Arid empire: The entangled fates of Arizona and Arabia (Koch, 2023)

Zachary Sug


Koch, N. 2023. Arid empire: The entangled fates of Arizona and Arabia. Verso. 224p. ISBN 9781839763694 (hardcover)/ISBN 9781839763724 (ebook). $10 (ebook)/$27 (hardcover).


Zachary Sugg

Babbitt Center for Land Policy, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;


To cite this Review: Sugg, Z. 2023. Review of "Arid empire: The entangled fates of Arizona and Arabia", by Natalie Koch. Verso, 2023, Water Alternatives,


In the world of western U.S. water, novelty can seem hard to come by. Speaking for myself, even the historically unprecedented water supply shortage on the Colorado River can seem disturbingly predictable. With Arid Empire, Natalie Koch is here to tell jaded observers like me that there are indeed still new stories to tell about the region.

Koch draws on a rich body of materials culled from multiple archives, interspersed with her own photography, to weave a history of empire-building dialectical exchanges of scientific expertise and money between the University of Arizona (UA) and multiple Arabian governments over the course of more than a century.  Water is a prominent throughline, but this is first and foremost a book about deserts. More specifically, it provides new insights into how arid lands science and technology have been imbricated in broader imperialist and colonialist projects, thus entangling the geopolitical lives of the Arabian and Sonoran Deserts. This entanglement is enabled by a shared modernist, productivist vision of development that sees the desert as an undifferentiated blank slate to tame and conquer through the application of science with little concern for the human or environmental consequences.

The book unfolds through a chronological series of (mis)adventure stories and vignettes, starting with the U.S.’s efforts in the mid-19th century to import camels from the Arabian Desert to help colonize the territorial U.S. Southwest. Into this overlooked camel story Koch mixes thoughtful reflections on her personal journey en route to the idea for the book, as well as on her positionality vis-à-vis the appalling history of colonial violence inflicted on the indigenous peoples of what we call Arizona, the state where she was born and raised.

That the book focuses so much on the UA was especially intriguing to me because I did all of my graduate studies there, in buildings named after characters in the book. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I never gave any thought to how or why there are date palms on campus. This is explained in Chapter 2, in which we learn about UA researchers’ efforts starting the late 19th century to import and adapt date palms for commercial production in the Sonoran Desert. Koch effectively disabuses us of any illusions that the aims and functions of the UA’s agricultural development in that time were politically neutral or altruistic: “The University of Arizona was just one part of a larger structure of colonial state-making that reshaped the racial geography of the newly American West” (p. 34). Coaxing Anglos to relocate from the humid eastern U.S. necessitated changing their perceptions of it from an environmentally and socially hostile wasteland to a safe blank slate that could be turned into gold with help from modern science and engineering. By imparting the new science of date palm cultivation to white settlers, the UA Agricultural Experiment Station increased the odds that the settlers would stay. The date palm industry eventually fizzled out in Arizona (though it shifted to California), but this episode established a lasting knowledge economy between Arizona and Arabia that underpins the rest of the book.

I expect that Chapters 3 (“Diplomacy”) and 4 (“Desal”) will be especially interesting for the Water Alternatives audience. Chapter 3 unpacks the historical factors leading up to the Saudi acquisition in 2014 of a 10,000-acre farm in a part of Arizona with no groundwater regulations. Saudi alfalfa farms in Arizona are an increasingly hot political issue in the state. In addition to the fact that the farm was already producing alfalfa before it changed hands, what is crucially missing from the current discourse about it in the U.S. is how UA scientists were the ones who enabled the Saudis to ramp up their dairy industry at the cost of rapidly and permanently draining their local groundwater reserves. As Koch has discussed in the media here and here, ignorance of this historical context has made it possible for politicians and some in the media to paint the Saudis as villains without a hint of irony. As an aside, I had one minor quibble in this chapter with the characterization of the Arizona Active Management Areas as county entities (one of their defining features is that they were drawn according to hydrologic and not political boundaries).

While I enjoyed all of the chapters, Chapter 5 (“Dreams”) was my favorite. In it, Koch observes how apocalyptic “population bomb” anxiety influenced popular science fiction of the 1960s-1970s (Dune and Star Wars), the messy saga of Biosphere 2, and Arcosanti, a still-functioning futurist architectural desert commune north of Phoenix, AZ. In turn, Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti inspired Masdar City, a more recent but unfinished effort by the UAE to create a city in the desert deploying cutting edge eco-tech to withstand climate apocalypse. I also enjoyed that Chapter 5 has the oddest cast of characters.

Chapter 5 is crucial because it completes the book’s 180-degree turn from the past to the future. Without it, we might have concluded that the modernist view of the desert as an “empty” living research laboratory that underpinned the earlier chapters of the book is a historically interesting but deceased ideology. Instead, Koch shows us that hitching this ideology to techno-utopian visions of Mars as a safety valve from climate apocalypse has given it a new lease on life. The UAE’s Mars exploration and colonization program demonstrates that such visions are not just benign daydreams of Silicon Valley elites.

Readers may wonder whether the short lifespans of most of the projects discussed in the book undercut their importance. However, Koch attends to this by arguing that their importance lies in the symbolic and political power exercised by their creation and not in the particularities of when and why a particular one was abandoned or repurposed. As she argues, even if experiments like Biosphere 2 and Masdar City are never used as models for something bigger, “…the prototype is effective because it uses realism to suggest that the idea is realistic” (p. 158).

It is evident, based on the writing style (clear, personable, direct), the minimum of jargon, and the unintimidating length, that the book is aimed at a wide audience that includes but is far from limited to academics. This is commendable; I would hate for the message of the book to be confined to a narrow audience. That said, while I think the tandem concepts of imperialism and colonialism are sufficient to satisfyingly cover the main argument of the book, there were parts where I was ready to follow the author into deeper theoretical territory. Additionally, while a variety of works on water, history, geography, etc. are cited, Koch opted not to devote space to articulating the contribution of the book in relation to other ongoing conversations in relevant streams of literature. But I also recognize that expanding the book along those lines would have risked making it a less accessible and engaging read. On that point, Koch has succeeded admirably in distilling a great deal of empirical content into a small, enjoyable, and highly digestible package, without blunting her provocation to think more critically about how the political lives of deserts are shaped by the ideologies we imbue them with.

It is easy to recommend Arid Empire to the WaA readership, especially those interested in the American Southwest and/or the Arabian Desert region. Because the remit of the book is broader than just water issues, I can imagine it being usefully read alongside contrasting views of the desert in a wide range of university courses such as history, geography, and political ecology.

As I finished the book, I was pleasantly surprised that I felt led to ruminate not so much on water sustainability, but rather on the vital cultural necessity of good science fiction to help us imagine what humane, decolonial futures might look like in light of climate change. Arid Empire suggests to me a need for stories that combat portrayals of deserts, whether Arabian, Sonoran, or Martian, as mere blank canvases for “visioneers” to paint naive ahistorical and apolitical techno-utopian pictures with recycled 20th century modernist/imperialist colors. Like the sunglasses in the classic sci-fi film They Live, Arid Empire gives us the lenses we need to detect and critique 20th century ideologies at work in the 21st.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Natalie Koch
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: Verso
  • Reviewer: Zachary Sugg
  • Subject: Water management, Environmental History, Irrigation, Water rights, Sustainability
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English