. But what made this case especially interesting to me as a geographer was that, unlike the other US universities I had considered, the University of Arizona could not just sell a prestigious brand-name. Instead, to get an edge, they relied on selling their stories about the desert and their special arid lands expertise. But as I was surprised to discovered, this was something that had been going on for over one hundred years. So the research for this book ended up being far more historical than any other project I have done before. This historical focus, then, would be the most substantial departure for me—and one that am very excited to continue exploring in the future.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NK: I wrote this book with the hope that the broad public would read it, as well as the scholarly audiences that I am more accustomed to reaching. So I tried to keep the book as free of jargon and academic gesturing, such that it to appeal to readers with a critical eye to history and politics, but who are not formally part of the academy. Especially in my home country of the United States, scholars and the general public alike have become more concerned with the challenges of colonialism and the moral ambiguities of what it means to live in a settler colonial state, built on violence—directed not just at black, brown, and Indigenous bodies, but also the land. So besides reaching people in Arizona and the United States, I wanted to raise questions for other descendants of settler colonial projects about how we should think about “complicity” and “responsibility” today. In opening the book with my own reflections on these dilemmas, I hope Arid Empire will provoke readers to examine and excavate the everyday landscapes they personally inhabit and, often, unthinkingly reproduce.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NK: Building from this book, I am starting a new project on the history and geopolitics of US-Gulf science diplomacy. The research for Arid Empire showed me how spatially and temporally expansive the networks of scientific and political exchange are. But to keep the book manageable, I stayed strictly focused on Arizona. Now I want to expand the scope to include other nodes of scientific exchange between the United States and the Arabian Peninsula, and to better account for vast scope of American experts, scientists, scientific institutions, foundations, and private actors who have worked to promote US-Gulf relations since the early 1900s. Like Arid Empire, I envision this project being both historical and contemporary, but I am already excited to get back to the archives soon.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, Double Exposure)

The U.S. colonization of North America was built on the idea that land and resources are wealth. In this imperial vision, nature was a wellspring of opportunity to be tapped by human ingenuity or simple persistence. As America’s borders moved west, empire thus unspooled through farming and homesteading as much as military conquest. The natural features of the arid West confounded European settlers, however. The unfamiliar desert ecology and climate meant that they could not easily deploy their trusted models of farming, animal husbandry, and commerce in places with limited access to water, high and variable temperatures, different soil compositions, and unique wildlife types and distributions. To address this challenge, empire-builders in early America took Middle Eastern deserts as a key source of inspiration. Jefferson Davis’ Camel Corps [funded by a 1855 Congressional appropriation to collect camels from around the Middle East and Northern Africa] was one of the earliest examples of how this worked.

For American settlers, the challenge was not just surviving in this new environment but to transform their mere presence into something solid resembling “state power.” Taming the furthest reaches of the North American continent was about much more than mere survival. Settlers were also setting out to transform the land into a homeland. Of course, the “American” West was already someone else’s homeland. Contrary to popular American myths purveyed by advocates of U.S. expansion in the 1800s (and still today), the West was not a “virgin land.” It was and continues to be the home of diverse Indigenous communities, from the Navajo to the Apache, Zuni, Pima.

The desert landscape was not “foreign” for these communities; it was simply home. As with any home, the desert was fraught with challenges for its residents, but it was not a place to be “conquered.” Nor was it a place approached with the profit-centered logic of extraction. White settlers, by contrast, were recruited to the Southwest with promises of the great wealth that could be reaped from capitalist enterprises like commercial farming or mining, or perhaps great power from careers in the military and territorial administration. In this way, the dominant settler story about the desert was that it could be a natural and national “resource” to be exploited. But as Diné geographer Andrew Curley has succinctly put it, “Resources is just another word for colonialism.”

For most Indigenous residents, the desert was a place of community and life, a place to be sustained rather than exploited for capitalist profiteering. But this way of knowing and relating to the desert did not align with the colonial logic of extraction, so settlers actively worked to remove Native residents just as they had done elsewhere in North America. Building arid empire in the U.S. West was in part about displacing these people through genocide and war, but it was also about displacing their knowledge and ways of relating to the land. Since Anglo-European settlers did not arrive in the arid West with an understanding of the desert themselves, they drew on other sources of desert knowhow to fulfill their dreams of conquering the dry landscape of the Southwest.

American travel writers, explorers, scientists, and government officials had long described the arid West as a local version of the Middle Eastern and North African desert – an “American Zahara” or a Biblical Orient with spiritual and physical power equal to the Old World deserts that populated the Judeo-Christian imaginations of American settlers. These authors harnessed the “Sahara” trope, Catrin Gersdorf argues, “to deactivate the existential anxieties of the pioneers and to alleviate some of their visceral reactions to the American West’s aridity, recasting it as a quasi-Oriental space containing yet unidentified but extremely valuable historical and cultural riches.” Nineteenth-century authors’ constant references to the Sahara and other Biblical landscapes helped the predominantly Christian settlers imagine the newly American desert lands as a “domestic” Orient and, in this way, somehow familiar.

Desert landscapes terrified many would-be settlers in the arid West, but so did the Indigenous residents, with whom the U.S. Army waged overt war into the early 1900s. Displacing the people from the land was one thing, but redefining their social and cultural association with the desert was a different matter. Here again, the camel proved useful. This is vividly illustrated when the U.S. Army finally collected enough camels in Texas to run its first Camel Corps trial to assess the animals’ endurance and suitability for military purposes. The Army’s man in charge, General Edward Fitzgerald Beale, brought Hi Jolly, his fellow cameleers, and a large camel caravan together to travel from Texas to California beginning in September 1857. When the expedition stopped in Los Angeles in January 1858, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin described the scene with dramatized gusto:

General Beale and about fourteen camels stalked into town last Friday week and gave our streets quite an Oriental aspect. It looked oddly enough to see outside of a menagerie, a herd of huge, ungainly awkward but docile animals move about in our midst with people riding them like horses and bringing up weird and far-off associations to the Eastern traveler, whether by book or otherwise of the land of the mosque, crescent or turban, of the pilgrim mufti and dervish with visions of the great shrines of the world, Mecca and Jerusalem, and the toiling throngs that have for centuries wended thither, of the burning sands of Arabia and Sahara where the desert is boundless as the ocean and the camel is the ship thereof.

This account actively rewrites the then-dominant imaginary of U.S. West as the domain of hostile Native Americans, enlisting the camel to transform it into a whimsical vision of the Old World in the New. No longer the home of “savage tribes,” the desert was instead cast as a miniature Holy Land. Colonization was made friendlier by conceiving of it as a pilgrimage, an act of return. By directly linking to the familiar visions of Middle Eastern deserts that fill the Bible, the American deserts could start to feel more familiar too. In this way, the territories annexed in the mid-1800s could begin to be imagined as an individual settler’s home, and the arid empire as part of the homeland. For what else is home but familiar?