Reading America’s Kingdom
Bob, your new book America’s Kingdom is a remarkable achievement. In fewer than 300 pages of elegantly and smartly argued prose, you turn the standard approach to writing the history of U.S.-Saudi relations – as well as the history of the formation of the modern Saudi Arabian state – on its head. America’s Kingdom is a brilliant intervention in Saudi studies and will hopefully facilitate equally critical and insightful work in the future.
In spite of my enthusiasm that this may happen, we’ll have to wait and see. As you would no doubt acknowledge, although the investigative work needed to write America’s Kingdom required work in seventeen archives (!), the story was there to be told if earlier scholars had only done the necessary mining of the sources. I’m not sure if their inability to do so reflected choice, laziness or more likely, as you suggest, the Cold War era failure to notice things such as race and racism.
Even for those scholars who will no longer be taken in by the claims of exceptionalism, other challenges remain for critical examinations of Saudi Arabia and/or the American role there. Sources remain hard to come by, particularly with regard to the Saudi side of things. I was fortunate enough to get into the kingdom for ten months in 2003 to carry out research. Even so, it took luck and the assistance of Saudi citizens sympathetic to my project – and critical of the Saudi state – to find the most interesting and important resources for my own work.
One of the things I learned in Saudi Arabia is that a remarkable parallel to the story you tell of ARAMCO is the presence of a powerful sense of Saudi exceptionalism. Here, your application of Dan Rodgers’ formula, which in this instance might be restated as Saudi Arabia seeing itself as “insulated from processes that shape the world at large”, would be appropriate. The volume you edited with Madawi al-Rasheed, Counter-Narratives, touches on this to some extent. But I might go a step further and make that claim that the history of race, state-building, and imperial power in Saudi Arabia in the period after America’s Kingdom ends – say after 1960 – appears to parallel the American story in Saudi Arabia in very interesting ways. I would even argue that to some extent the Saudi approach to the challenges of governing a population that does not see the state as legitimate is to some degree derivative of ARAMCO practices and policies. Hopefully, we can return to this later in the week.
For now, I am compelled by your most basic premise that America’s Kingdom shatters several myths, the most important of which is the long-unchallenged claim advanced by the giant American oil conglomerate ARAMCO and its chroniclers that Americans were a force for good in Saudi Arabia. In a rousing bit of myth-busting, you succeed in showing how ARAMCO fits neatly into a long tradition of American corporate racism, in which the oil giant constructed an elaborate discriminatory residential and professional system that institutionalized the worst abuses of the Jim Crow order.
Like me, however, you probably would not be surprised if few readers were shocked to learn that American oil companies were hardly good citizens abroad. After all, we live in an era of hyper-cynicism about big-business. Even so, it is impossible not to be outraged (if this is still possible) to learn in grim detail the wrenching degree to which ARAMCO not only relied on race to order its operations in Saudi Arabia, but also the ways in which company managers ignored and sought to circumvent those (the Saudi victims of racism) who challenged its discriminatory practices.
For me, one of the most revealing aspects of this sordid history is that ARAMCO managers understood well the racist order they constructed – it was a deliberate act – and were even embarrassed enough about it to excise references to their discriminatory practices from the company’s promotional materials, including company histories and even a feature-length film. Not once, did their embarrassment and clear understanding of wrong-doing lead to a reversal in company policy. Not once.
Worse, by the mid-1950s when the company began to face sustained periods of labor unrest and challenges to its racism, ARAMCO stood firm and sought ways to avoid solving the specific problems their discriminatory policies were generating. As you note, ARAMCO managers deployed Cold War rhetoric to mask the substance of the grievances levied against them, deflecting criticism by charging their critics with being communists and agitators for the overthrow of the Saudi and American political order. Given that this was the same tactic used to smear Civil Rights advocates in the United States, this does not come as much of a surprise. It is interesting to note that the Saudi state also came to mimic the same line, charging dissenters with sympathy for communism as a method for undermining their potential appeal, not to mention as a pretext for cracking down on them. In this respect, American Cold War logic and discourse proved highly malleable and portable.
As important as the details of the practice of racism on the ground are in your recounting, America’s Kingdom is perhaps more important for what it suggests about the role of ARAMCO and racism in the shaping of American political power abroad and what we might come to think of as American empire. It is clear from your account that American “hegemony” in Saudi Arabia did not conform to our typical perception of how empire works. In the kingdom, American political interests followed ARAMCO and, in fact, those interests were subordinate to ARAMCO for several decades. It is beyond dispute that ARAMCO and its racist ways played the paramount role in shaping not only American policy but also the Saudi political order.
You point out the fascinating ways that this took shape as well as the important ways in which Saudi state-builders and leaders pushed back against American power. Saudi Arabia proved no mere puppet and the United States proved no Great Britain. And yet, at the end of the day, American hegemony in Saudi Arabia was no less nefarious than those formal empires that dominated the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. As you show the Americans played no small role in undermining the kingdom’s potential transition to a more liberal political order at the end of the 1950s, even if the U.S. did not actually orchestrate the ascension of the highly bureaucratized and institutionalized authoritarian political system that followed.
In later years, in the 1960s and well into the 1970s, other American organizations and firms actually helped strengthen the authoritarian character of the Saudi state (not to mention Saudi sovereignty itself) by bolstering the operation of various police forces and governing ministries. And, given that the ruling al-Sa¬ud came to rule over communities and territories that despised them, it may be true that even if the story of ARAMCO and the United States in Saudi Arabia is not one of formal empire, it may well be a story in which they trained the kingdom’s leaders how to maintain one themselves.