Oil and water, and the science and technology used to harness them, have long been at the heart of political authority in Saudi Arabia. Oil’s abundance, and the fantastic wealth it generated, has been a keystone in the political primacy of the kingdom’s ruling family. The other bedrock element was water, whose importance was measured by its dearth. Over much of the twentieth century, it was through efforts to control and manage oil and water that the modern state of Saudi Arabia emerged.
The central government’s power over water, space, and people expanded steadily over time, enabled by increasing oil revenues. The operations of the Arabian American Oil Company proved critical to expansion and to achieving power over the environment. Political authority in Saudi Arabia took shape through global networks of oil, science, and expertise. And, where oil and water were central to the forging of Saudi authoritarianism, they were also instrumental in shaping politics on the ground. Nowhere was the impact more profound than in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where the politics of oil and water led to a yearning for national belonging and to calls for revolution.
Saudi Arabia is traditionally viewed through the lenses of Islam, tribe, and the economics of oil. Desert Kingdom now provides an alternative history of environmental power and the making of the modern Saudi state. It demonstrates how vital the exploitation of nature and the roles of science and global experts were to the consolidation of political authority in the desert.
Toby Craig Jones's new book about the kingdom examines the Saudi state's relationship to water and oil, the twin resources that are its blessing and its curse (or, according to some, its two curses). Jones argues that Saudi ruling classes hold their inherently fragile state together through a strict and bold program that manages these two substances. In Saudi Arabia, more so than in almost any other place on earth, the business of the state is the control of nature, because to control nature is to control people. -- Graeme Wood The National 20101105 Desert Kingdom is sure to spark discussion and debate. It touches on some of the most sensitive nerves of a society. But, it also describes how determination and perseverance built Saudi Arabia into a Middle Eastern powerhouse. Toby Craig Jones opens the door to understanding how it happened. -- Joseph Richard Preville Saudi Gazette 20101205 [A] provocative book...Desert Kingdom is a much needed addition to the small shelf of Saudi Arabian histories based on archival research and political economy rather than caricatures of oil wealth and the desert. The connection of geography to political power is compelling. -- Frederick Deknatel The Nation 20110228 For a desert kingdom to concern itself with the control of water would seem to be a given, but the subject has received slight attention in studies of Saudi Arabia. Although oil has always figured prominently in Saudi studies, this book is surely the first to trace Saudi policies concerning oil and water since the 1920s. Jones presents these policies as dictated by a Saudi drive to create not so much a nation-state as an empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is not all desert, but the agriculturally more advantaged Eastern Province, with its appreciable Shiite population, has been the most disadvantaged when it comes to receiving a share of the government's development projects. This explains the Shiite uprising there in 1979 and the halting Saudi efforts thereafter to address the issue. Woven into this book is a pessimistic view of technologically driven policies, environmentalist reflections, and a harsh portrayal of selfishness on the part of both the Saudi state and the oil company it owns, Saudi Aramco. -- L. Carl Brown Foreign Affairs 20110301