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dune and arab voices foreign policy

What “Dune” and US Foreign Policy Have in Common

They both sideline Arab voices.

Words: Laila Ujayli and Zaina Ujayli
Pictures: Thomas Lipke

As people celebrate the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated “Dune” adaptation, the film joins a long list of other films, novels, and conversations in which Arabs are denied a voice on topics where they are the preeminent experts and victims. Influenced by the colonial exploitation of the Middle East for oil, Frank Herbert’s original novel draws on Arab and Islamic history to interrogate resource exploitation and oppression. Yet, absent amidst the trailer’s stunning visuals and star-studded cast is a single Arab voice.

The erasure of Arabs in films like “Dune” is part of a systemic pattern that sidelines Arabs in conversations where they have the most at the stake, most immediately in US foreign policy. Despite some improvement, the US foreign policy sphere remains “stubbornly white and male.” In too many rooms in Washington DC, major decisions impacting the lives of millions in the Middle East are subsequently made without accounting for the perspectives of the people most directly impacted by those policies.

While you don’t have to be Arab to humanize Arab lives, centering impacted voices in policymaking offers grounded insight into the efficacy of policies as they are enacted. Civilians are the foreground, not the background, of conflict zones. They can cast light on the costs of war as they happen, instead of attesting to these costs as statistics after-the-fact. Including civilian security as a priority of US security policy would invite policymakers to question the efficacy of the use of force, fundamentally transforming US foreign policy in the process.

As of now, US foreign policy has failed to center impacted voices, and in turn, humanize Arab lives. The consequences have been disastrous. A new report released this week from the Costs of War Project finds that the United States’ post-9/11 wars displaced at least 37 million people — including at least 26.1 million in the Arabic-speaking world. And despite the Middle East being no more secure than it was 19 years ago, US policy in the region continues to be characterized by the prioritization of weapons sales over human lives, the abdication of accountability for war crimes, and the sacrifice of people’s long-term wellbeing for incoherent and ill-defined short term goals.

In a film critiquing resource exploitation from the desert, inhabited by indigenous peoples who wear Maghrebi clothes, speak in Arabic words, and are manipulated by a parody of Islamic theology, Arab actors will speak no lines denouncing imperialism or exploitation.

Sidelining the voices of frontline communities has made US foreign policy poorer. While folding Arab and other impacted voices into the US foreign policy sphere can’t undo decades of policy failures, it would help the United States to engage effectively with these poor outcomes and chart a new path forward for US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Here, “Dune” can serve as an illustrative example of how centering Arab voices in discussions related to Arab trauma could have both addressed previous failures and ensured such failures weren’t perpetuated. For those unfamiliar, “Dune” follows a young protagonist, Paul Atreides, as he and his family are given control of the planet Arrakis, a desert planet valuable for its resource called “spice.” Caught up in the political maneuvering of a cruel Baron, Paul wrestles with his destiny as a prophetic leader of Arrakis’s indigenous desert tribes, the Fremen. If “Dune” sounds like “Lawrence of Arabia” in space, it’s likely because Herbert reportedly modeled Paul on T.E. Lawrence.

With Paul as our Lawrence, Arrakis becomes our de-facto Arabia. Arab and Islamic references thus pervade Herbert’s depiction of Arrakis and its indigenous peoples. For example, the Fremen frequently speak Arabic and call Paul the “Mahdi,” referencing the Islamic eschatological redeemer who will restore religion and justice before the Day of Judgment. Paul is also described as destined to lead the Fremen into a “jihad” (the trailer uses the similarly-loaded “crusade”). Critics like Hanna Flint have written more in-depth about the Arab and Islamic influences in “Dune,” but for our purposes, quoting Flint, it suffices to say that “‘Dune’ and the subsequent books in the series would be nothing without the influence of the Arab and Islamic world.”

Despite these influences, Villeneuve’s “Dune” stars no Arabs in its central cast. Instead, “Dune” exploits the aesthetic tropes of the Arab world — the clothes, the desert, the language — while denying Arabs a platform. The great irony of the new adaptation is that it seeks to criticize exploitation — marketing itself as a “story of when ‘enough is enough’ for exploited cultures” — while perpetuating cultural exploitation in its casting. In a film critiquing resource exploitation from the desert, inhabited by indigenous peoples who wear Maghrebi clothes, speak in Arabic words, and are manipulated by a parody of Islamic theology, Arab actors will speak no lines denouncing imperialism or exploitation.

In addition to the crime of erasure, Villeneuve’s decision to ignore the Arab influences in “Dune” aggravates one of the key criticisms of its source material: “Dune” can be read as a white savior-style story in which a young man from another planet arrives to lead Arrakis’s indigenous tribes against their oppressors. Instead of giving Arabs the chance to undermine the trope on screen, “Dune” attempts to evade it by casting an otherwise diverse cast. In doing so, the film deprives Arab actors of a rare platform to engage with themes like racism, resource exploitation, and religious conflict. Arab actors could have imbued their roles with nuance and insight into the historical and ongoing traumas they are intimately familiar with. Instead, “Dune” cashes in on Arab trauma and exploitation while Arabs reap none of the benefits. Like US foreign policy, Villeneuve’s “Dune’s” failure to integrate Arab voices both fails to address past mistakes and perpetuates those same failings into the future.

US foreign policy must stop making the same mistakes as “Dune.” If the Middle East is going to be a primary setting of US global engagement, Arabs have to be central cast members of the US policy sphere. Whether in the State Department or in DC think tanks, Arab voices — and the voices of other impacted communities in the region — are sorely needed to engage with past failures and redefine the United States’ future approach in the Middle East.

Actor Oscar Isaac describes Villeneuve’s “Dune” as a story “about the destiny of a people, and the different way that cultures have dominated other ones.” The same is true of the story of the movie’s casting, and the story of Arab representation from Hollywood to Washington.

Time for both audiences and constituents to say, “Enough is enough.”

Laila Ujayli focuses on the human impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East. She is an MPP candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government.

Zaina Ujayli studies 19th and 20th century Arab and Arab-American literature and the digital humanities. She is a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

Laila Ujayli and Zaina Ujayli

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