Writing America’s Kingdom
I want to thank Greg Gause, Toby Jones, and especially Marc Lynch for the chance to discuss my new book with three very sharp thinkers. What I will do to kick off the discussion is rehearse the book’s main arguments, briefly, and the objectives in writing it. I also want to consider in a way that I wasn’t able to in the book itself some steps in the crafting of it. For a website devoted to Middle East scholarship, the latter points might prove interesting and, ideally, useful. However, I also assume some, maybe most readers on this site want to know why a book about the 1940s and 1950s matters today and not just to professors and graduate students, how it helps us in understanding America in the Persian Gulf and in the world now. I’ll tell you what I think, and then let’s see what my colleagues say.
America’s Kingdom is most basically about the organization of the labor process in the oil industry in Eastern Saudi Arabia during the time when the private U.S.-owned company known as ARAMCO was charge of exploration and production, starting in the 1930s. My book identifies the racist order built by ARAMCO in Dhahran and the other company campsites for what it is, a Jim Crow system, meaning that its white American executives pursued a purposeful, planned project of discrimination and forced segregation. I show that firms generally in the U.S. mining industry organized the labor process in this way in, among other places, what was then Indian territory, Arizona, “New” Mexico, and so on, beginning in the 1860s and 1870s in the copper industry, and, a decade or two later in the newly emerging oil industry, and when American oil firms move beyond the Caribbean Basin (Mexico, Trinidad, Colombia, Venezuela) and start to explore for oil in the Gulf and its surroundings.
At stake was what I call the “racial wage.” All firms paid miners, drillers, and other skilled and unskilled labor different wages according to race. And ending the racial wage became the issue that pitted the subordinate races against not only the white owners and managers but also the privileged caste of workers in strike after strike across the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The full panoply of Jim Crow institutions—segregated housing, differential access to services, let alone the degradation and humiliation of white supremacist thought—worked to buttress the labor control regime. The system was exported everywhere U.S. firms went, although it has not been noticed anywhere by anyone writing about oil in the past few decades, with one important exception. The historian Miguel Tinker Salas has been working on a similar project in the case of the Creole (Exxon’s subsidiary) camps in Maracaibo, Venezuela, when oil exploration began there in the 1920s.
I also explain the causes for, in this case, the halting and partial steps to dismantle the Jim Crow order inside the kingdom, which happens during the brief moment of a Saudi labor movement in the 1950s and what I call an incipient challenge to the hierarchy of the camps, the world oil market, and American hegemony launched for different reasons by a set of progressives in government and their allies in the royal family. It is a remarkable, wholly forgotten moment in modern Saudi Arabian history. In the last chapter of my book I tell the sad story of the end of this moment—a Saudi “revolution” is how more than one observer at the time referred to it—and the creation of what I call America’s Kingdom—consolidation of the power of the coalition known as the House of Fahd, which still rules today.
What most analysts, journalists, and oil, business, and diplomatic historians have done until now is reproduce the company’s propaganda unreflectively, when, for example, ARAMCO officials then and retirees now insist that the company led all others anywhere in its dedication to developing the kingdom, uplifting Arab workers, training them to take over the running of the oil industry, and the like. The reality is quite different. The firm’s own records and the testimony of its top officials reveal that its competitors in Iraq and Iran (joint moved faster and further on all the dimensions that Saudi workers began to mobilize to change and that the small Saudi state-building class pressed ARAMCO to honor. I resurrect an explanation that was known at the time but has since been forgotten. To quote from the book,
While all three countries were monarchies, only Iran and Iraq had functioning parliaments, parties, and unions. Populist politics, which emphasized inclusion and redistribution, gained ground in both places after World War II, culminating in the famous nationalization of Anglo-Persian in 1951…and revolution in Iraq in 1958. Conditions for the nascent Saudi labor movement and the relative handful of officials who sought to move Saudi Arabia in a more inclusive and redistributive direction were, to understate the obstacle of absolute rule, inauspicious, and the firm there had a freer hand to deflect, ignore, and counter demands for fairness and human capital development.
Finally, therefore, I try to trace the origins of these myths themselves and analyze their affinity with ways in which many write, equally problematically, about the histories of firms and states more generally.
The path to overturning the foundational myth about ARAMCO began with reading the vast U.S. state department archive for the 1940s and 1950s (and later the 1960s), where we find detailed records of the strikes that rocked the Saudi oil frontier in those decades. Let me simply note that few other scholars have used these records, and those that have, notably Nate Citino and Sarah Yizraeli, all challenge conventional claims about Saudi state formation and U.S-Saudi relations. It is hard not to. I wrote the first paper on these matters while on leave at Princeton’s Davis Center for Historical Studies in 1995-1996 (published in 1999 and reprinted in the 2004 book I co-edited with Madawi al-Rasheed), which drew mainly on these records and the Mulligan Papers at Georgetown University, which comprise a partial set of company records taken from the kingdom by a retired employee. Like any archive, the Mulligan papers have to be used with great caution, and let’s just say that all the new, rushed-to-press books in the past few years, designed to instruct us anew on the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, treat the materials a bit too reverentially. I eventually worked in seventeen different archival collections during the course of my research.
Just as important as the records themselves, I began a kind of tutorial that year with two historians at Princeton, Steve Aaron and Karen Merrill, who were new assistant professors specializing in the nineteenth and twentieth century American West. The connection with them began with Wallace Stegner, who I knew only as a guy who wrote a terrible history of ARAMCO’s pioneer era, and they knew as one of America’s greatest writers (he indeed is) and influential environmentalist who, they insisted, never wrote a book about oil (he indeed did). Those conversations led me to study the history of mining enterprise and the discovery of what I call the unbroken past of hierarchy across the nineteenth and twentieth century mining frontiers (and some readers will recognize my homage to the recently re-released, path-breaking book by Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.)
I returned to Princeton University and commuted from there to the New School on a second leave in 1997-1998 to retrain in Afro-American studies with Kevin Gaines, Adolph Reed, and Vicky Hattam, hoping to develop a better understanding of the history of race and racism in the international order during the rise of American dominance or hegemony. I published two pieces on the history of race and international relations that I worked on during the fellowship year, before resuming work once more on America’s Kingdom during a third and final leave at NYU’s International Center for Advanced Study in 2002-2003. ICA was then running a three-year project on the Cold War as Global History. All these strands are woven together in a book that takes seriously the transnational turn pioneered by black theorists and what Dan Rodgers calls post-exceptionalist history writing.
As I came to understand more about why so many before me have gotten the story so wrong, I made it an objective of my book to explain how bound up our views of the world are with two constructs of the cold war. One is the belief that America is “exceptional,” which a lot of people think translates into “better” or “different” but I think Dan Rodgers gets it right when he says it is more as if we think America is insulated from processes that shape the world at large. The relevant example for my book is the idea that unlike all other great powers or would be great powers of the nineteenth and twentieth (and now twenty first) century, America has resisted the imperial temptation or the ancestors learned to get along without an empire or that the so-called neo-conservative cabal is just getting around to building an empire now in Iraq. The second construct that works basically like a powerful set of blinders on our ability to understand the world is what Toni Morrison calls the tradition of not noticing race. She calls it the “graceful and generous liberal gesture.” The norm against noticing is another construct of the Cold War.
The way I think this all works—to simplify things a little bit here—is that we have an exaggerated sense of time--the distance between the past and present—and space—the distance between something called home and all other places abroad. We might tell one story about the nineteenth century, and even acknowledge some troubled aspects of that “national” history, but as we do so we also distance ourselves from it. The past is always being transcended or obliterated or overcome. Then we believe there is some coherent nationally bounded story to be told about the United States that has intermittent and sporadic connections with some places and more continuous connection with some other places, all of which have coherent national stories of their own. There is even a kind of logic of comparison across all these different places with their distinct national trajectories (otherwise my colleagues who specialize in comparative politics would be in real trouble). So when I started working on the American West as part of my study of ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia, the historian of the Middle East I know best asked if it didn’t make more sense to look at the British empire in Africa? Others asked even more frequently why I wasn’t studying the British East India Company? Of course, these latter histories are also ones that specialists on the Middle East, including American-born and employed ones, are ones they are more likely to know than ones about American empire in the nineteenth-century West.
The goal I set for myself, therefore, was to write a book that tried to undo these conventions. As I put it in the Foreword,
America’s Kingdom shows why it is imperative that we tear down the wall between the 1940s and all that came before, and that we topple that other, more formidable wall, once understood as dividing races and now as dividing nations or cultures, which protects the myth of an isolated and autonomous history of the United States of America.
Before I do what many or maybe most who are reading the page are anxious for me to do—to stop writing like a professor to other professors and say something about how the book matters for understanding US-Saudi relations today—I want to note for the record that I reject that distinction—it is invidious in fact—that is often made between the campus and the so-called real world. I think the most important thing my book can do—to the extent that readers come away after finishing it with a new view of the past than the one they started with—is to motivate them to do some work on their own in exposing the struts and bolts of hierarchy, as Toni Morrison puts it, in the present. The basic question to ask is what blinders continue to constrict our understanding about the world generally? The same question is relevant whether you are a student, professor, working person, retiree, history buff, bartender or political activist.
That said, the book demands that the activists work harder on
understanding the international politics of oil, starting with the myth
that nothing has changed in the decades since the 1950s and that oil
companies still dominate Saudi Arabia or other Gulf producing states in
the ways I write about (and if you didn’t make this argument yourself
or heard it at an antiwar rally, then spend a little time on line and
you will find plenty of variants of this idea). Those days are long
gone and the challenge is to work out how hierarchy is reinscribed
today in the world economy, by whom, and to what end.
Lesson two, needless to say, is to trust nothing written about the U.S. – Saudi relationship by the pundits who play geostrategists on television, the second rate scholars, ex-diplomats, adjunct fellows, and the like that are writing from the Upper East Side and DuPont Circle. Do you recall the early days after 9/11, the handwringing by the kingdom’s “friends” in response to the "Saudis are our enemies" line of the Christians, Israel-first types, Rand consultants, and spies-turned-authors? Check the archival records yourselves. See who was arguing that the so-called special relationship was suddenly in crisis, allegedly, for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Ibn Saud on board the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake (the location of which the Council on Foreign Relation’s Gulf expert is still not quite sure of). My book tells you why 1. I never believed any of this talk and why you should not have either, and 2. Why those same prophets have no good explanation now for why it is business as usual between the United States and the Kingdom. Hint: it doesn't have anything to do with the Carlyle Group.
Finally, there are plenty of so-called experts out there who think that the only thing that stands between the United States and a trouble free relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East states is Israel and the influence of the so-called Jewish lobby. There are people who have argued the same thing every decade since the 1940s. My book shows why it wasn’t true then and, by extension, why it isn’t true now, no matter how many times the Arabists, lobbyists, and energy consultants repeat the myth.