The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

Decentring Political Geographies

James D. Sidaway

Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117570

As critical political geographers have shown, it is important to move beyond the acceptance of geopolitics as a reality of world politics and to examine critically the ways in which geopolitical terms are defined and the significant social meanings they hold. (Marston and Rouhani 2001, 101–02)

 … the historically distinct conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine have in recent years come to be more and more connected. Militants in each, secular nationalist (Saddam) as well as Islamist (Osama bin Laden), portray the cause of resistance to the West and its regional allies in the Muslim world as one. They also, most importantly, see an opportunity in connecting these crises to mobilize support in pursuit of their major goal, retaining, or taking control of their countries. Two or three decades ago the connections were much weaker, even between Palestine and the Gulf. Now these two epicentres are tied, with extension to Bosnia in the north-west and Afghanistan and Kashmir to the east and south. This is the new, rhetorical and militarized political geography of the new greater West Asian crisis. (Halliday 2002, 40)

Flanking this space of “new greater Western Asian crisis” are American weapons and troops. This is all the more evident if we take account of the two key American alliances, the long-standing accord with Saudi Arabia, and the even deeper alliance with Israel (and if we therefore consider the role of U.S. made weaponry in Israeli and Saudi hands). On one significant level, therefore, now is a time of the assertion of American geopolitical hegemony in the region. Of course, as readers of The Arab World Geographer will know, the United States has long played a key role in most of Arabia and the Gulf, as well as much of the wider Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and parts of the Balkans. But in 2002 and 2003 this has been dramatically extended into Central Asia and to Iraq. The wider consequences of this are—and will likely remain for some time—unclear, although there must be little doubt that they will be deep and enduring. In this commentary I want to consider briefly an aspect of the media coverage of the recent phase of conflict in Iraq, especially the role of Arab television channels, of which by far the most prominent is the Qatar-based aljazeera. This may appear as a relatively trivial concern, and to those who have suffered injury or lost friends, loved ones, or livelihoods in the recent fighting and in its chaotic aftermath, it certainly is. However, I will argue that the enhanced visibility of aljazeera is symptomatic of a wider possibility.

One thing that was evident in Western television coverage of the first Gulf War (that of 1990–1991) is that the agenda for live television coverage then was set by CNN. Other American networks subsequently imitated its style of live feeds. CNN’s role in the early 1990s lead to extensive debates about geopolitical representation, of which Baudrillard’s (1991) arguments about televisual war are probably the best known.1 During the conflict that followed the 2003 American and British invasion of Iraq, CNN was still evident, along with competitors of broadly the same format, such as BBC World and the more tabloid-like and right-wing Fox news (owned by Robert Murdoch’s multinational news corporation). The scandalous jingoism of most of the American networks can only be fully appreciated when the psycho-political shock of 11 September is taken into account. Yet during the latest war in Iraq all these networks (and many other broadcasters) frequently resorted to feeds from aljazeera and other Arab sources. Certainly, these images were variously edited, censored, overwritten, and re-narrated by the Western networks (especially Fox, which seeks to twist everything into a manifestation either of “American patriotism” or its “terrorist enemies”). Later, aljazeera would be condemned by ministers in the British and American governments. More significantly, the Web sites of aljazeera and its correspondents were targeted (hacked and attacked). And their ability to reach a wider audience was very often compromised, both through such editing and by direct state regulation, in some places extending to outright banning. Yet despite all this, the overall media coverage of the Gulf War of 2003 had something of a different (and perhaps unexpected) feel, precisely by virtue of the role of the alternative sources, such as those aljazeera feeds (however compromised, fragmentary, and limited the experience of these may have often been).

This difference is a symptom of a wider possibility; as images from elsewhere become either directly available or creep into the very English-language Western media that, otherwise, might appear to be sympathetic to or directly in the service of that would-be drive for American hegemony. Such “decentring,” however modest, offers some subversive possibility. In the midst of the relative absence of directly critical and dissident voices in much of the mainstream media, this possibility is to be seized and supplemented. Moreover, in this context, geographers have an opportunity, a vocation, and a responsibility to offer our students (and whatever wider audiences we reach) alternative interpretive frameworks for critical understanding. How, for example, does the present conflict rest on earlier imperial strategies and the impact of the Cold War in the Mashreq? The historical, cultural, and political geography of British, French, and American imperialism, Zionism, and Arab nationalism thereby become live issues. How does the conflict relate, too, to the economic geography of the key commodity of oil? The latter question also raises many wider ecological and socio-economic matters and enables links to the global and regional geographies of “development,” finance, and production.

In other words, there is now scope for some select “lessons in geography.” Where effective, these will sharpen critical visions of and foreground alternatives to the “new rhetorical and militarized political geography of the new greater West Asian crisis” (Halliday 2002, 40)—and all that accompanies it.


1 For some critical engagements, see Merrin (1994), Ó Tuathail (1993), and Sidaway (1998). Let me also take the opportunity to recommend the excellent, UK-based Arab Media Watch ( as a useful font of critical sources.


Baudrillard, J. 1991. La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu. Paris: Galilée.

Halliday, F. 2002. Two hours that shook the world—September 11, 2001: Causes and consequences. London: Saqi Books.

Marston, S., and Rouhani, F. 2001. Teaching and learning the lesson of complexity. The Arab World Geographer 4:100–02.

Merrin, W. 1994. Uncritical criticism? Norris, Baudrillard and the Gulf War. Economy and Society 23:433–58.

Ó Tuathail, G. 1993. The effacement of place: U.S. foreign policy and the spatiality of the Gulf Crisis. Antipode 25:4–31.

Sidaway, J. D. 1998. What is in a Gulf? From the “arc of crisis” to the Gulf War. In Rethinking geopolitics, ed. G. Ó Tuathail and S. Dalby, 224–39. London: Routledge.  

(Submitted 20 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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