America’s Kingdom

I finally got around to this book which I had wanted to read ever since the spirited discussion of it on the short-lived Qahwa Sada. It’s a history of ARAMCO and US-Saudi relations between the 1930s and mid-60s that aims to debunk myths that the oil company was a benevolent, modernizing actor in the kingdom that provided its workers better conditions than other mining operations in contemporary Iran, Venezuela, etc.

Robert Vitalis re-trained himself in African American Studies to better advance the book’s main argument, that ARAMCO brought 1930s America’s Jim Crow social and labor practices with it when it opened its drilling operations on Saudi Arabia’s east coast.  In place of the standard narrative of ARAMCO bringing the kingdom into the modern world, he argues that progressive Saudis, whose writings he likens to Booker T Washington, had to drag the oil company into the 20th century through a series of strikes and labor actions that had previously been minimized or unreported.

He digs up a ton of great stuff on the gaggle of Arabist-spies that ARAMCO employed in its government affairs shop ready to turn any given Saudi royal from a ‘forward-looking reformer’ to a ‘profligate drunk’ and back again depending on how the political winds were blowing.

Very well-written book.  It makes other books on Saudi read like the Hardy Boys, and is also a very important historical reference point for current labor practices in the Gulf.


2 thoughts on “America’s Kingdom”

  1. Anon for this one

    I realize this is a somewhat old post, but just wanted to say I found Bob Vitalis’ book fantastic as well. I grew up an Aramco brat American kid in Dhahran, and am ashamed to say my views as a kid of Saudis was…well, a bit racist to be honest. Here we were living in someone else’s country and we had this high-handed “we’re better than you” attitude. But I have to say that some of our Saudi neighbors over the years (back then Saudis were still relatively rare neighbors in the Aramco compounds) changed my views showing our family and me some wonderful genuine kindness that far outdid any of my repugnant behavior towards them.

    Anyhow, on Bob Vitalis, I also grew up with all the myths of Aramco’s founding and history, and lacking any objective outside view, basically always bought into them. Vitalis shattered them in the most intellectually delicious way. I’ll never look at the place I grew up the same again, and my respect for such crusading reformist Saudis as Abdullah Tariki is now immense. Wonderful book for opening my eyes even if I recognize it has its own angles and biases to watch out for. Probably the biggest of which though is that I think we need to acknowledge that the racial segregation model also existed heavily in the Gulf thanks to the British. Vitalis gives no coverage to that fact and how it might have influenced development of the model in Saudi beyond America’s importation of it. Nonetheless, that’s one folks may have picked up on easier on their own, the American Jim Crow angle is completely missed by most.

    Now the challenge is heavily in Saudi hands though. A system of racial segregation exists. It’s one thing for Aramco to be a national champion along the lines of a Petrobras or Statoil, and one thing for the government to promote Saudization – those are all perfectly legitimate national goals, a government’s primary responsible is to its own people. But the reality is the kingdom (and the Gulf as a whole) is full of foreign workers, who if they are not outright abused or robbed, are at a minimum paid on a scale that is explicitly race/nationality based in the direct same system as the American Jim Crow system the early Aramco imported set up. It’s not right, just as its not right the way say Latino workers are exploited in America or North African workers in Europe. Human dignity, fair pay, fair treatment before the law. These are principles we all need to fight for in our own countries.

  2. Stuart, I concur…the lewerod rig count surely must indicate some headroom. It’s important to remember Aramaco knows a lot more about their own production numbers than we do. The best we can do is look at what they are doing physically (rig count, production methods) and try to piece together the clues by imagining ourselves in their shoes. We just don’t have transparent, allocated production data; so this is the best we can do. Matt Simmons was the king when it came to this. He knew the industry backwards and forwards. I put a lot of stock in his opinions. Very astute gentleman RIP. I will admit, I’m surprised at the drop off in rigs. I would expect them to constantly be drilling in order to offset decline of existing wells IF the biggest fields were in terminal decline. When Ghawar and some of the bigger fields have truly peaked, I expect to see a sustained drilling frenzy in Saudi.On a worldwide scale I think we are going to see another shock in prices needed to justify the costs of exploration…most hopefully, as the world declines as a whole we will continue to see higher and higher prices support the plateau of production so that the current population is able to sustain. However, this does not solve the problem caused by the fact that our whole economy and monetary systems are founded on the paradime of eternal growth. Sustaining and growing are two very different concepts. Growth requires cheap, abundant energy.I think it’s true that we could produce expensive energy for some years to come…the question is how long will it take the economy to completely crumble under the higher energy prices??? In my opinion, NOT LONG. Inelastic demand is finite, just as the whole economy is.

Comments are closed.