West Asia and the Global Environment Outlook

Iyad Abumoghli provides an overview of the current state of the environment in West Asia and explores ways to reverse the damaging trends

The Global Environment Outlook in its 6th edition, GEO-6 for West Asia, is part of a global process that aims to review and assess the state of the global environment, identify global and regional priorities, review policies and options, and to chart the outlook on priority environmental issues while also identifying emerging ones. The publication was launched in May 2016 during the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 2). It was the result of a scientifically-based global effort under the guidance of a High Level group from Governments and stakeholders, a Scientific Advisory Group and an Assessment and Methodology Group. In West Asia, 20 chapters were produced by lead authors, assisted by 36 thematic authors and 63 reviewers.

The GEO-6 Regional Assessment for West Asia covers the Mashreq countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria) and Yemen and the GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). It is guided by seven regional priorities: water, land, marine resources, biodiversity, air, climate change and waste management. These were identified by member states and stakeholders at the Regional Environmental Information Network (REIN) Conference held in Amman, 10-14 May 2015. Along with the identified regional priorities, two themes governed the West Asia assessment report: ‘peace, security and environment’, along with the ‘water, energy and food nexus’.

The environment is simultaneously threatened by and a cause for a lack of peace and security and increasing levels of conflicts. The war in Syria and the resulting mass displacement of people across the Middle East are having severe environmental impacts that are endangering the health of millions of people in the region. The regional refugee crisis is also having a profound impact on the environment in the region, in particular on environmental health. For instance poor waste management increases the likelihood of disease outbreaks. At the start of July 2015 there were an estimated 2.97 million refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Iraq, generating an estimated total of about 1,440 tonnes of waste per day. In Lebanon alone, which has the highest per person concentration of refugees in the world, refugees generate about 15.7 per cent of the country’s total municipal solid waste per day.

The lack of regional cooperation on shared water resources and increased water demand and overexploitation of groundwater resources are major threats to the region. The overexploitation of groundwater resources throughout the Middle East region has resulted in a deterioration of water quality, seawater intrusion, the depletion and salinisation of aquifers, and rising pumping costs. Only four out of twelve countries in West Asia are above the water scarcity limit of 1,000 m3 per person per year. The absence of agreements on shared water resources, as well as the pollution of water bodies, complicates water management in the region. This results in food security issues, human health risks and socio-economic instability. Data sharing between countries is very limited. As a consequence, there exists no common understanding of the state and development of water availability, use and trends. This impedes the development of a common vision on shared water resource management.

One of the top environmental risk factors for human health in the region is air pollution. It is estimated that air pollution alone was responsible for more than 70,000 premature deaths in West Asia in 2010. Military operations during and after the Gulf War have increased sand and dust storms several times over resulting in both threats to human health and also socio-economic challenges. In both 2004 and 2008, the highest mortality rates among children under five years attributable to ambient air pollution were in Iraq and Yemen.

Maintaining nexus priorities has been highlighted as a challenge complicating environmental issues. Unsustainable consumption patterns threaten water, energy and food security. High population and urban growth rates combined with current consumption patterns compound pressure on the region’s limited land and water resources. West Asian countries in conflict or affected by sudden large influxes of displaced people face challenges to satisfy their energy needs. This increases deforestation and the exposure to air pollutants due to burning of materials such as plastics, tyres and other waste in uncontrolled conditions for heating purposes. The harsh climate in the Gulf countries causes high cooling demand throughout the year. This is compounded by huge energy waste caused by a mixture of low efficiency appliances, high living standards and an energy intensive lifestyle.

The continuous shrinkage of agricultural lands due to population growth, urbanisation, land degradation and desertification will jeopardise food security in the region, especially in the Mashreq countries and Yemen. Most coastal ecosystems in Arabia have been classified as vulnerable, having lost significant portions of their original extent, and are in need of further representation in the protected area network. Conflicts over land-use and general mismanagement have led to overgrazing, land degradation and ultimately desertification.

Waste management continues to be performed by localised initiatives. Regional municipal solid waste generation is increasing at about 3 per cent per year. More than 50 per cent of the municipal solid waste in the region comprises food waste. The problem is compounded because nearly 90 per cent of municipal solid waste in the Middle East is disposed of in unlined landfill sites; leachate from these sites is contaminating scarce groundwater resources and spreading disease.

The assessment report offers a visionary outlook scenario over the next 25 years, 10 years after the target date for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Adopting this positive vision, several outcomes can be achieved including: healthy people, clean water and good hygiene, green energy, responsible consumption and production, the mitigation of climate change impacts, the protection of marine life and the conservation of land resources and a level of regional cooperation working towards peace, justice and security for all. However, appropriate policies stressing good governance, regional cooperation, data availability and sharing, capacity development and the transition to an inclusive green economy will be needed to achieve the above scenario.

Addressing these interconnected vulnerabilities in effective, sustainable, socio-economic and environmental policies will reduce the impact of major environmental threats, such as climate change and natural hazards, and maintain good environmental health. Institutionalising these types of policies and regulatory frameworks can cause ripple effects across different sectors and lead to the greater well-being of society in West Asia.

Iyad Abumoghli is Regional Director and Representative for the UNEP Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA) based in Bahrain

This article appears in the Environment issue of The Middle East in London.

Abumoghli, Iyad. “West Asia and the Global Environment Outlook” The Middle East in London 13, no. 2 (February–March 2017): 5-6.


Kicking away the migration ladder?

Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 23 July 1870. A European immigrant kicks away the ladder of opportunity. The group behind the wall declares that America is now closed to the Chinese.

Cartoon by Thomas Nast, 23 July 1870. A European immigrant kicks away the ladder of opportunity. The group behind the wall declares that America is now closed to the Chinese.

The recent European refugee crisis has led to a denigration of economic migrants and cast a negative light on the notion of ‘economic’ migration in general. Hassan Hakimian takes a critical look

Recent concerns about the European migration crisis have masked a remarkable – but little noticed – degree of unanimity over the supposed ‘undesirability’ of migration as an economic phenomenon. Amidst outcries against ‘economic migrants at European doorsteps’, and their allegedly questionable intentions, the term itself has come to assume negative connotations on a scale hitherto unknown.

Statements like ‘we need to distinguish between real refugees and economic migrants’ are used with apparent ease fuelled by the urgent need to address the human tragedy that has been unfolding in our backyard.

Whilst a distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ migration can be helpful both conceptually and in aiding us to understand the historical significance of migratory flows in particular contexts, its uncritical and dismissive – if not diminutive – usage in recent times has tended to obfuscate rather than enlighten current debates. Unfortunately, this seems to have been true for both those who have been unreceptive to refugees’ urgent need for protection as well as – albeit with very different and noble intentions – those who have rightly sought to highlight their plight.

The populist backlash has drawn its potency from exaggerated fears and demagogic vilification of migrants as a ‘threat’ to the social cohesion and economic prosperity of host countries. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this perspective has favoured harsh treatment of migrants and erecting physical barriers to their entry in various countries (most notably Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia). In some, strong nationalist sentiments have even justified de facto breach of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and undermined the Schengen Area visa agreement.

On the other hand, for those sympathetic to migrants the challenge of presenting migration as a general force for good has been side-lined by the need to articulate the case for national and global protection systems to address the plight of desperate refugees fleeing war, human rights abuses and persecution in recent years.

But widespread negative depictions of economic migrants misrepresent the role migration – forced or voluntary – has played in the course of social and economic development of many areas and regions, Europe included.

To be sure, the root causes of this conception predate the recent crisis. In his in-depth study of migration (ExodusHow Migration is Changing Our World, 2013), Paul Collier has carefully examined how the movement, on a global scale, of the poor eager to live and work in rich nations is giving rise to one of the ‘most pressing and controversial questions of our time’. He premises his study with the observation that ‘The control of immigration is a human right. The group instinct to defend territory is common throughout the animal kingdom; it is likely to be even more fundamental than the individual right to property.’ It is instructive perhaps that Collier views the control of immigration – not immigration itself – a matter of ‘human right’.

A sensible discussion and ultimately the need for a measured migration policy is undeniable, whether for home or host countries. What this perspective confuses, however, is a supposedly discretionary policy (immigration control) with an immutable principle (universal human rights). Imagine a policy of immigration control being advocated as a new amendment to a country’s constitution!

Statements of this type also often juxtapose immigration control to no immigration control – a false and unhelpful dichotomy. More generally, the anti-immigration narrative focuses on the short term picture by exaggerating its costs to receiving communities and underrating its long-term benefits both for home and host nations. This is questionable on at least three levels: philosophical, historical and economic.

First, from a philosophical point of view, the case against a desire to improve one’s welfare through relocation is directly at odds with the basic tenets of mainstream economics and the underpinnings of a capitalist system. Neoclassical economics is premised on the notion of rational choice and maximising behaviour of homo economicus. In consumer theory this translates itself to utility maximising individuals just as in the producer context it entails profit-maximisation. The same approach subscribes strongly to free trade among nations as a win-win strategy. More recent adulations with globalisation too are based on the central idea of the freedom of movement, across borders, for all factors of production. Yet the asymmetry between freedom of movement of labour and other factors is puzzling: international roaming for capital in search of the highest rates of return is applauded, but a similar enthusiasm for international freedom of movement of labour is conspicuous by its absence.

Second, there is ample evidence in support of the two-way economic benefits of migration for both receiving and sending countries. Migrants are more likely to be of working age (active in the labour force), more educated and less likely than the local population to use public sector services. Contrary to popular projections, migrants from the 28 countries of the European Economic Area in the UK are estimated to have made a net positive contribution exceeding £2.5 billion during 2010-14 (income tax and national insurance contributions paid net of benefits and welfare support received). Recent analyses of National Insurance figures also confirm that a third of EU migrants coming to work in the UK in the same period returned home within a year. Similarly, a new study has estimated that immigrants have started more than half of the start-up companies in the US, which are together valued at one billion dollars or more (creating an average of approximately 760 jobs per company). As for home countries too, evidence suggests migrant remittances help reduce poverty and promote consumption and investment (including household members’ education and human capital).

Last but not least, we may take a leaf from history, which offers a rich array of migration experiences across different countries and over time. There is little doubt that the wealth and prosperity of countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have much to do with incoming European immigrants. In turn, such movements afforded the Europeans significant opportunities to improve their own lives or to escape from hardship and poverty at home. This is also true of the GCC states where the largest concentration of migrants at both ends – high-paid, skilled expats and low-wage Asian workers with paltry social rights – has been oiling ambitious growth trajectories of these states.

In his seminal book Kicking Away the Ladder, Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, shows that despite benefiting from protectionist policies in the heyday of their own industrialisation in the 19th century, the developed countries today effectively deny emerging nations the same opportunities by advocating free trade.

It is hard to resist the temptation offered today by this analogy in the context of the current debates on economic forces behind international migration.

Hassan Hakimian is Director of the London Middle East Institute and a Reader in the Department of Economics at SOAS


This article appears in the Migrant and Refugee Crisis issue of The Middle East in London.

Hakimian, Hassan. “Kicking away the migration ladder?” The Middle East in London 12, no. 4 (June–July 2016): 13-14.


The global refugee crisis: a challenge for Europe

Migration has dominated the European political landscape in the last few years. Valerie Amos provides a critical overview

The EU has struggled to manage the increase in refugee and migrant flows over the last few years, contributing to a perception of chaos and loss of control. The protracted nature of the crisis in Syria means that Syrian refugees are going further afield. In the first few years after the conflict began, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey bore the brunt of large refugee flows. Today the countries of Europe are facing a significant rise in the number of refugees from Syria but also from other countries in the Middle East and Africa.

This discussion about refugee flows into Europe is taking place at the same time as discussions about a range of global issues including poverty and inequality, climate change, justice and rights as well as safety and security. In addition, there is the question of how best to ensure the safety and security of European citizens. Much of the current public debate is about the so-called Islamic State (IS) and its impact across the Middle East but the situations in Northern Nigeria, Mali and the countries of the Sahel, Libya, and Afghanistan are also a cause for concern.

Linked to the concerns around security is the fallout from protracted crises around the world, such as the bloody conflicts in Syria (which has entered its fifth year), Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, DRC, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Few of the crises have been resolved and most still generate new displacement. In 2014, only 126,800 refugees were able to return to their home countries, the lowest number in 31 years. And the average time someone is displaced is now 17 years. UNHCR reports that there are 59.9 million people forcibly displaced around the world today. In 2014 alone, 13.9 million people became newly displaced – four times the number of the previous year. Syria is the top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan which held that position for more than 30 years. Almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian with 95 per cent of them located in neighbouring countries.

There has been a sometimes-deliberate confusion of the terminology with respect to refugee and migrant flows, with no distinction made between the flows of refugees protected under international law and ongoing economic migration. For example, 5.5 million British nationals live abroad permanently. But that has changed. The discussions on Britain’s continued membership of the EU comes against a backdrop of a fragmented EU response to increased refugee flows from Syria and elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, the political rhetoric has been coupled with recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and elsewhere.

We have seen some European Union countries close their borders. A number of countries have built or are building fences: Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. The British Government paid for improved fencing around the Channel Tunnel. We are fortressing Europe, from other Europeans and from those further afield. And the human cost is staggering.

Approximately 50 per cent of Syrian refugees are children. Displacement within and from Syria is a tragedy with a child’s face. Of the more than 4 million Syrians who have fled their country, women and children make up three quarters of the total. Refugees want similar things to the rest of us, but given their experience their expectations of the rest of the world are very low. European countries take a relatively small proportion of refugees compared to our relative wealth. And it is Germany, Sweden and Austria that have taken the majority.

It is the neighbouring countries that bear the brunt of any refugee crisis. For Syria it is Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Germany received 1.1 million refugees with a population of 80 million. Compare that to Lebanon, a country with a population of 5.9 million. It is estimated that 1.4 million of that population are Syrian. The impact of those large numbers on Lebanon’s economy, health and education system is significant. Yet we are looking to them, a small and vulnerable country, to continue to absorb thousands of refugees per year. And we expect the same of Jordan, another country juggling its domestic, regional and global responsibilities. Now Syrian refugees account for approximately 20 per cent of Jordan’s population.

The UK Government’s commitment is to resettle 20,000 refugees over the next five years. David Miliband, President of International Rescue Committee (IRC) and former UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said ‘Four thousand a year here? I always say to people. If it was 25,000 a year, that would be 40 people per parliamentary constituency.’

So what should we do? We need to stand up to our leaders and say that the answer to increased refugee flows in the 21st century is not a bigger wall. History suggests that walls don’t keep people out for long. We need leadership that is not afraid to take tough political decisions and challenge the narrow nationalism which has crept into, and is now a standard part of, our domestic political discourse. The answer is not demonisation of people, their countries, communities, religion and culture. The answer lies in greater openness, better management of the systems to support and protect refugees, control of wider migratory flows and more active political engagement in helping people to understand the complexity of the refugee story.

Let me end with a personal perspective from Hannah Arendt who escaped from Europe to the US in 1941. ‘We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life, one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic. Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means we lost the confidence that we are of some use in the world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings’. This is as true for refugees today as it was then.

Baroness Valerie Amos is Director of SOAS. Before that she was the eighth UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator


This article appears in the Migrant and Refugee Crisis issue of The Middle East in London.

Amos, Valerie. “The global refugee crisis: a challenge for Europe” The Middle East in London 12, no. 4 (June–July 2016): 5-6.

MENA, climate change and COP21

Climate change will disproportionately impact MENA countries. Hamid M. Pouran examines the forecast in light of the Paris climate change agreement, COP21

The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is blessed with abundant natural resources, in particular oil and gas. Nevertheless, the arid and semi-arid climates of this region have imposed risks and limitations on these countries, particularly in regards to available water resources.

Population growth in the MENA countries has been amongst the highest in the world for the past half a century. The total population of this region is estimated to be around 430 million today, which amounts to a 420 per cent increase since 1950, with a projected population of 692 million for 2050; such high growth levels in general pose severe environmental challenges including water shortages, land degradation and pollution.

Another unique feature of this geopolitically strategic region, especially in its recent history, is heightened political tension, violent conflicts and distrust among neighbouring countries. Survival, then, is a top priority for many of these governments; environmental sustainability receives low priority.

Rapid urbanisation, the absence of proper legal frameworks to protect the environment and a failure to implement national and international environmental protection guidelines have all put MENA’s environment in a fragile state. This condition is expected to deteriorate further given current climate change observations and future forecasts. Here we describe what climate change means for MENA countries and what we hope will come from the recent Paris climate change agreement (COP21).

Conference of Parties’ (COP) roots go back to 1992 when, during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the importance of recognising climate change as a common threat was accepted and the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) was drafted, which became effective in 1994. In 2015 the parties to this agreement gathered in Paris for the 21st time – hence, COP21 – to develop an agreement on climate change that aimed to significantly reduce greenhouse gases emissions (GHG) to prevent further increases of Earth’s mean temperature.

Since the start of the new millennium we are experiencing an unprecedented level of temperature increases on a global scale. 2015 was the hottest year on record (since the late 19th century). We have already passed the 1°C increase in global mean temperature and are on a fast track to experience 2°C mean temperature increases (compared to the pre-industrial era), which is considered a point of no return for climate change. This may not seem like a critical increase on the local scale (i.e. microclimate), but at a global level it will lead to existential threats for many countries and regions. Frequent, extreme heatwaves, droughts and floods are some of the expected, irreversible and devastating impacts of climate change.

Implementing the COP21 agreement is the last chance to curb current levels of greenhouse gases emissions; otherwise, in only 30 years, we will inevitably pass the 2°C level. Drastic changes by all countries are required to deviate as much as possible from the current trajectory, which, some say, could even cause increases up to 5°C in global temperature levels. It is worth mentioning that, on a global scale, a 5°C difference in mean temperature is equivalent to the temperature change from the ice age to the modern era.

MENA countries, along with other nations, have agreed to limit their greenhouse gases emissions by submitting their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These countries constitute a small portion of global emissions compared to China, India and the USA, which account for 50 per cent of the global greenhouse gases emissions. In 2014, Iran ranked 8th and Saudi Arabia 9th with respectively 1.71 and 1.67 per cent of world total emissions. However, in terms of emissions per capita and vulnerability against the impacts of climate change they occupy very different positions. Some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have the highest emissions per capita, namely Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, which respectively occupy the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th and 11th positions in the global ranking. Saudi Arabia and Iran are respectively 7th and 35th in this ranking. On the other hand, people in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco emit approximately 1/10th of the greenhouse gases per capita compared to Qatar, Kuwait and UAE.

MENA countries’ commitments to the COP21 agreement, as asserted in their submitted INDCs, vary notably from rather vague statements about avoiding CO2 emissions to detailed pledges with clear implementation periods. Nevertheless, where a mitigation target has been expressed two different targets have been offered: conditional and unconditional.

The unconditional commitment is under the current circumstances of the countries and based on existing resources within them, while the conditional target depends on external financial investment and technology transfer. For example, Iran has pledged 4 per cent unconditional and 12 per cent conditional targets. Accordingly, Iran will reduce 12 per cent of its greenhouse gases emissions by 2030 and start implementing related frameworks from 2021 if its sanctions are lifted (this document was submitted to COP21 on 21 November 2015, before the nuclear agreement implementation day). Algeria is another country that has set two targets: 7 per cent unconditional and 22 per cent conditional (2030 target year). Algeria’s ability to meet the conditional target is based on receiving external support in terms of finance, technology transfer and development and capacity building. Qatar’s INDC document sets a series of policies and intentions and does not clearly quantify a mitigation target.

With COP21 ­– as was previously agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún in 2010 – developed countries agreed to provide external funding for developing countries to speed up the transition towards renewable energy resources and to build resilient infrastructure to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The allocated fund is $100 billion USD per year provided to developing countries to meet their goals and to stay on the correct trajectory. Some MENA countries, specifically those with lower GDPs, expect to receive a portion of this available support to meet their commitments.

Despite the relatively small contribution of MENA countries to global warming, these countries are among those that would be most affected by climate change. The arid and semi-arid climates of this region have already put water resources under stress. The anticipated, prolonged and hotter summers expected, along with extreme heatwaves, will make these countries suffer disproportionally compared to others. This means that the already inefficient agricultural systems of these countries will face new challenges; for instance even less grazing lands will be available for livestock. New studies suggest that, towards the end of the century, severe heatwaves combined with humidity in countries in the Persian Gulf region will make it impossible for people to stay outside for more than a few hours at a time. The conditions will be beyond the human adaptability threshold to tolerate; sweating and ventilation would not be enough to mitigate the heat. This means that outdoor professions would face major restrictions and that the required infrastructure and the built environment need to be drastically adapted to cope with such radical climatic changes.

The main question thus is not if the MENA region will be affected by climate change, but how severe the impacts will be. At least some of these countries have prosperous economies, which allow them to invest in new industries, diversify their economies and better adapt to the inevitable risks imposed by climate change.

Hamid M. Pouran has a PhD in Environmental Engineering. Before joining the LMEI as an IHF Visiting Fellow in Iran’s Environmental Sustainability, he was a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and a member of the Transatlantic Initiative for Nanotechnology and the Environment


This article appears in the Iran’s Environmental Challenges issue of The Middle East in London.

Pouran, Hamid M. “MENA, climate change and COP21.” The Middle East in London 12, no. 3 (April–May 2016): 5-6.

Still singing: female singers in contemporary Iran

After the 1979 Revolution, female solo singing performances were banned in Iran. Parmis Mozafari looks at some of the ways this ban is being challenged.

Female presence on stage has been a matter of controversy in many societies especially when this presence is perceived to conflict with the ‘duties’ of a woman as a ‘faithful wife’ or ‘sacrificing mother’, or is likely to distort her image of propriety as a ‘decent lady’. Female singing in particular has encountered restrictions and bans in various parts of the world and at different times. In Europe, until the end of the 17th century boys and castrati sang the female vocals in choruses and operas.

The situation of female performers in the Middle East has also been a direct consequence of the socio-political, cultural and religious priorities of the governing systems. In Iran, prior to the Constitutional Revolution (1906-9) – a major turning point in the history of Iranian modernisation – female performers were mostly bound to court and indoor, female-only performances. A decade after the Constitutional Revolution women began to appear in semi-public theatres and concerts. A few years later in 1924 the first public concert with a female singer took place, and in 1925 the first female singer travelled outside Iran to record her voice. This was not an easy transition as nearly all of these performers faced social, familial or religious pressures and limitations despite Reza Khan’s supportive policies for such activities (1921-25), which later became the official Pahlavi policies during his (1925-1941) and his son’s rein (Mohammad Reza Shah 1941-1979).

In time, this support paved the way for the appearance of many women as instrumentalists, singers, and dancers performing in different musical genres. The presence of female musicians – especially the stars of Persian classical music since the 1920s and then the super stars of pop music since the 1950s – transformed the music culture of the country and initiated drastic changes in the public space. This, in turn, made the restrictions imposed by the post-revolution Islamic government harder to tolerate for most people and music practitioners.

After the 1979 Revolution and the imposition of new policies, which were based on the officials’ interpretation of Shi’a Islamic law, many artists and musical activities faced stark restrictions. Pop music, dance and female solo singing were totally banned and other forms of music were limited. These restrictions have gone through a great number of changes during the last 37 years. Some forms of pop music have been legalised, some dance forms have re-entered the public space under the name of harakat-e mozun (rhythmic movements), but female solo singing is still banned. This is due to the government’s reading of Shi’a jurisprudence which holds that the female solo singing voice must not be heard by men. The more moderate members of the regime have so far been unable to find a way to justify it within these given limits. Since the early 1990s, however, female singers have found different ways to challenge this ban and continue their work.

The first attempts began when some singers tried to create new kinds of spaces for female solo singing. These included increasing the size of their private indoor (underground) performances with mixed or female-only audiences. The latter led to the creation of official female-only music festivals since November 1994. Men are banned from attending such concerts, and all the stage crew are women. Cameras and mobile phones must be handed to the female security guards upon entrance and women’s bags and bodies are searched for recording devices. The space allows women to perform freely and enjoy direct contact with their audience, but it is limited in that they cannot cooperate with male colleagues and their concerts remain marginal.

Another method is ham-khani (co-singing) singing with a second or third voice. The advantage of this method is that female solo singers can perform in public with both male and female audiences. However, due to the nature of this method, it would be impossible to perform avaz khani (free rhythm singing) and bedaheh khani (improvisation), two important parts of Iranian classical music solo singing. Moreover the beauty of the song and the voice of the main singer remain hidden and unappreciated. Thus, for many female singers the whole practice is akin to an unwanted situation that they have to tolerate in order to perform; this performing style was not created for its beauty, but simply as an act of resistance that generates a space for women.

Another trend has involved holding concerts abroad. For some leading female singers this has become a regular practice, particularly in places with large Iranian diasporas such as parts of Europe and the US. The government seems to turn a blind eye to such performances or allows them to happen as a safety valve. However, most female singers do not have such opportunities, as these performances require formal invitations and external investments that only famous singers may have access to.

The last method of resistance, which is quite recent, is the recording of music and even music videos and posting them on the Internet. There have been instances of actions being taken by the government against this method, but none of the performers have faced serious problems and many continue posting their songs. This is a very simple and affordable way for any singer to push the boundaries, and one can find online numerous simple or professional voice recordings and videos. The reader can see examples of these by searching for ‘a Persian girl sings Hayedeh’s bahar song’ on YouTube, or ‘Solmaz Badri Rooze Azal’ on SoundCloud. Nevertheless, many singers avoid this as no one can predict the state’s reactions.

Since the 1979 Revolution, music, in general, has had a liminal position within Iranian political culture; so long as it does not break its political bounds, its transgressions may be tolerated and hushed. The case of female solo singing inside the country, however, is more political than cultural or religious. This became clear during the late 1990s when the reformists managed to authorise different forms of performances, but failed to legalise female solo singing. The line of argument for this is very straightforward. Firstly, as Shi’a jurisprudence has been the major source of legitimacy for Iranian government, anything that goes against it is political. Secondly, given the debates that are circulated in the country, it seems there is no way to legitimise female solo singing within Shi’a jurisprudence – for the time being. Thus the state cannot authorise female solo singing because such an act breaks the aura of religiosity that has been used to claim legitimacy for Iran’s political system. Yet the demands of the Iranian middle class, who have been changing the patterns of bans since the 1980s via their transgressions, is also a formidable force that cannot be suppressed.

Parmis Mozafari is an Ethnomusicologist who has taught and published on music, dance, and female performers in Iran. She is also a santour player and is currently a fellow at the University of St Andrews


This article appears in the Persian Music issue of The Middle East in London.

Mozafari, Parmis. “Still singing: female singers in contemporary Iran.” The Middle East in London 12, no. 2 (February–March 2016): 7-8.

The Persian concert party

Jane Lewisohn tells a story of musical collaboration between Persia and London in 1909 

A group of the most eminent Persian musicians came to London in 1909 to make recordings for the Gramophone Company. The recordings they made on this trip remain some of the most important examples of Persian music of late Qajar period.

In Persia, from the late 19th century onwards, the Persian royal court demonstrated great interest in the technological advances of the West, especially from the time of Nasir al-Din Shah’s (reg. 1848-1896) three visits to Europe in 1873, 1878 and 1889. The Shah himself was a keen photographer. His son and successor Muzaffar al-Din Shah (reg. 1896-1907) was an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker and, like his father, travelled to Europe three times. His interests also extended to sound recordings of what later came to be known as the gramophone, or ‘talking machine’ as it was then called, so that by the turn of the century the Shah had already acquired several types of ‘talking machines’.

Insofar as the Gramophone Company was keen to expand into the Persian market, in the winter of 1906, the company sent technicians to Tehran to record Persian music. General Lemaire, the director of the school of military music at the Polytechnic Academy (Dar al-Fonun), was charged both with providing the company with musicians from the Shah’s own orchestra and soliciting other eminent musicians in Tehran. Approximately 200 recordings were made at the Polytechnic’s Music College. Five recordings of Muzaffar al-Din Shah’s voice were made, in one of which the Shah can be heard praising the gramophone over all other ‘talking machines’. In February of the same year, the Gramophone Company was granted a royal warrant by the Shah to conduct business in Iran; they opened a branch in Tehran, with Mr Emerson as its director. The Persian imperial ‘Lion and Sun’ emblem was seen displayed proudly on all the marketing catalogues and advertisements of the Gramophone Company from this time onwards.

The Gramophone Company’s Tehran branch rented rooms in the famous Pharos building on Lalehzar Street, the most fashionable district of the capital. However, their business operation was not destined to last long. Mr Emerson arrived in Tehran to open up their branch during the middle of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, which caused serious disturbances and disruptions to their business operations. The Bazaar was frequently closed; there were regular demonstrations, sit-ins and a general lack of security throughout the city. In 1907, on his deathbed, Muzaffar al-Din Shah finally gave in to the constitutionalists’ demands and granted Persia its own elected Parliament and constitution. However, his successor Muhammad ‘Ali Shah (reg. 1907-1909) did everything he could to reverse the constitutionalists’ successes: he imprisoned activists, executed and exiled dissidents and prominent constitutionalists, fired cannons at the constitutional assembly building and bombarded the homes of prominent constitutionalist sympathisers. Around the same time, the Russians and the British partitioned Persia into respective spheres of influence: the north of the country fell under Russian ‘protection’, the south under British ‘control’, while central Persia – including Tehran – was considered ‘neutral’.

All this upheaval brought the economy to a virtual standstill. Examination of the Gramophone Company’s correspondence from the period reveals that their sales did not meet their economic expectations and therefore could neither justify the costs of Mr Emerson’s salary nor the maintenance of an independent Tehran branch. Accordingly, Mr Emerson and his family left Iran in the autumn of 1908. A two-year contract for distribution and sales of the Gramophone Company’s remaining stock was signed with Hambartzoum Hairapetian & Cie [sic], Armenian merchants based in Persia, on a commission basis in the autumn of 1908.

Label from one of the 78rpm Gramophone Co. recordings made on the 1909 London trip by the artists: Said Hosayn Taherzadeh and Reza-Qoli Khan on vocals, singing a song called Shanaz, accompanied on the tar by Darvish Khan

Hambartzoum was keen to increase the variety and quantity of their stock but London Gramophone Company was understandably not keen on sending any of their own engineers to Tehran for recording. Mr Hambartzoum thus arranged to send Persian musicians to London to make recordings; he made all the arrangements for their trip and accompanied the musicians, acting as their guide and translator, offering them very generous remuneration for their trip and recordings.

Eight of the most distinguished Persian musicians of the day were invited to go to London. Six of them were members of the Anjoman-e Ukhuwwat (Society of Brotherhood), a branch of the Ni’matullahi Sufi Order headed by Zahir al-Dawla, a prominent constitutionalist. Zahir al-Dawla’s house, along with the Anjoman-e Ukhuwwat’s meeting hall, had been bombarded and ransacked by royalist forces about the same time the parliament building was bombarded. These musicians included legendary names such as: Darvish Khan (tar), Hang Afarin (violin), Bagher Khan (kamancheh), Mirza Asadu’llah (tar, santur), Habibu’llah Shahrdar (piano), Tahir-zadeh (vocals), who all performed regularly in the concerts held in the garden of Zahir al-Dawla’s home and in the meeting hall of the Anjoman-e Ukhuwwat in support of the constitutionalists’ demands. The other two members of the group: Akbar Khan (flute), the younger brother of Hang Afarin, and Reza-Qoli Khan (vocals and zarb), although not members of the Anjoman, were close friends with the others.

The group embarked from Tehran in mid-February 1909, heading north toward the Caspian port of Anzali. The north was under the control of the pro-constitutionalist fighters (Mojahhidin). They reached the river bridge of the town of Manzil on the road to Rasht before the fighters destroyed it on 17 February, where they were stopped by constitutionalist forces who demanded that Darvish Khan play for them for half an hour before proceeding. Again, when they reached Rasht, they were stopped and only allowed to continue on their journey once they agreed to give a three-day benefit concert for the Mojahhidin.

Exiting Persia, they travelled through Russia to Europe, eventually reaching London in April 1909. The group’s recording sessions took place at the Gramophone Company studio on 21 City Road in London from 12 to 23 April. During these eleven days, the group made over 300 recordings, the records from which were pressed at the London Hayes and Russian Riga factories, and marketed in Iran and internationally. Today these recordings constitute some of the few examples of what Qajar music sounded like. It has been rumoured that the Persian musicians also performed at the Imperial White City International Exhibition (held during June) whilst in London. However, this is unlikely because no notice or review of them performing any public concerts in London appears in any contemporary publications or the exhibition catalogues.

In sum, the recordings of Persian music made by the British Gramophone Company – later to be called His Master’s Voice – in collaboration with Persian musicians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries today remain one of the most significant resources and documents for the history of Persian music. They will be available to listen to on www.golistan.org in the near future.

Jane Lewisohn is a Research Associate at the Music Department of SOAS, Director of the Golha Project (www.golha.co.uk) and of Golistan: a Virtual Museum for the Performing Arts of Twentieth-century Iran (www.golistan.org) 


This article appears in the Cultural Connections issue of The Middle East in London. 

Lewisohn, Jane. “The Persian concert party.” The Middle East in London 12, no. 1 (December 2015–January 2016): 7-8.