The political scientist unravelling questions of resource dependence in the Middle East

His personal background puts Babak Mohammadzadeh in a strong position to research the ways that key oil-producing countries are shaped by their political and cultural legacies. As nationalism tightens its grip, he urges us to consider the global implications of populist movements.

Babak Mohammadzadeh at Cambridge University (Nick Saffell)

I’m from a generation who feel at home in many different places — we’re happy to relocate to further our careers. I was brought up to appreciate cultural difference and never to see it as an obstacle to building new relationships.

The ability to make friendships without borders comes from my parents. They left Iran in 1986, two years before I was born. My sister and I were brought up in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. At home we spoke Persian but swapped to Dutch the moment we stepped outside. Sometimes I dream in a blend of both.

My parents are well-educated professionals. Like many Iranians who left after the revolution, they speak excellent English. They made a big sacrifice to leave everything they knew and bring their children up in a cold northern place. And they had to learn Dutch from scratch. My sister and I are trying to live up to their expectations. I say that lightly but it’s always at the back of my mind.

I became interested in the social sciences as a way of understanding a complex world. After university in Utrecht I took a master’s course at the LSE in London. I lived in Islington. When I arrived, knowing no-one, it was my first experience of being totally anonymous in a big city. I became self-reliant in ways that would not have been possible had I stayed in the Netherlands.

After the LSE I went to Rome on an internship with the Dutch embassy at the United Nations. Next, I got a job working for the Dutch equivalent of Universities UK. I had several different roles, the last one involving lobbying the government to continue to support university research.

It’s vital that universities retain their freedom — government interference can destroy them. Just look at what’s happening now in Hungary, where populists are dismantling one of the best universities for social science in Europe. It would be a huge blow if the Central European University were to lose its autonomy.

In Rome I discovered how good coffee can be — and how food can foster relationships. In Cambridge I live close to Mill Road where you can get a huge array of ingredients. Over the years I’ve learned to cook Iranian dishes that need herbs you can’t get in supermarkets. To make ghorm-e sabzi, you cook a mixture of sautéed herbs into a kind of mush before using them as the base for a stew of meat and vegetables. It’s one of the oldest dishes of the Middle East.

My PhD research field is described as historical sociology. Essentially, I’m seeking to understand how states come into being — and how their international relations are shaped by the past in ways we’re not even aware of. I like to use the metaphor of coffee: I wasn’t born liking it, I was brought up to like the taste of it.

All countries are to a certain degree trapped by their historical legacies. They’re not free to radically change their behaviour. The way that they relate to and draw power from their own population has consequences for their future foreign policies. As a historical sociologist, I research what practices and institutions lie at the heart of this path-dependent logic.

The politics of resource dependence in the Middle East is my main focus. I’m looking in particular at Iran and Saudi Arabia from the 1930s up to the present. Both are oil-producing countries with a strong Islamic orientation, but they are very differently organised internally as a result of their long-term military development and exposure to the international economy since the 1930s.

Iran is a familiar kind of state — it’s strongly centralised and has a mixed economy. These are key ingredients for pursuing a confrontational foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is a lot more dependent on its global connections than on its own population and cannot afford an anti-western policy, even if it wanted to.

My sources are archives and, whenever I can track people down, live interviews. On fieldwork in Riyadh, I came across the records of Dutch bankers and consultants who had a major role to play in developing the early Saudi state. Few people realise that the national bank in Saudi Arabia was operated by a Dutch company. It’s amazing to discover these relatively unknown facts in Dutch.

Language is a key to understanding a country — and here I have an advantage as a speaker of English, Dutch and Persian. It’s no wonder that lots of Europeans are baffled by the Middle East — inevitably they look at it through the lens of their own histories. There’s a tendency to see the Middle East as a closed system. In reality, it’s intimately meshed into our own.

ISIS is not simply a spill-over from the Syrian conflict. Its growth and appeal would not have been possible without decades of western interference. Combatting it will require coming to grips with the many social problems that we face in our European societies. Perhaps this is even more important than a military settlement of the Syrian conflict.

There’s a danger of thinking too regionally. Populism is an example. We see it in the UK, Holland and France — and of course in the USA — but the interesting thing about populism is that it manifests as a global phenomenon. There are clear links between things like Trump’s election, Brexit and the fortunes of the radical right in continental Europe.

There are broader implications too. The rejection of globalisation and the reassertion of nationalism and cultural uniformity are making similar headway in places like Iran and India. The spread of such ideas is bound to affect us all.

I feel privileged to be at Cambridge. Friends who are PhD students elsewhere sometimes find their environments dispiriting and end up feeling lonely. Here there’s so much going on. I work in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) offices in the Alison Richard Building and see my supervisor every day. For lunch, I walk to the University Library where you get an instant feel of the huge legacy of learning.

It’s too early to say what my career plans are — I’m leaving my options open. I’d quite like to stay in academia but I might also work for a think tank. There’s a lot of grim news in the world but I’m optimistic. I see a lot of people around me who are working to extend the boundaries of human knowledge. I feel inspired by them. That’s why research is so important.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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