From Empires of Coal and Steam to the Petro-States and Saltwater Kingdoms: The Indian Ocean Roots of Fossil-Fueled Water in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf, 1850-2100

From the 1850s on, the British Empire began to experiment with coal-fired condenser units to convert saltwater into freshwater in Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea ports where local supplies were unable to keep up with the new demands of steamship traffic. By World War I, these British (and even a few Ottoman-administered) condensers formed a desalinated archipelago supplying freshwater to troops, pilgrims, and shippers from the Suez Canal to the Gulf. Thus, even before the rise of commercial oil production from 1930s to 1970s, earlier imperial infrastructures of coal and steam had already started the Arabian Peninsula’s transition toward fossil-fueled water harvested from the sea. And while oil and gas pipelines and refineries have rightfully been understood as the lifeblood of Arabia’s recent development, another set of infrastructures has remained virtually invisible to scholars, desalination facilities. This talk seeks to make the infrastructures of fossil-fueled water legible by tracing the surprisingly deep imperial roots (and routes) of the “saltwater kingdoms” that displaced the region’s traditional water infrastructures from wells to aflaj. As the contours of the climate-altered future come into focus, even the Arabia of the Anthropocene remains bound to its Indian Ocean past. With “wet bulb” temperatures and humidity readings projected to threaten human habitability and outdoor working conditions, the Gulf, South Asia, and the rest of the Indian Ocean remained connected by more than just patterns of labor mobility and commerce. This macro-region is arguably one of the most vulnerable to the extreme temperatures predicted to prevail by the end of this century. Thus, this talk asks whether the fossil-fueled-and-funded water infrastructures forged in the nineteenth and twentieth century can be adapted rapidly enough to meet the burning challenges of life in the Anthropocene.