Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia


This review was first published on Middle East Book Reads.

Desert Kingdom deals with the history of modern Saudi Arabia and the role played by oil, water and other resources in the coming about of the Saudi state. Jones pays special attention to internal Saudi geopolitics. He uses geopolitics in its literal sense: the politics of the earth and its resources. As Jones and other authors such as Stuart Elden (The Birth of Territory) and Timothy Mitchell (Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil) argue, geopolitics is about the political implications of the earth and its resources; In other words, political decisions are shaped by geology and the manner in which natural resources are exploited. Looking at the history of Saudi Arabia through the lens of geology enables Jones to highlight previously neglected aspects of the Saudi state such as the very crucial role played by oil and water in the repression of its Shia minority.

The key to controlling the whole of the Arabian Peninsula lies with controlling the Peninsula’s geological resources: its water supply and its oil. However, the Saudi state does not want merely control over these resources, but rather seeks to exploit them for political reasons. Especially in the fourth chapter about the Eastern Province and the al-Hasa oasis, Jones discusses the expansion of Saudi power from the capital of Riyadh to the periphery and the resource-rich east in the light of geopolitics. This expansion and exploitation of resources has implications for the Shia population, mostly located in the Eastern Province, as the author clearly describes.

The first chapter, titled “The Nature of the State” loosely outlines the theoretical assumptions of Jones. He is mostly interested in the internal dynamics of the Saudi state, “the ruling strategies deployed by the state to secure its authority and security domestically, and the challenges to power it faced in the twentieth century.” In subsequent chapters, Jones more or less chronologically discusses the forging of the Saudi state from the end of the nineteenth century until today.

Desert Kingdom begins with the discovery of oil and the founding of the most important oil company, Aramco, and the exploitation of Saudi oil. Jones then describes the implications of the search for water and the unequal distribution of wealth on the population. Regarding the distribution of wealth and access to resources, Jones stresses how the Shia have been marginalized, both for religious reasons (some Saudi clerics do not even recognize Shiites as Muslims) and because their alleged ties with Shiite Iran, by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia. In the later chapters of the book, the author analyzes more recent developments in Saudi society, Saudi agricultural ambitions and the “return to faith” as Jones puts it, meaning that religious arguments became more important for the Saudi government and that the role of the clergy increased in Saudi society. This change in policy was mainly focused on improving the House of Saud’s Islamic credentials in the face of challenges from conservative clergymen to the House’s position as the protector of the two Holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Jones opposes the claims found in many other studies on Saudi Arabia that Saudi rulers and society are traditional and that they are both determined by “a timeless Islam.” Unfortunately, most of his criticism of other works on Saudi Arabia is tucked away in the endnotes. These notes contain quite essential information on Jones’s assumptions and views. His contrarian views that Saudi society and its rulers are essentially not conservative and traditionally Islamic, and his idea that the rulers are at odds with the peninsula’s Bedouin, whom the state seeks to relocate and urbanize, is central to the book’s thesis.. They certainly deserved more attention than a few endnotes and should have been included in the body of the text.   Nonetheless, Jones presents his arguments well, and in a clear and straightforward manner.

A recurring theme in Desert Kingdom is the way in which the Saudi government has used science and technology for political gain. The formation of the modern Saudi state has been depoliticized and, in order to fully exploit its oil, the Saudi government has approached many political issues through a perspective of scientific and technological development, as Jones describes in the third chapter. He emphasizes the very crucial role the United States government played in the development of the Saudi state and its ability to gain control over its oil. The American government has been involved in numerous projects ranging from the exploration of Saudi oil resources to anthropological and sociological investigations into the population. In contrast, the British seem wholly absent in these developments.

One downside of Jones’s geopolitical approach to the formation of the Saudi state is that it neglects other important aspects of Saudi society. Jones’s focus on the Eastern Province and dissent of the Shia population causes the reader to be left in the dark on issues such as the internal politics of the House of Saud. For example, Jones discusses the 1979 uprisings in the Eastern Province but only briefly refers to the attack on Mecca’s Great Mosque in November 1979. Jones does consider influences from Iran on the Shia population of eastern Saudi Arabia and rightly rejects conspiracies on Iranian machinations and support for the protests. However, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy towards Iran and the Middle East in general is largely left untouched.

Desert Kingdom makes clear that geology forged modern Saudi Arabia and Arabia’s natural resources should be the focus of studying Saudi internal politics. Jones has very much succeeded in providing that insightful and original approach, supported by his thorough and well substantiated research of primary sources.


Review: Tarek Osman’s Egypt on the Brink

downloadTarek Osman’s readable book describes the development of Egypt from the 1952 revolution to Mubarak. The book consists of seven chapters and does not relate Egypt’s story in a chronological order, but rather discusses the socio-economic changes by a number of snapshots from today’s Egypt. In the introduction, Osman takes his readers back to the glamorous years of the 1950s, when Cairo was mentioned along with cities like London, Paris, Rome and Vienna. A lot has changed over the past half century. Cairo lost its glamour and has become a crowded third-world city. “Cairo’s descent mirrors a regression of the Egyptian society.”

Egypt’s political regression started when Nasser abolished all political parties, after a period of relative political freedom, known as the ‘liberal experiment’. But many Egyptians saw another Nasser. To them, “Nasser symbolizes […] an unfulfilled dream of a saviour who died while preaching.” Since Alexander the Great, Egypt had been ruled by foreigners: from Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arab muslims to the British. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first ‘Egyptian Pharaoh’, changed Egyptian society forever.

Osman describes Nasser as Egypt’s twentieth-century hero. “Nasser represented the will and aspirations of the vast majority of the Egyptian people.” While Osman speaks well of Nasser’s intentions, he argues that because all his policies were personified in him, Nasser’s project ceased to exist when he died. Nasser failed to transform his dreams into institutions. His revolution never turned into a state, he left behind “an ill-defined aspiration.”

Nasser and Sadat both had an Egyptian project. Nasser’s project was Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arabism, while Sadat liberalised the economy. Sadat positioned himself as a peacemaker and a pious muslim in an effort to contain the Islamists. His policy of liberalisation opened the economy to foreign investment but only a small elite reaped the benefits. The appeasement of Islamists turned out to be lethal when he was shot to death on the national celebration of the Ramadan war (better known as the Yom Kippur war). His vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, took over. According to Tarek Osman, Hosni Mubarak did not have a project. Mubarak wanted to retain the status quo. He cracked down on the Islamist extremists that killed his predecessor and his security services developed a steady relationship with Israel.

During his 30 years in office, Mubarak and the Egyptian people grew apart. The corrupt elite enriched themselves while Egypt’s lower classes grew larger and became poorer. Mubarak’s foreign policy also alienated many Egyptians from his regime. Egypt’s dependence on United States’ dollars and its soft stance on Israel enraged many normal Egyptians.

Osman explains clearly the “potential triggers for chaos in Egyptian society.” A weak economy, huge youth unemployment and repression have resulted in a revolution. However, Osman ascribes an important role to Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s youngest son. Gamal Mubarak was one of the most powerful persons within the ruling party, but he also represented the hated business elite. The people’s resentment against Gamal Mubarak and his policies is enormous.

Egypt’s influence and power has been declining for half a century. Maybe this is the reason why Osman writes about the ‘liberal age’ and even the period of Nasser, when Egypt was the most powerful and important Arab country, with some nostalgia. In the first chapter, Osman describes the Egyptian society of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as “a vibrant political, economic and social scene, culture and the arts flourished.” In chapter three, called The Islamists, the author discusses the lack of liberal and creative Islamic thinking in the 1970s and 1980s. Liberal thinkers like Taha Hussein shaped the Islamic movement during the liberal years, but are now positioned as opponents and enemies by the Islamic movement. It’s the kind of nostalgia that we can also see in Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, in which Egypt’s changing society is depicted through the changing life in an apartment building in downtown Cairo.

“Potentially there are real triggers for chaos in Egyptian society today, as I have demonstrated throughout this book. Yet political disorder and the fall of the state remain very unlikely scenarios.” Tarek Osman does not think the fall of the state is a likely scenario, as this quote shows, although Mubarak’s regime ended. Because Osman describes the changes that triggered the recent revolution, Egypt on the Brink provides a perfect picture of an Egyptian society in evolution. In Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, some of the main characters experience a very tragic end. Egypt’s story can be different.