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Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia

Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 2011, 320 pages
Khelil Bouarrouj
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Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 2011, 320 pages.

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1It has become an axiom in Western reports on Saudi Arabia to portray the reigning Al Saud family as enforcing eastern despotism on the home front yet, when it comes to their own personal habits, yearning for all the efficacy (mostly Western) modernity has to offer. In his lucid (and highly recommended) account on the contemporary history of Saudi Arabia, Toby Jones problematizes this dichotomy: rather than hoarding a monopoly on modernity, the ruling family preached its gospel as a measure of the state’s legitimacy alongside a strategy of political aggrandizement.

2The 20th century version of the civilizing mission was development, Jones argues, and development experts presented their mission as an apolitical cause guiding the hand of a modernizing kingdom acting on behalf of its subjects and working towards their betterment. But development theory is often a black box: people, charts, designs and whole power grids are thrown in and — somehow, somewhere — “development” is supposed to spring forth. Unsurprisingly, things rarely work so straightforwardly. In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, there is “success in failure,” to quote Jones, as the Al Saud sought political primacy over socioeconomic betterment of a subdued populace (Jones, 131). Granted, the Al Saud pursued both and one may concede that the ruling family was well-intentioned in its effort to improve the living conditions of Saudi subjects; but their failure to do so did not undermine political objectives. Consider the massive al Hasa irrigation project documented by Jones. After “seven years of intense engineering work”, the project was inaugurated, as it were, by King Faisal. (Jones, 94) But it was a fiasco that failed to achieve its agricultural objectives. Politically, however, it served “the ambition of the central state to tame nature in al-Hasa,” augmented state legibility in the Eastern Province and its corollary of control (including information collection), increased farmer dependence on the central state for water, and further politicized Shi’as who understood very well the political nature of the project (Jones argues one of the objectives had actually been to “[rein] in the potentially restive” minority [Jones, 96]). “The result was that the surveying, design, and engineering work…masked the political stakes involved.” (Jones, 95-96) In these passages, Jones exhibits astute insight, which make this text truly rewarding, yet further details into, say, how dependence ended up subduing farmers would greatly enhance it.

3Because of their depoliticized narrative and their reluctance to offend royal sensibilities, development experts volunteering their services nearly unanimously shied away from acknowledging sectarian divisions in Saudi Arabia. The Eastern Province was for the Al Saud a bittersweet conquest: home to oil reserves and waterbeds underneath a large and dispersed Shi’a population. The Al Saud devised a solution, but the very development policies meant to erase them as “Shi’a” only underlined the saliency of sectarianism in the kingdom. Instead of equitable development, Shi’a towns and villages — by intention or indifference, it does not matter — faced dilapidation. Hannah Arendt’s verdict that rage is born when amendable conditions are denied correction succinctly captures the Shi’a moment recounted by Jones. The reverse effect, however, was welding Sunnis to state entitlements and the complex of superiority it engendered. The now fashionable Sunni-Shi’a split is not a mainstay of Islamic life. Divisions have to be cultivated and often arise from socioeconomic anxieties; bitterness among those neglected, on the one hand, and fear of losing one’s privileges, on the other. On the surface it may appear the Sunni are pitted against the Shi’a (as a letter exchange related by Jones exhibits, 162), but this is only after Sunni and Shi’a have been institutionalized in a binary of favoritism and abandonment that is at its core a materialist construct. Admittedly, the Shi’a clerical revolutionary vanguard did not aid their cause by employing sectarian tones and aligning with Khomeini, but leftism was a spent force by then and clerical tempers did not alter the fact that the grievances were economic. While Shi’a social identity as Shi’a (for instance, poverty, negligence, discrimination) is well represented, as documented in the aforementioned letter exchange whereby a writer likely to be Sunni blames the poverty of Shi’a towns on the people. A question left mostly unanswered remains: how have development policies contributed to the self-conceptualization of Sunni identity (such as, reputable, industrious, cultivator of community) as illustrated in the above letter? Furthermore, the rift between Sunni and Shi’a may not be (at least entirely) accidental: if it wasn’t initially intended so, it may now serve a function for the royals. Clearly many prominent Sunnis are invested in the longevity of the state, but what about the lay (and occasionally unemployed) Sunni? Why are there protests in Qatif and not in Riyadh? What role, if any, has development theory played in cultivating identities which have aligned segments of the population toward sectarian loyalties rather than class solidarities?

4Undoubtedly the 1979 uprising was most visible due to its violent clashes, but perhaps a more fruitful course of analysis may be to consider the tools of resistance which James C. Scott labels “the weapons of the weak.” What on the surface appears to be resigned subordination may, in fact, be the purposive “hidden transcripts” of resistance that force us to reconsider what exactly resistance is. The 1979 uprising in its revolutionary fervor and direct confrontation with state power may be bracketed in time, but the “weapons of the weak” (as the neighboring Palestinian experience exhibits) may continue in perpetuity. It is this form of resistance — the tools of the subaltern — that may better situate the Shi’a experience rather than the ephemeral and futile revolt. The massive irrigation project in al-Hasa, as documented by Jones, was a political success for the Saudis (it served, for instance, the production of knowledge as power) but failed in its outlined agricultural objective. But the Al Saud are not alone in maintaining “success in failure” as Shi’a failure may be a refusal to subscribe to the state’s narrative. Many Shi’a oppositional forces have closed down their offices, for instance, but resistance may continue through a myriad of quiet acts. An intifada is dramatic, but the subtle dignity of resistance may harbor the more threatening portent for Al Saud’s future dominance.

5Drawing connections between past and present is always a hazard, but it is not spurious to see the recent Arab uprisings as an echo of Saudi Shi’a agitation and ’shaking off’. Tunisia’s Ben ’Ali marketed a formula Tunisians wryly described as “make money and shut up” not much different from the development contract the Al Saud promulgated. Saudi Arabia’s model of governance is not so exceptional after all. Yet Tunisia’s uprising was successful whereas the 1979 intifada came to a bloody end. One obvious reason for the contrasting ends is the mostly sectarian nature of Saudi Arabia’s uprising and the fact that Tunisia’s coercive apparatus is not exclusively selected from a privileged faction. Jones’ book is about Saudi Arabia and not the Arab world, but useful parallels may be drawn.

6Reading Jones’ text there are frustrating moments when one would hope the author would delve deeper. There is more to be elicited from the Al Saud’s designs than Jones relates. He does recapitulate many of the pronounced grievances, but how did these grievances translate in the public space of interaction between subject and state? For instance, we are told that state control over water and agriculture brought subjects into the state’s remit, but we are left wanting of further details as to how it played out. However, this is a slight weakness that may be corrected in a future edition. In the end, Jones tells a compelling story (and makes a serious contribution to the literature on development and the ’rule of experts’) about the formations of identity, societal fragmentation and cultivating regime loyalty derived from development schemes conveying the regime’s wholly political nature, despite the expert’s profession of apoliticism.

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Khelil Bouarrouj, « Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia  », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Khelil Bouarrouj

M.A. Student, Center for Near Eastern Studies, New York University

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