Book Review

America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

Robert Vitalis

Fall 2010, Volume XVII, Number 3

This book by American historian Robert Vitalis was reissued in 2009 in a paperback edition, a testament in part, no doubt, to the unrelenting interest in U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations occasioned by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. However, the principal ground for its appeal must surely be located in the nature of the work itself. It is a stimulating read, provocative in argument and ambitious in theoretical scope, with Dr. Vitalis' scholarly diligence well-displayed. The text is buttressed with copious footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, all of which amplify the work's utility for others across a wide range of disciplines. What defines the work is an extreme revisionist reading of the U.S. encounter with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over a roughly three-decade period beginning in the early 1930s. Central to Dr. Vitalis's objectives is to disabuse one of accepting what he asserts is the overly Panglossian approach — the "mythmaking" — that shapes and dominates the appreciation of the kingdom and its relations with the United States. In building his case, Dr. Vitalis considers events that have heretofore been obscured in this twentieth-century encounter between East and West.

Despite the scholarship and the invigorating quality of its expression, however, this is a flawed work. Critically, the analysis is marred by an overarching tendentiousness; theorizing impedes rather than aids understanding. A laudable commitment to critiquing a historical narrative too readily mutates into the imposition of an interpretative template that misconstrues context and process and promotes a distorted, highly idiosyncratic understanding of events. With no little irony, a study that seeks to demythologize a certain reading of history propounds its own myths. Central to Dr. Vitalis's reconstruction is an assessment of the oil exploration, production and refining company established in 1933 to fulfill the terms of a concession granted by the Saudi Arabian government to Standard Oil of California (Socal). Known initially as the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (Casoc), this kingdom-based corporate subsidiary had in little more than a decade undergone a rebranding as the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and a transformation into a consortium embracing three additional American oil corporations with substantial international operations. These alterations demonstrated not only the enormity of the kingdom's oil resources and Aramco's central role in their development, but indicated as well a growing awareness within the U.S. government of this commercial endeavor's strategic importance.

It is universally recognized that the oil concession catalyzed the American "penetration of Arabia" with Aramco at the vanguard of what would ultimately be a broad, substantial and sometimes contentious U.S. involvement with the kingdom. Yet, despite the historical import of this American company, the controversies that enveloped it and the extremes of opinion surrounding it — in which, for example, Aramco was castigated by some as an agent of Western domination and by others as a corporate factotum supporting an autocratic Arab regime antithetical to the West — there remains to be written a substantive and analytically satisfying history of the company.

To be sure, Aramco has been discussed in a great many publications elucidating its significance in the reshaping of diplomatic, strategic and economic relationships. However, an astute analysis of the "reality" on the ground of a Western commercial entity interacting with Saudi society and its political order remains elusive. To a great extent, this lacuna is due to the inability to access corporate documentation. Unlike, for example, British Petroleum, Aramco never granted unrestricted access to its files to professionally trained historians in the pursuit of a comprehensive account of its activities. A key reason Dr. Vitalis is able to attempt his reconstruction is the availability of a collection of Aramco documentation bequeathed by a long-serving company official, William E. Mulligan, to Georgetown University, where it has been expertly archived.

The company did make an attempt in the 1950s to commission a popular history of its first decade of operations by the renowned American author Wallace Stegner. Granted access to some corporate documentation and able to interview personnel, Stegner produced a text entitled Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. The work provides a captivating and nuanced account of the early days, adroitly weaving together individual stories of both Arabs and Americans with accounts of operational difficulties, framed by often-perceptive commentary on the sociocultural milieu. Stegner was clearly impressed with the challenge and significance of the venture. But his commitment to balance, to display both the benefits wrought and the frictions exposed by Aramco's activities, and to touch on sensitive topics — like boundaries — generated sufficient anxiety that the company shelved the work (available in abridged form from Selwa Press, 2007).

Although Stegner noted in a letter to Aramco Vice President H.D. Thompson that " one in Aramco has tried to steer me toward writing a Company whitewash job," Dr. Vitalis considers this episode, with justification, as emblematic of the way that much of the public understanding of Aramco was controlled by corporate self-interest. And there can be no doubt that Aramco was an assiduous purveyor of the view that its operations expressed a positive partnership of shared benefits between a commercial endeavor and Saudi Arabia. Aramco "understood" (its officers shared a collective outlook that framed decision making) that on-going success was never simply a function of operational achievement that could be measured in the narrow terms of barrels of Saudi crude produced and sold. (Indeed, successful oil operations often produced as many problems as they solved.) Rather, perceptions, both public and private, of Aramco's role in the kingdom were the essential underpinnings of commercial achievement. To a significant degree, perceptions were the guarantor of commercial success and not the reverse.

It is true that the persistent effort to be seen always and only in the best light will rankle, as contentious and unsavory historical details are airbrushed out of the corporate image. Perhaps equally irritating will be the corporate penchant, in highlighting the benefits of oil operations to the kingdom, of projecting a supposed ethos of beneficence. But it should come as little surprise to most observers that Aramco was never impelled by altruism. It never pursued an objective without first having made a careful calculation of whether this helped or hindered its effort to get the oil out of the ground. This calculation of benefit was always constrained by cost, with every projected expense in the kingdom linked to and justified by projected oil sales.

This does not mean that Aramco did not bring — either as a direct consequence of specific oil operations or in its broader efforts to promote its commercial objectives — substantive benefits, both quantifiable and qualitative, to the kingdom. One of the most important was the organizational structure and meritocratic ethos of the company, which the kingdom has been careful to preserve. When a Saudi national oil company finally did emerge, it was the Aramco structure that engulfed the earlier nationalistic efforts to craft a domestic energy business — notably Petromin — not the other way around. And the kingdom relies on its national company (Saudi Aramco), as it did on its predecessor, to fulfill a range of tasks outside of the oil sector, as witnessed by its role in the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

But for Dr. Vitalis this is hardly sufficient grounds for any self-congratulatory posturing on Aramco's part. In fact, even to focus on such benefits is to obscure the "reality." Dr. Vitalis' condemnation of Aramco rests on his accusation that the company was, at its very heart, a racist entity. Indeed, from his theoretical perspective, an American company immersed in the business of mineral-resource extraction could be nothing else. The essential dynamic of the encounter is understood to be unavoidably conflictive as elements in Saudi society engaged in a battle to overturn, to use Dr. Vitalis' terminology, "Jim Crow" in the kingdom.

An accusation of racism will seem strange, indeed surreal, to anyone who has ever browsed the plethora of Aramco publications, issued either as guidance to its American employees or to introduce itself and Saudi Arabia to those outside the company (The Aramco, etc.). The Aramco Handbooks eventually became substantive publications on a range of topics well beyond company operations. In stark contrast to any hint of corporate racist ethos, Aramco was forever extolling the Arab peoples' history, cultural and religious values and the achievements of contemporary Saudi Arabia. One may criticize, as J.B. Kelly did, "the Aramco School of History," but certainly not for any racial animus (Arabia, the Gulf and the West, Basic Books, 1980). To the contrary, Kelly's charge was that Aramco lavished uncritical praise on the kingdom, its polity and its peoples.

A consideration of corporate publications reveals a marked interest in forestalling any inclination among its American employees to consider their technological superiority as evidence of a racial one. Yet if it is decidedly difficult to locate in company pronouncements or documents a racist ideology at work, what underpins Dr. Vitalis' charge? There are two essential props: the company wage structure and the residential enclaves constructed for its American employees and their families. Neither is capable of supporting the weight of the accusation.

The wage differentials were a reflection of the global market in which the company operated. Economic discontinuities did, in fact, exist among the national economies from which the company drew its employees. Aramco did not use the wage scale to preserve or underpin the status of the white Americans but to obtain needed expertise. The series of Saudi employees' strikes in the late 1940s and '50s, so valuably documented by Dr. Vitalis, clearly sought to overcome corporate policies, but its financial and economic strictures, not racist ones. The Saudi employees of Aramco refused to allow themselves to be assessed by the terms through which the company assessed others, and they were able to do so precisely because they were Saudi Arabs. Aramco began to respond positively to these demands after a period of somewhat aggrieved resistance, when its posture on Saudi salaries began to undermine its overall standing in the kingdom as well as to present a threat to the legitimacy of the Saudi state itself (the strikes showed the potential to mutate from a movement of labor against capital to one of nationalistic fervor resisting economic domination by a foreign institution). While Aramco's operations and policies both created and politicized a class of Saudi laborers, these developments were not a function of a company in pursuit of a racist agenda but of much more mundane goals, key among which was keeping costs down.

Dr. Vitalis' thinking about the American residential enclaves shows, surprisingly, a limited appreciation of the difficulties, both cultural and physical, presented by the environment in which Aramco sought to operate. The interpretation of Islam that provided the emergent Saudi polity its ideological cohesion was resistant to innovation (bid'a) and reluctant to interact with foreigners. The kingdom was not a society amenable to the presence of a modern industry run by non-Muslim expatriates.

Ibn Saud, in establishing his regime's political preeminence, recognized the strengths that could be deployed by Western technology in support of his political order while being sensitive to the potential threat it posed to its legitimacy. Without doubt, there were significant elements in the population for whom a selective embrace of the West was not a necessary evil, but simply an evil. Yet, if there was to be a foreign industrial presence, an oil company was close to ideal. Beyond the obvious appeal of the income it generated, it was a capital-intensive business with operations located some distance from traditional areas of habitation. The industry minimized foreign cultural influence while providing financing to the state, unmediated by any other part of the indigenous society. The residential enclaves near the sites of major oil facilities were distant and distinct from indigenous population centers and manifested a small cultural footprint.

Aramco constructed the residential enclaves, of course, because there was no other alternative for housing the Americans. Facilities unique to Arabia were provided to enable them to physically endure the inhospitable terrain. But the enclaves' exclusive nature and the facilities provided were grounded in the need to create a "bubble" in which the Americans could replicate a Western lifestyle: mixing of the sexes, educating children in accordance with a Western curriculum, attending Christian services, watching films, listening to music and consuming alcohol.

Aramco absorbed the expense of creating and maintaining these enclaves to enable the long-term retention of the expertise demanded by operations. As it was, maintaining a stable, productive and quiescent American work force was a major difficulty until these enclaves had developed into the physically comfortable and socially acceptable locales they were to become. The enclaves took on the contours of small American towns because that is precisely what they became for the Americans resident there. The terms of their employment contracts obligated the Americans to reside in Arabia for considerable periods with home leave only every two years.

Many employees had difficulty adjusting; those best equipped to contend with the social and physical rigors of Arabian employment were often men with families. But families made the sociocultural aspects of the enclaves all that more important to preserve. In short, the enclaves were a necessary response to a uniquely challenging operational environment. They were a fortuitous resolution of the regime's concerns to contain Western culture and the company's aim to provide a cultural space for its American employees. The enclaves did not demonstrate an American intent to erect a racist order in Arabia but an American desire to evade the local social order. A suitable analogy is not the segregated South of the United States. Islamic history provides a much more appropriate example: dhimmi communities, self-contained groupings of non-believers permitted to live within the Dar al Islam while providing invaluable services to a Muslim state.

It was not the separation per se that was the issue; it was that the Americans were living so much better inside the enclave than the Arabs were outside. And the issue only grew more contentious and significant as Aramco's rapid expansion in the late 1940s exerted an enormous pull on Saudi society, bringing more and more nationals into close contact with the company.

It is true that Aramco did not extend an equivalent level of housing to the Saudi employees until pressed, and this may provide grounds for criticism. The initial Aramco position was that corporate responsibilities to the Saudi employees were fulfilled by a commitment to pay regular salaries and provide essential amenities and training. It certainly took time for Aramco to convince its owner companies of the importance of devising a means to provide quality homes to Saudi employees (achieved through the Home Ownership Program, enabling Saudi employees to own homes built by local contractors with free land grants from the government and financial assistance from the company). But the ultimate result demonstrated a certain evolution to a much broader calculation of what was required to give substance to the rhetoric of partnership. As with adjusting the wage rate, this was not about overcoming a racial ethos but acknowledging what was required to nurture and sustain the company's presence in the kingdom.

By employing race to explicate Aramco, Dr. Vitalis not only misunderstands certain events but misses a basic truth: Aramco's espousal of partnership was not just a public-relations ploy. Corporate officials believed that shared benefits assured Aramco's long-term success in the kingdom, assuaging an inherent cultural aversion to its Western presence and the not-so-subtle affront it represents to the king's sovereignty: an element critical to his power yet not under his control.

Aramco was obligated by the very nature of the oil industry — the capital investment required and the consequential imperative to exploit for the longest time possible the oil reserves discovered — to adopt a long view. The terms of the concession were measured not in years but decades. Thus, key personnel came to understand that Aramco had to respond attentively and effectively to the impact of its operations and the constraints upon them. Such an approach wouldn't assure success, but without it, failure was guaranteed. Ultimately, the oil concession represented as much a social contract as a business agreement.

While I clearly disagree with Dr. Vitalis' own exploration of the "meaning" of Aramco, his study ably illustrates the inevitable tension grounded in the desire among Saudi nationals and their state to continually expand control over the company. He understands that Aramco must be seen as one piece of a much broader interaction between different systems of social, economic and culture ordering, not merely as a narrow operational agent for the exploitation of hydrocarbons. And one cannot but applaud his passionate desire to excoriate any evidence of corporate flummery. For those with more than a passing familiarity with Saudi Arabia, the book contributes value, not in the answers it proffers to key questions, but in the provocative manner by which issues are addressed. It strikes me, first and foremost, as an ideal text to stimulate debate within a graduate seminar. But it is not the first book an interested novice should turn to when struggling to comprehend America's "moment" in the Middle East.