Originally appeared in The National.
Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia
Harvard University Press
Researchers recently announced that what was thought to be the most arid place known to man might actually be wet enough to support life. Just one small truckload of its soil, they say, can support the drinking, cooking, and showering needs of a person for a day, as long as you are willing to spend the energy needed to wring the water out of the dirt that conceals it.
This surprisingly wet place is, of course, the moon. Residents of the Arabian Peninsula are in some ways in a more precarious situation. There is not a single river or lake in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the factories that clean salt water consume massive amounts of energy, even though they are barely enough to meet the needs of the population. If these desalination plants were to shut down, Saudi Arabia would begin to die of thirst within days.
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 programme 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.
When the Saudi kingdom was established in the early 1930s, the royal family’s highest priority was to establish its authority to the fragmented tribes outside the central desert of the Nejd. Jones leaves little doubt that the Sauds saw oil and water as the glue that would keep the diverse new country together and make it rich and strong. Other countries have been founded on the idea that the land must be subdued and conquered – the United States’ notion of manifest destiny is perhaps the most famous case – but only the Saudi project combined a massive scale with the awesome power of modern engineering.
David Blackbourn’s Conquest of Nature (2006) detailed how Germans had formed their state by draining swamps, mastering waterways and cutting canals, thereby claiming the land. These advances seem uninspiring and modest by contrast with the Saudi case, where the engineering feats, both real and planned, at times defy belief.
Jones opens his narrative with the most spectacular of all: a Saudi-French collaborative study to determine whether it might make sense to break a mile-long iceberg off the fringe of Antarctica, wrap it in plastic, and use an armada of tugboats to tow it to the Red Sea to melt for fresh water. One observer predicted that by the time the fleet reached the sizzling Arabian heat it would be towing nothing but a rope. The Saudi royal who masterminded this scheme was Prince Muhammad al Faisal, previously head of the Kingdom’s desalination programme. In 1977, as a sort of proof of concept, Faisal brought a “mini iceberg” from Alaska to a conference in Ames, Iowa “at considerable personal expense.” He commissioned studies that explored the possibility of attaching paddle-wheels to the iceberg, but he eventually scrapped the whole idea after the government decisively opted for more desalination instead. (Desalination had been in use since the 1930s, when Jeddah had the capacity to produce about a gallon of fresh water per person per day.)
The bold and profligate use of the water has been no less amazing than the manner of its acquisition. It is as if the goal was not merely to control nature but to defy it. To the Saudis this meant not only supplying its citizens with drinking water but also inviting them, with massive financial incentives, to use the water to produce water-intensive crops. Dates, which Jones says are consumed in some parts of Saudi at a rate of one and a half kilograms per person per day, were just the beginning. During the 25-year period that ended in 2005, the government spent 18 per cent of all its oil revenues on subsidising other, less geographically appropriate agriculture, to the extent that a country unsuited for cultivating anything but date palms briefly became the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat. This policy, which aimed to diversify the country’s food supply, is being phased out, but it gives a measure of the eagerness of the Saudis to think big, with blithe disregard for the natural order.
The political contention of Jones’s book – that all these efforts served to confirm and extend the royal family’s grip on power – is less illuminating than the details of the efforts themselves. The thesis is provocative mostly to those who have not been paying attention, or who have abnormally naive views of how states work. Few readers will have any right to be surprised that Saudi society and government exist in their modern forms because of a massive engineering project, and that that project – still ongoing – is mobilised everywhere with the goal of preserving a political status quo. Outside of Marxist fantasy, states do not undertake massive projects with the intention of making themselves obsolete. Indeed, government actions of any kind, whether undertaken by absolute monarchies or the social democracies Jones seems to prefer, have a way of snowballing into greater and more permanent forms of state power. The Saudi case is hardly unique or unpredictable in that regard.
Jones, a self-described “activist”, does not say how he would have preferred the Saudi economy to develop. Perhaps he would have liked a slower and more organic process, in which resources were marshalled in a power-neutral fashion. Yet that model would also have slowed the extraction of oil considerably, for the reason that the oil business needs stability, and the oil-soaked eastern province of the Kingdom exists in no small tension, religious and otherwise, with the rest of the country. The level of development in pre-oil Saudi Arabia was very low indeed, and while a conversation about fair distribution of oil money is worth having, it’s far from obvious how that fairness might have been achieved without severely retarding the pace of the country’s modernisation. The Saudis enriched the country and dominated it through projections of technological power. These processes were twins, and the first could not have happened without the second.
It’s probably for the best, of course, that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have begun reimagining their relationship to nature and to conform to its laws, rather than viewing them as obstacles to be circumvented. The previous course has promoted ecological disaster and waste on an unsustainable scale. On the other hand, there is a magnificence to the boldness of the schemes that Jones describes. A candidate for the title of most beautiful city on Earth is Venice, which is nothing if not a monument to rebellion against nature, a statement that if man cannot walk on water he can at least live on it. Surely not even the most fervent lovers of Dammam and Jeddah (there must be some, though I haven’t met them) claim that their conurbations match La Serenissima in beauty. All the same, one can imagine a pride in a city built on the same spirit of defiance.