Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pg. 69: "America's Kingdom"

Robert Vitalis is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania where he also directs the Middle East Center.

His new book is America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, which Tariq Ali named as one of his favorite books of 2006. Vitalis put his book to the "page 69 test" and reported the following:
America’s Kingdom tells the history of the first three (of four) decades, between the 1930s and the 1960s, when the private United States oil firm, Aramco, explored for oil and built and ran the oil camps in Eastern Saudi Arabia. By the 1970s, the Saudi government had begun to buy out the American owners. What life in the camps was like in those early decades, especially for the thousands of Saudi workers, has never really been told before. I show that the Americans organized production in Saudi Arabia in the same way the American South organized society after the Civil War. Most basically, norms of separate and unequal rights and privileges governed life in their rigidly segregated camps. In the South we refer to the order as “Jim Crow.” It turns out that it was the same Jim Crow system used everywhere in the Eastern and Western coal, gold, copper, and oil mining towns, and not just in the Indian territories and states in the making, but in Mexico, Venezuela, and anywhere else multinational mining firms operated. Thus I speak of “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.)

At the same time that I tell the story of the oil camps and what happened when Saudis tried to force the company to abandon its Jim Crow system, I trace Aramco’s prodigious efforts to deny the truth of these matters and to sell its own, rosier version of how, in the company’s words, the American oilmen were like missionaries to the kingdom, dispensing aid that was “free for the American people.”

Page 69 of America’s Kingdom describes the creation of the company’s Government Relations Organization at a moment when, in the words of a State Department official, the company’s managers in Saudi Arabia seemed resigned to running a "Department of Government Management.” Instead, as I write,

Government Relations became ARAMCO’s equivalent of the State Department, charged with many of the tasks an embassy routinely performs. If it is not stretching the metaphor too far, the organization was even run out of Washington, DC, where [vice president] Terry Duce spent an increasing amount of time from the war years until retirement in 1959. If the Government Relations Organization was like State, then the GRO’s Arabian Affairs Division, set up in 1946, was like the OSS, literally so, because it was modeled on the wartime intelligence service’s Cairo branch. The connection was preserved as Duce and [the head of GRO, Tom] Barger began to open up positions in Arabian Affairs to new-minted spies from Washington. Bill Mulligan, who spent his career in Arabian Affairs, called Duce and Barger the two “darlings” of the postwar CIA. These institutions were only closed down as the phased nationalization of the firm began in the 1970s and as Saudis gradually replaced Americans because, as in internal company memorandum notes, “it is no longer necessary to have a group of people to interpret local customs.”

It is not a surprise to find that an oil company confronted by critics in the United States beginning in the 1940s would invent and embellish the myths about serving the Saudis and the world. As the Cold War unfolded and with the decolonization and American civil rights movements agitating for change in the 1950s and 1960s, opposition to Aramco’s policies drew increasing criticism in Cairo, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Arab world. Nor is it surprising that the old-timers and the sons and daughters of the company’s “pioneers” hold on to the myths even now. What surprises is how ready journalists, historians, and even scholars today are to repeat so uncritically the tales the company once told. My book tries to explain why this is the case. It is a story the oil companies never wanted told, and one Americans don’t like to hear, at least not too often, maybe for fear of losing heart.
Many thanks to Bob for the input.

Among the praise for America's Kingdom:
“A brilliant, original, and stimulating book, America's Kingdom rewrites the history of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia. Placing the relationship in a wider context of U.S. business interests abroad, Vitalis offers a radically new view of the motives and methods that shaped America's decisive encounter with the Arab world.”
—Tim Mitchell, New York University

“Robert Vitalis makes us see the world in new ways. Arguing that the American imperial tradition reflects less a classic expansion of sovereignty than a volatile mix of private business and institutionalized racism, he documents the export of this tradition from the American West to the Arabian Peninsula, where it formed the crucible in which the modern state of Saudi Arabia was born. No one will understand Saudi Arabia—or the United States—in quite the same way after reading this book.”
—Lisa Anderson, Dean, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

"America's Kingdom ... is a devastating critique of the oil giant Aramco and how strike-breaking and racism cemented the US-Saudi relationship."
—Tariq Ali
The entire "Foreword" to America's Kingdom is available online here, and you can read the Table of Contents here.

This week the Qahwa Sada Book Forum is featuring a discussion of America's Kingdom. It opens with initial framing remarks by Bob, followed by commentary from two Gulf experts: F. Gregory Gause III (University of Vermont) and Toby Jones (formerly of the International Crisis Group, and currently at Swarthmore College).

Previous "page 69 tests":
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue