Reading America’s Kingdom
F. Gregory Gause III, University of Vermont
I am tempted to say that the only criticism I can aim at Robert Vitalis’ excellent book is that his publishers chose not to use the blurb they solicited from me on the dust jacket. I’ve lost the e-mail in which I composed it, so I will just summarize here. I think there are four reasons why people interested in America and the myth of its exceptionalism, the history of American foreign policy, race relations, Saudi Arabia, ARAMCO, the oil industry, the Persian Gulf and all sorts of other stuff should read this book. First, Bob takes on really big and important questions about American exceptionalism, American foreign policy and the oil industry. Second, he does so while staying very close to his sources, many of which have never before been utilized in scholarly work. Third, he contributes invaluably to our understanding of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-American relations. Fourth, this is one of the best-written academic books I have ever read. Bob says he wants his readers to take it to the shore (as they say in Philadelphia; the rest of us would say the beach). This is one academic book that actually makes good beach reading.
The big target of the book is the myth that somehow the United States and American companies were different from the bad old colonial countries like Great Britain and France in their dealings in the “Third World.” Bob devastates that contention through his careful examination of ARAMCO, which had always put itself forward as an example of how American business dealings with Third World governments and societies were of a higher standard than those of the colonialists. Suffice it to say that ARAMCO World magazine will not be publishing excerpts of this book. Bob shows that ARAMCO basically and unapologetically recreated the racial hierarchies of American mining towns in the eastern Arabian desert. It did next to nothing to advance Saudis in the company. Its labor practices were antediluvian, making Anglo-Iranian’s treatment of its Iranian workers (you know, the ones who supported Mossadegh’s nationalization in 1951) look good. I am a more credulous person than Bob, but even I wondered as a graduate student studying Saudi Arabia if the stories about ARAMCO as good corporate citizen in Saudi Arabia were all that believable. Nobody can think that any more after this book.
The other big contribution, to my mind, of the book is its treatment of Saudi politics and the Saudi-American relationship in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Bob says that this is a book about America, it just takes place somewhere else. But he helps us to understand this fascinating period in Saudi history much better than anyone else who has written about it (with the possible exception of Sarah Yizraeli). His target here is the dominant story of “Faisal the reformer,” and he very successfully calls that story into question. He also makes it clear that the belief that Saudi-American relations were smooth and uncontentious from the arrival of the first Standard Oil of California workers in the 1930’s to the oil embargo of 1973 is groundless. Bob is not the first to take on this bit of the conventional wisdom (Safran’s book on Saudi foreign policy treated it most directly), but he does an excellent job is showing the ups and downs of Washington’s relationship with Riyadh during the period.
So, being an academic, I now have to raise some critical points about the book. Here is one:
I take Bob’s general point that the whole “Faisal as reformer; Saud as dissolute idiot” story is bunk. Faisal was not a political reformer. Saud did appoint the most progressive cabinet in Saudi history in 1960. But I am not sure that Bob has provided us with a sufficient understanding of how that internal Saudi political fight worked out the way it did. First, the reformers who are the heroes of Bob’s story here (Abdullah Tariki and Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muammar) really did not have much of a political base. I think that they were promoted by Saud in an effort to find allies against Faisal. Once he no longer needed them, they were gone. So I am not sure that they could have accomplished the kinds of changes the Bob implies they could, including building institutions for popular representation in Saudi politics. Also, one could make the case that Faisal’s opposition to these guys was not simply the result of his fears of reform (though that would be a part of it). Faisal probably suspected the reformers of being pro-Nasser, and I think he was probably right to do so. (Bob knows the record here better than I; I just raise the points and am open to evidence that I am wrong.) Given that the Saudi ruling elite had plenty to fear from Nasser and Nasserism, Faisal’s stance was understandable, even if you do not like the normative implications.
Second, I think Bob misses what might be the essential dynamic in the internal Saudi maneuvering of this period. Saud had lost most of his family allies by 1960, a fact which Bob more than adequately documents. He was left with Talal and the other Free Princes. As a result, or maybe this was part of a previous plan, Saud relied more and more on his own sons in government. There were fears among the other brothers that he intended to institutionalize primogeniture, passing rule on to one of his sons and cutting out the brothers. You do not need to be a tech’ed up rat choicer to figure out that this fear would drive the rest of the family to oppose Saud.
Third, Faisal was no political reformer. But he did seem to have a better grasp on fiscal realities than did Saud. Given how much trouble other governments have gotten into when they had to go to the “international community” for help to pay their bills, Faisal’s parsimonious ways with the state budget might have been what Saudi Arabia needed at the time. Bob provides evidence from contemporary observers that Faisal did not rein in the princes; he just cut the government budget. That seems like good self-interested politics for a Saudi leader at that time.
I also want to challenge mildly a point in Bob’s posting about the Saudi-American relationship now. He said that he never thought that there was a real crisis in the relationship after 9-11, because there had been problems before (the biggest, the oil embargo of 1973-74, was outside the book’s chronological focus) and the fundamental Saudi security dependence on the U.S. and the U.S. interest in Saudi oil always overcame those problems. I do not disagree with that analysis, but I think that in the post-9-11 period it was touch and go as to whether that dynamic could be sustained. Not because of the Saudi side, which quickly fell in line with American policy in the “global war on terror.” Bob frequently cites Toni Morrison’s insight about the power of “not noticing.” On the American side, the entire relationship has been built around the principle of “not noticing,” or at least the fact that most Americans either do not notice or choose not to notice what happens in Saudi Arabia. For a brief time (I think it is over) after 9-11, lots of Americans were noticing Saudi Arabia, and did not like what they saw. There was a risk that there might have been a reassessment in Washington of the Saudi-American relationship – if other things had happened: Iraq had gone better, Kerry had won in 2004. None of that happened, and the relationship muddles on. But I do not think it was nearly as much as a sure thing as Bob does.
So much for mild disputation. This is a great book. It certainly has changed the way I think about Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-American relationship. It has changed the way I will present those subjects in my classes. It is my nominee for the Albert Hourani book award at MESA next year, given to the best book written in the previous year in the field. (Too bad I am not on the committee.) I know it was a hard slog writing it. Thanks for the effort, Bob.