Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia

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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.