Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library


Toby Craig Jones
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This is an environmental and political history of Saudi Arabia, revealing the power of the environment to shape and influence the political state. Jones traces the modernization of the Saudi state and its rich oil reserves that were developed with the help of U.S. expertise and a technocratic elite who managed not only the vast oil reserves and water supplies but also the growth of political institutions. From the time oil was discovered in the 1930s, its control has been at the center of Saudi political authority and of the modern state. In addition the state quickly learned to exploit access to water as a means of controlling the population. Jones demonstrates the power of the Saudi environment to influence its modern political institutions and ideologies over the last eighty years. It is a fascinating story that helps explain not only how the Saudi state was transformed but also how the U.S. was inextricably involved in its technological and political modernization from the beginning.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05940-5
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. 1 The Nature of the State
    (pp. 1-19)

    In November 1976, flush with billions of dollars from the recent boom in oil prices, Saudi Arabia commissioned a study of the improbable, a project so fanciful that one engineer would characterize it as horrifying. He went on to remark that the project lay “several orders of magnitude beyond anything within [the] experience” of the experts assembled to consider it.¹ The study aimed to measure the feasibility of towing a 100-million-ton iceberg from Antarctica to the Red Sea, where it was hoped the melting ice would slake the desert kingdom’s desperate need for freshwater. Over the next several years Muhammad...

  4. 2 Imperial Geology
    (pp. 20-53)

    In late December 1948 Karl Twitchell, an American geologist and mining engineer with close ties to the Saudi government, dispatched an urgent letter to his friend and the second most powerful person in Saudi Arabia, Minister of Finance Abdullah Sulaiman. Twitchell was alarmed by the drawing of the kingdom’s southern boundary as it appeared in atlases and on globes in use throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. He alerted the finance minister that various mapmakers, including the cartographers from the American Geographical Society who drew the map of Saudi Arabia for the U.S. State Department in 1947, had...

  5. 3 The Dogma of Development
    (pp. 54-89)

    Saudi efforts to conquer and engineer nature in Arabia accelerated quickly in the decades after Karl Twitchell carried out most of his work. Development of the environment, particularly agriculture, emerged as one of the most important areas in which the government attempted to bolster its political authority. In conjunction with the oil company Aramco, Twitchell’s work reinforced the Saudi belief that the conquest of nature and the control of the country’s limited natural resources were vital to the consolidation of the ruling family’s power. Armed with much of the new knowledge produced by Twitchell and other experts, and with their...

  6. 4 Engineering the Garden
    (pp. 90-137)

    In 1913, a little more than ten years after their dramatic conquest of the Arabian heartland, Saudi leaders turned their imperial gaze to the east. From central Arabia a small but formidable army marched nearly three hundred miles through inhospitable desert and laid siege to the lush villages and farmland perched near the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The invaders vanquished a small Ottoman garrison and annexed the region in the name of their leader, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. It was not the first time a Saudi army had stormed the shores of the Gulf. Twice before, once in...

  7. 5 The Black Gold Coast
    (pp. 138-178)

    The expansion of development work, particularly projects that targeted the Eastern Province’s rich oil and water resources, worked to extend the power of Saudi Arabia’s central authorities. It also heightened both the expectations and the frustrations of those Saudi subjects who made their home in the region. The completion of the Irrigation and Drainage Project in al-Hasa in 1971 marked a major achievement for the government, although it came at a considerable cost politically. The failure of the IDP and similar projects in the region would ultimately transform local politics. By the end of the 1970s, the environmental and social...

  8. 6 The Wages of Oil
    (pp. 179-216)

    Frustration in the Eastern Province’s Shia communities came to a head in late 1979. While community leaders in the 1950s and 1960s had remained mostly passive and sought various means to engage with Saudi authorities, the late 1970s were characterized by a turn to revolutionary politics. The sources of the transformation were twofold. From the early part of the 1970s a new generation of community leaders, motivated and politically ambitious, came of age. They increasingly used the emerging notion of political Islam to whip up revolutionary fervor, borrowing from Shia tradition as well as from the works of Sayyid Qutb...

  9. 7 Nature’s Retreat
    (pp. 217-235)

    Nature’s Retreat The year 1979 and the events that shook the kingdom marked a turning point in Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs. In the aftermath of the twin uprisings in Mecca and the Eastern Province, Saudi leaders pursued new paths in securing their political authority at home. Oil continued to play a vital role, but revenues were directed in new ways to meet what leaders perceived to be growing threats. Controlling nature and the country’s natural resources, and using the abundance of oil to create new sources of water, retained a heavy emphasis. But while managing and remaking the environment remained...

  10. Epilogue: House of Wisdom
    (pp. 236-244)

    The political authority of the House of Saud has historically been tied to the ruling family’s command over Arabia’s natural resources. Oil has been the lifeblood of Saudi power since the 1930s, fueling the consolidation of the modern kingdom and providing the wealth that helped finance the political primacy of the Saudi royal family. Other less abundant resources, most notably water, also proved to be vital to the political fortunes of the Saudis. Over the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering, and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil. After...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 247-294)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 295-299)
  13. Index
    (pp. 300-312)