By Olivia Snaije
One of the best television shows about geopolitics to ever air in the past twenty years (and still running) has been the Franco-German television station Arte’s Le Dessous des Cartes (Mapping the world). In 7-11 minutes geopolitical subjects such as the competition for arable land, rising nationalism in Europe or the regional impact of the crisis in Syria, are treated using maps that magically shed light on the issue at hand.
Frank Tétart, a French academic and international relations specialist now based in Abu Dhabi worked on the program for 14 years and has just published a comprehensive world atlas using 200 maps to help illustrate key points and challenges in today’s world.
“Maps are primarily a tool to understand the complexity of international relations,” said Tétart. “They can point to a specific phenomenon and focus on particularities such as natural resources or environmental characteristics. Mapping is very important because of the complexity of today’s world. It allows you to understand very quickly the various challenges and strategic positioning. You can overlap maps to study specific spaces, for example, and see where people are located on natural resources in relation to conflict. For example if you can see that Kurds in Iraq are located where there is a lot of oil then you can understand why they are pushing for autonomy.”
Although he is an authority on central and Eastern Europe and Russia—his doctoral thesis on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad was published in 2007—the Middle East is an area of the world that Frank Tétart knows well. Following his work with Le Dessous des Cartes, in 2009 he launched the geopolitical and economic French magazine Moyen Orient (Middle East) and he has been living in the Gulf for the past three years, where he teaches at the American University in Dubai, Khalifa University and at the French Lycée in Abu Dhabi.
If you were to map the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, said Tétart, “you would see immediately that we are in an arid region. The population is distributed along the coasts, rivers, and oases or along the mountains, which provide shelter. You would see the religious divides between the Shias and Sunnis and you would see that not all Shias are in Iran, there is a very important community in Iraq and in some places in Saudi Arabia, which is located where you have a main oil field; the Saudis are fearful that this population can then be manipulated by Iran and so forth.”
Furthermore, said Tétart, “usually in countries with deserts you don’t have borders—they are not necessary and only people who live in oases know the roads and the location of different tribes. Borders are not part of the Bedouin culture. After the independence of Middle Eastern countries and especially around the Arabian Peninsula there were a lot of border conflicts that have lasted until the 21st century. The border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen was only established in 2004. The Rub’al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert was disputed as well. The borders of the UAE are very complicated too because you have enclaves within certain emirates…”
Maps are Useful Tools
Maps are useful tools, but people have to be accustomed to using them, as they are, for example in France, where students often study maps in history or geography classes. Maps have been steadily gaining popularity in an increasingly visual world. Websites showing maps have become mainstream, and Tétart pointed out the Washington Post’s WorldViews blog post 40 maps that explain the world saying he found it interesting in itself to observe which maps had been chosen, such as one on modern-day slavery or on globalized economy and what it takes to make Nutella.
Tétart also underlined how Eurocentric maps were until colonized countries began to gain independence post World War II. The 16th century Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator’s map was the reference for centuries, even if it contained many distortions, such as the Northern hemisphere looking greater than the southern one, Greenland looking larger than India, or Alaska larger than Mexico.
“At the time of the great discoveries of the Americas, politically speaking, Europe was the center of the world. It was common for cartographers to make maps with Europe at the center. It is natural to organize your territories around yourself; for example China is always represented in the center on Chinese maps, as is the US,” said Tétart.
Following the Mercator map the German cartographer Arno Peters’ map was used and today the American Robinson projection is popular. Official maps are often government run for state practices, stressed Tétart, such as the IGN maps in France, or CIA maps in the US.
Doubtless governments have been spending much time poring over maps of Ukraine and Russia these days. Ukraine, said Tétart, is a word which in Russian means border region, and was used by Russia as a frontier to stop the Tartars. It is also an area that Russia expanded in order to have an opening to the Black Sea.
As author Rief Larsen’s 12-year old character and mapmaker T.S. Spivet says, “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
Frank Tétart will be presenting his atlas at the Abu Dhabi book fair April 30 in the Tent from 17:00 to 18:00.