Middle East Notes and Comment: Who Needs Oil When You Have Land?

Who Needs Oil When You Have Land? 

The business of Dubai isn’t really business; it’s real estate. Dubai’s government takes a barren stretch of sand, begins to build, and monetizes adjoining land. Before long, what had been empty scrubland becomes a bustling, revenue-producing commercial center that drives further investment and pushes the city further into the desert. Dubai never had the oil wealth of many of its neighbors, but the emirate’s real estate prowess has made it rich.

For an increasing number of Middle Eastern states, the Dubai model of using land development as a source of wealth, rather than natural resources, is an attractive one. Some, like Saudi Arabia, are looking to diversify their economies away from fossil fuels. Some, like Egypt, never had many oil resources to start with. But the magic of creating wealth from previously worthless sand is hard to resist.

Read Jon Alterman's commentary on the CSIS website.

From the Middle East Program

​​​​​​New Babel Mini-Series

Babel released the first three episodes of a new 7-part mini-series, Babel: U.S. Power and Influence in the Middle East, looking at two decades of heightened U.S. engagement in the region. Jon sits down with some of the preeminent experts and former policymakers who helped shape U.S. foreign policy in the region to take a closer look at the United States' experience in the Middle East.

In the first episode, Jon dives into how the United States became more deeply enmeshed in the Middle East, how its role has changed, and how some think it needs to change a lot more—with Andrew Bacevich, Ambassador Anne Patterson, and Karim Makdisi.

In part two, Jon traces the story of the last two decades of heavy U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, identifying how it changed the way that the United States engages in the region, and how it changed the U.S. military—with Gen. Joseph Votel, Kori Schake, and Eliot Cohen. 

In part three, Jon looks at how the United States has used its economic toolkit in the Middle East, and how successful sanctions and development aid have been in advancing U.S. interests in the region—with Amy Hawthorne, Howard Shatz, and Ali Vaez. 

​​​​New Analysis

In a commentary for the Washington Post, Will and Natasha argued that as Russia's war in Ukraine becomes increasingly costly for the Kremlin, Russia's playbook in Syria provides a template for a cheap and brutal war. 

As part of CSIS's Crisis Crossroads series, Jon explored how Middle Eastern states were hedging in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Jon also explored how the conflict would affect the region in a short video.

In a Critical Questions, Jon and Will argued that Russia's invasion will reveal new geostrategic alignments, compound food insecurity, and threaten to spark new military confrontations in the Middle East.  

​​​​Syria Aid Report

Last month the Middle East Program released a new report by Natasha entitled “Rescuing Aid in Syria." This month, we released an Arabic translation of the report, which you can find here

We also prepared several tie-ins to the report, including a 2-minute video overview, a Babel episode, and a video recording of Natasha's interview with Jon for Babel—shot in the new CSIS studio.

If you prefer text, you can find a one-pager highlighting the reports main findings here, the standalone executive summary here, or go directly to the report's recommendations here.

Natasha's report has been cited by The Guardian, the Jerusalem Post, and in testimony to Congress.


Jon spoke about U.S. foreign policy at the American University in Cairo as part of the Tahrir Dialogue series. You can watch the event here. (03/12/22)

Natasha spoke with Fortune Magazine about the politics of energy security and the Biden administration's recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. "It's a difficult ballgame to be righteous in the face of such energy insecurity," she said. (3/9/22) 

Jon also spoke with the National Journal about the Biden administration's efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to slow rising gasoline prices.

Natasha spoke to several media outlets about the use of Russia's Syria playbook in Ukraine, including BBC News Hour, Al Jazeera, CBC Radio, and the Christian Science Monitor.