The Colonization of Deserts from Arabia to Arizona

Photograph Source: Joe Parks from Berkeley, CA – CC BY 2.0

The first time I remember seeing a desert and beholding its stillness and vastness was in 1963 through a window at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Our family was on its way to Peshawar, Pakistan (then West Pakistan). I was eight years old and was actually more impressed with the scimitars and machine guns the security in the airport were armed with. However, it is the miles and miles of snow-white sand I remember more vividly today. I think the next time I saw the desert was when a friend and I hitchhiked across Arizona to Palm Springs in December 1977. Over the next few years I would cross parts of the desert in the US southwest at least a half dozen more times. Some of those times I would be the only human around for hundreds of miles. The heat of the day was replaced by a relative coolness but the absence of warm-blooded life remained. I’m certain there were birds and perhaps even mammals out and about in the darkness, but I never saw nor heard them despite the quietude I was temporarily existing in. Now, on the rare occasion I watch old Western films and television shows, I find the feeling of aloneness I experienced in the desert tickling my consciousness.

The desert is a part of earth that resists colonization. Yet, humans continue to attempt just that. The advance of technology feeds these attempts, adding to a hubris that not only has destroyed human civilizations in the desert, but has also destroyed the ecological systems that support its unique ecology. Sometimes the impetus for these so-called improvements to the desert are part of a desire to benefit humanity, but most often they are intentionally designed to benefit only certain strata of human society. As in most other scenarios with similar intentions, those beneficiaries are the rich and powerful.

This is the lesson learned from geographer Natalie Koch’s recent work Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia. At once a fascinating history of US and Arab attempts to make the desert productive in human terms and a comprehensive discussion of what colonizing the desert means, Koch’s text begins with one of this reviewer’s favorite tales about the US colonization of its western deserts. It is a story about camels in Texas and the US government’s hope that these camels would enable its military to create a camel corps to secure the lands they had just taken from Mexico in the Intervención estadounidense en México. These thirty-three animals were shipped from the middle east along with a Syrian camel trainer named Haji Ali. His name would be mutilated by the US men he worked with to Hi Jolly. The idea was that the camels would be used to create a Camel Corps that would enhance the battle and subdue the indigenous people resisting the US invasion and occupation. The orders to build the Corps came from then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who would soon be president of the Confederate States of America. The camels died. Davis committed treason and Hajj Ali found other work.

The author uses this story as a springboard for her presentation of the history between the US government, the Royal House of Saud and their intermediaries. As told by the rulers, it is a history that ignores and denies the long history of indigenous tribespeople in the Saudi and north American deserts, labeling their methods of irrigation and desert farming as primitive. In most cases, the methods used by the US and the Saudis were often the same, only dependent on fossil fuels and electricity. Although the Saudis were involved in both the siting of the various projects, it was mostly their money that was demanded. The bulk of the engineering and technological innovations came from the University of Arizona, which had inserted itself into the relations between Washington and Riyadh early on. In large part, this separation of tasks was decided by the US researchers and, according to Koch, representative of an ongoing white supremacist approach that is usually present in US and western imperial interactions with Arabs and most of the rest of the world. The publicity surrounding the cooperation was phrased in similar terms, calling Arab technology primitive and portraying the desert in both lands as some kind of white Christian holy land free of dark-skinned “natives.” The desert, like much of the world, is a white man’s laboratory. The people living there are expected to concur with this assessment and the land and vegetation has no say. Like the House Atreides in the science fiction novel Dune (which Koch refers to), the US and its axis believe the desert is theirs to control.

Arid Empire makes previous understandings of the desert untenable. Author Koch has, by reframing the premises humanity based those understandings on, provided historians, geographers and any others who might be interested with a deeper and broader comprehension. In doing so, the narrative is ideally changed forever.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: