Spring 2021

Steven Serels

Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient

Approximately 4000 years ago in Ethiopia, an Orthopoxvirus passed from a naked-soled gerbil to a camel and then to a human. Evolving as it jumped from species to species, this virus became Variola major – the cause of smallpox. This highly contagious and extremely deadly human disease then spread along trade routes first to other parts of the Red Sea and then overland across Africa and via the sea to Asia, Europe and, a few millennia later, to the Americas. Though smallpox became endemic to many parts of the world, there remained large virgin populations relatively close to the original site of zoonotic transmission in Ethiopia into the nineteenth century. This paper examines the uneven spread of smallpox as a means of understanding the limits of trans-local connectivites in the Red Sea region. This virus-centric history challenges recent historical trends foregrounding maritime-links, commodity flows and human movement. However, these connections were not universal. Remaining outside of them provided a shield to the spread of smallpox for many communities in present day South Sudan, Djibouti and Somaliland (Somalia). The integration of these communities into the Red Sea commercial network in the nineteenth century occurred through the extension of new forms of political violence, and, tragically, resulted in untold deaths from smallpox.

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Presentation: Smallpox and the Historical Limits of Connectivity in the Red Sea

Wednesday, February 17

19:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST  (NYC)

07:30 PST  (LA)

Register here

Steven Serels is a Research Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. He holds a Master’s (2007) and a PhD in History (2012), both from McGill University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union (2005). He previously was a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg’s Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien. He is the author of Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery and Power in Sudan 1883-1956 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and The Impoverishment of the African Red Sea Littoral, c1640-1945 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

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The Red Sea is a highly diverse region in terms of climate and water resources. The region faces increasingly water scarcity challenges which require urgent attention. The drier parts of Red Sea are getting drier due to climate change. The wetter parts of red Sea are getting wetter, yet these water resources are poorly accessible due to mismanagement of resources. This presentation will discuss the water resource availability issues in the region based on the last 40 years of datasets. I will also share relevant lessons on water resource management from other similar regions of the world.

Mekonnen Gebremichael

University of California, Los Angeles

Mekonnen Gebremichael is a professor of Engineering Hydrology at the University of California Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, his M.S. from Twente University, Netherlands and a B.S. from Haromaya University, Ethiopia. His research interests are understanding and prediction of hydrological fluxes on a range of spatial and temporal scales, advancing the use of satellite observations for water resource applications, uncertainty analysis of hydrological estimations and forecasts, transboundary river basin management, water resource management and governance in developing countries, and impact of hydrological and climate changes on vector-borne diseases. 

Presentation: Water Resources in The Red Sea Region Under Climate Change

Wednesday, February 24

19:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST  (NYC)

07:30 PST  (LA)

Register here

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Presentation: Strategic partnership or systemic Rivalry in a Microcosm: ΕU and China in Djibouti

Wednesday, March 3

19:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST  (NYC)

07:30 PST  (LA)

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Sophia Kalantzakos

New York University Abu Dhabi

Sophia Kalantzakos is Global Distinguished Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University and a long-term affiliate at NYU Abu Dhabi.  In AY 2020-2021, she is a Senior Fellow at the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology at Caltech and the Huntington. Her recent research unpacks the implications of the push toward the unification of Eurasia and Africa as a result of the climate emergency, China’s global aspirations illustrated through the belt and road initiative, Europe’s reckoning with a seismic push against both its normative and economic power, and the US’s re-evaluation of its leadership role in the global order.

China’s global vision expressed through the Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to unify Eurasia and Africa impacts power relations, global institutions, norms, and governance structures. As a result, in 2019, the EU acknowledged that its “Strategic Partnership” with China had become more complex, and in certain important areas the PRC is now viewed as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. This paper will use Djibouti as a salient case study to examine a microcosm of changing EU-China relations. In Djibouti and across Africa, the two powers are putting their influence to the test through rival institutional arrangements, diverging development strategies, and increasingly trade and investment. In Djibouti, where security is still underwritten by the French and where a number of EU countries have contributed forces, China has overtly merged its commercial and military interests by opening its first overseas military base there. In this small and previously overlooked state in the Horn of Africa, the way that Europe and China will now engage offers significant insights about the future trajectory of EU-China relations.

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Samia Satti

University of Khartoum

This paper uses the descriptive and comparative approaches and uses the OECD (1996) definition of knowledge–based economy, the World Bank Knowledge Index and Knowledge Economy Index and other indicators to examine progress and challenges in transition to knowledge-based economies in Arab Gulf countries. We fill the gap in the Gulf literature and present more comprehensive analysis of progress and challenges impedes transition to knowledge-based economies in Arab Gulf countries. Our findings support the first hypothesis concerning relative progress in transition to knowledge– based economies in Arab Gulf countries. Our results corroborate the second hypothesis that transition to knowledge-based economies faces several challenges in Arab Gulf countries. Our findings support the third hypothesis concerning variation in transition to knowledge based economies across Arab Gulf countries. Therefore, the major policy implication from our analysis is that it is essential for Arab Gulf countries to implement a more coherent and sound policies to enhance the transition to knowledge based economy in Arab Gulf countries.

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Presentation: Challenges and Opportunities for Transition to Knowledge-Based Economy in Arab Gulf Countries

Wednesday, March 10

19:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST  (NYC)

07:30 PST  (LA)

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Prof. Dr. Samia Satti Osman Mohamed Nour is a Full Professor of Economics at the Department of Economics, Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, University of Khartoum, Sudan. She is a member of the University Senate and the Department of Economics and the Faculty Boards. Prof. Nour is the first female professor in the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, University of Khartoum since its establishment in 1958, first female professor of Economics, in the Department of Economics, Faculty of Economic and Social Studies, University of Khartoum since the establishment of the Department of Economics, and also the first new professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, University of Khartoum since the mid of 1970s.  Prof. Nour's main research interests are in the fields of Economics, Economics of Innovation and Technological Change, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, International Economics, Labor Economics, Development Economics, Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development, Endogenous Growth, Human Capital, Public Policy, Migration, Transfer of Knowledge, and Knowledge Economy. 

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Presentation: Gulf land investments and the politics of disruption in central Sudan

Wednesday, March 17

18:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST (NYC) 

07:30 PST  (LA)

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Nisrin Elamin is currently an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Bryn Mawr College. Her work explores the relationship between land, belonging, migration and geopolitics in post-secession Sudan and the broader Sahel region. Her current project examines the ways landless and landholding communities are negotiating and contesting changes in land ownership prompted by a recent wave of Gulf Arab corporate investments in Sudanese land. It situates contemporary, state-driven ‘land grabs’ in the agricultural Gezira region of central Sudan, within a layered history of enclosures and unequal landed relations shaped by legacies of enslavement and colonial rule. Methodologically, it combines a multi-sited ethnographic study of land dispossession in rural and peri-urban communities with a historical analysis of the ways the Gezira has been imagined as the answer to various colonial and post-colonial development visions. 

Nisrin Elamin

Bryn Mawr College

In the mid 2000s, Sudanese government elites devised a plan to revive the nation’s post-secession, post-oil economy by attracting foreign investments in agriculture from within the Muslim world. Prompted in turn by the 2008 food and financial crises, a dozen Gulf Arab, Egyptian, Lebanese, Qatari and Turkish investors have since established large agribusiness farms on Sudanese land that local farmers and pastoralists have used for generations. This talk focuses ethnographic attention on the aftermath of a land grab facilitated by Sudanese government elites that led to the establishment of an Emirati owned agribusiness farm located some 70 kilometers south of Khartoum along the Blue Nile. The farm aptly named Zayid al Kheir, after one of the founding fathers of the UAE, encompasses 42000 hectares of land. Only 6000 of these hectares however, are currently being farmed. The rest of the farm lies fallow and is cordoned off by manned fences, cutting off access to herding routes and rain-fed farmland for surrounding communities. The question I try to answer in this talk is: what ‘work’ is land doing here for both Sudanese and Emirati elites, beyond food security and beyond acting as a placeholder against future uncertainties? How is this ‘work’ in turn being disrupted by local stakeholders with different claims to this enclosed land? While Gulf Arab investments in Sudanese land are nothing new, I argue that projects like Zayid al Kheir are 1) tethered to an imaginary agrarian ecology and post-oil development vision that is less about extracting profits and maximizing agricultural output than about expanding and solidifying Emirati geopolitical power in Sudan and across the Sahel and 2) that these transnational development projects and visions are giving rise to new kinds of political mobilizations at their points of reception, that require ethnographic attention across various scales. 

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Presentation: Economic Diversification and Climate Change in the GCC: Do they synchronize?

Wednesday, March 31

18:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST (NYC) 

07:30 PST  (LA)

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Aisha al-Sarihi

KAPSARC, Saudi Arabia

Dr Aisha Al-Sarihi is a research associate at KAPSARC (King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center). Aisha’s research interests focus on the environment, energy policy and climate economics and policies. She obtained her Ph.D. at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy. Her thesis focused on policies and challenges for renewable energy adoption in oil-producing countries. Following her Ph.D., Aisha pursued her postdoctoral research at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre, working on assessing the economic implications of climate change in the GCC. She also joined the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, studying the challenges and opportunities for aligning climate policies with economic diversification strategies in Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. Before joining KAPSARC, Aisha worked at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies as a visiting scholar.

In the absence of effective climate policies, all regions, irrespective of their geographic location or development level, would experience relative reductions in their income levels by 2100. For oil producing Gulf Arab countries, climate change is expected to exacerbate readily existing challenges of water, energy and food security. It is also expected to impose risk to oil sector and cause direct economic losses due to expected reduced global fossil fuels consumption aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Economic diversification is an optimal way to minimize the harm caused by climate change, reducing fiscal dependance on oil export revenues, while maximizing economic development opportunities. However, pursuing economic diversification as a low carbon economic transition pathway (while ensuring its sustainability and climate-resilience) is not without challenges. This lecture will discuss the challenges and opportunities for climate policy integration into Gulf Arab states’ economic diversification strategies.

Rhiannon Stephens

Columbia University

Rhiannon Stephens specializes in the history of precolonial and early colonial East Africa over the past two millennia. Her first monograph, A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), traced the history of motherhood as a social institution and an ideology across over a millennium of Ugandan political, economic and social change. She is the co-editor of Doing Conceptual History in Africa (Berghahn Books, 2018), which critically examines what it means to write conceptual history on the continent. Her current book project is Poverty and Wealth in Eastern Uganda: A Conceptual History and traces poverty and wealth as economic and social concepts over the past two thousand years. This year she is spending her Mellon New Directions Fellowship completing an MA in Climate and Society at Columbia University as her work turns towards better incorporating past climate change into our understanding of East African history.

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Presentation: Early East African History and the Possibilities of Paleoclimatology

Wednesday, April 7

18:30 GST (Abu Dhabi)

10:30 EST (NYC) 

07:30 PST  (LA)

Register here

Historians and climate scientists are increasingly collaborating with each other. The goals of this work are, broadly, twofold. One is to better understand our past climate at a higher resolution at local or regional scales. While we know much about how the climate has changed over the course of human history at a global or hemispheric level, the complicated dynamics at regional and sub-regional levels means there is much still to learn and historical evidence can help by anchoring climate events in time. The other is to better understand history through our knowledge of the climate by bringing paleoclimatology into historical research. East Africa is both a challenging and exciting place for such collaboration. It is challenging because the factors that drive the climate there are especially complex and because the kinds of data frequently used to reconstruct past climate at high resolution are not available, whether we think of tree rings or historical records of harvests. But by using cores from lakes and the Indian Ocean it is possible to reconstruct shifts in East Africa’s climate at increasingly fine geographical and temporal scales. And by taking an interdisciplinary approach to history, drawing on oral traditions, historical linguistics and archaeology, it is possible to understand how changes in the climate affected the region’s communities. That is what makes this an exciting region for collaboration and this paper explores some of the possibilities that emerge from such work.