Dhahran Saudi Aramco Green

Authoritarianism and an NSA Utopia Circa 1984

Sarah Waheed

I grew up in Saudi Arabia during the pre-internet age, in the garrison corporate enclave of Dhahran. Located in the Eastern Provinces, it is home to Saudi Aramco, the largest, wealthiest oil company in the world. When people ask me what it was like to grow up in Saudi Arabia—wincing with pity as they do—I am often unsure how to explain. But over the past week, as I’ve been following the breaking stories over the expansion of the US surveillance state  I now have a short-hand way of answering that question: an NSA utopia.

I lived in the one of the most privileged parts of Saudi Arabia, a gated community of American expats, not far from a US military base, one of nearly a thousand the world over. Within the confines of Aramco’s Dhahran camp, the same rules that govern the rest of the population did not apply: women can drive, residents can water their lawns in their shorts, and on the days they don’t feel like it, they have their “houseboys” do it for them. That was the term used by expats to refer to adult male workers from South Asia.

Few people know about Dhahran’s significance to recent global history and politics. But Dhahran does occasionally appear in international news accounts:  such as in this terrifying story about cyber-warfare which opened by referencing the 2012 cyber-attacks against Saudi Aramco. The cyber attacks against the oil company headquartered in Dhahran marks a serious escalation in the secret war within the war.  The chilling pathways to cyber-war, whereby US military officials have built the capacities to conduct devastating hacking operations into the computer systems of other countries, has  been discussed in detail in this disturbing account. Dhahran is, in many respects, isolated from the rest of Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, it is not some distant, insignificant place: Dhahran is actually hyper-connected to the reach of US power. Yet, so little is known about the significance of Dhahran within both US and Saudi history. It is one of the reasons I have felt compelled to write about it, detailing my personal experiences and delving into its past.

In Dhahran camp, there were tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools, a library, horse stables, a commissary, a few schools, a hospital, several playgrounds, and an endless oasis of air-conditioning. There were, however, no hotels, bars, or small businesses; no homeless people, no teenagers, no drive-through theaters, no taxes, no metro stations, no zoos, no bookstores, no graffiti, and no town councils. There were also no Saudis—who were banned from living from inside camp with Americans up until recently. In this sanitary model American suburb, there were a lot of other things that were, and continue to be, missing.

In the gated communities of Saudi Aramco, like elsewhere in Kingdom, we were not at liberty to assemble in public for any political purpose. We did not have a free and open press because there were no media outlets that were independent of either the Saudi state or the oil corporation. Aramco chose which magazines from the US we got to read. The nightly news hour would begin with the requisite 10-minute red-carpet welcome mat for the King, who would be greeted by “a cable of good wishes” to the sound of a marching band—eliciting annoyed sighs from my father, as well as sending my sisters and I into peals of laughter. Public debate was out of the question. We could not raise questions publicly over the King’s edicts, nor over the company’s policies, which were often passed in the name of “safety and security.”  There is obviously no formal electoral process, through which we could hold representatives accountable. Censorship was rampant. It wasn’t just that magazines came under sharpie markers, where alcohol ads and women’s bare legs were regularly blacked out—but the state and the corporation had also successfully silenced their critics. Authorities could of course, if they so wished, enter your home without a warrant.

And, on top of everything else, state and company officials willfully kept all kinds of information away from the public. Rapes, for instance, went unreported by Saudi presses and in the company sponsored newspapers, in spite of the repeated insistence by rape survivors that knowledge about the crime be made available to their community and across the country.

It was an open secret that spies lived everywhere in our midst. And, since Dhahran was a company town, the limits of our privacy were constantly tested: one was careful not to say too much, since your dentist could turn out to be a good friend of your boss; your child’s teacher could be married to your husband’s colleague. All this isn’t to say, that it wasn’t a comfortable life. Being free from political freedoms can actually be quite comfortable—for the privileged few that is. (Many Saudis resented the Aramco camps and what they represented, and with very good reason).  When people are given all the accoutrements of illusory freedom—in particular, the freedom to consume—they tend not rock the boat. Even if employees were unhappy, no one said anything for fear of losing their jobs. To question the hierarchy of the petro-caste system was considered going against the chain of command. Besides, most people rationalized, Dhahran was not really home.

Neither the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia, nor its people, have ever claimed their country to be a free and open democracy. Its people are well aware that they live under an authoritarian regime. In the US, however, “freedom and democracy” are the central tenets of American identity and they also happen to be America’s biggest export. There are many Americans who are quick to remind others that, “at least here I know I’m free.” I have often wondered about this knowledge that many Americans claim to possess about their freedom, especially after the latest revelations. Surveillance, I think, operates in a more sinister way than censorship. When you live under regimes of censorship, you at least know that it is out there. Censorship calls attention to itself. It yells out at you—in our case, sometimes in the form of a religious cleric, at other times in the form of company official—and it prohibits with words. It says, “NO.” It tells you what is permissible, and what isn’t. Surveillance, however, conceals itself in the shadows: it says nothing at all. It engenders an indirect and even more menacing form of discipline amongst people living under its aegis. Having experienced living under both censorship and surveillance in a quasi-Saudi, quasi-American way, I can attest that the fear of being watched is more psychologically draining, than the experience of being repeatedly silenced.

Edward Snowden’s words, “I do not want to live in a society that does these sorts of things,” resonated with me, because I grew up in a land—one which the US regards as a staunch ally—with some of the severest authoritarian restrictions. Perhaps this is why I think it is alarming that after eleven years, so many Americans still find themselves defending the authoritarian tactics of their elected government.  As compared to Saudis, Americans not only have the right to choose their leaders, but they also have a constitution which outlines the rights of its citizenry. And yet, over half of all Americans support NSA surveillance. Particularly revealing are the following statistics. 64% of Democrats say NSA surveillance program is acceptable, while 36% said that when Bush was president. Meanwhile, 52% of Republicans think the program is acceptable compared to 75% under Bush. Most Americans not only approve of government spying, but also toe their party line. Even more disturbing, they seem to shift their opinions based on whether their party of choice is in power. One would think something like state surveillance and personal privacy would be a less malleable principle. As I continue to follow the developments, I fear that the US government is well on its way into a Saudi Aramco styled authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, as the drama unfolds, it remains to be seen how soon, if at all, Obama administration officials, or Democratic Congresspersons, will criticize the call by Rep. Peter King to prosecute journalist Glenn Greenwald the journalist who broke the story. I have also wondered whether the story would have even broken at all, had Greenwald been working for a US media outlet.  It is disturbing that there are many who have been quick to criticize Snowden by reiterating that he has broken laws  and was wrong for not going through the appropriate channels. The issue, in much of the American media, is already being reduced to just Snowden himself and whether he is a hero or a traitor. Less seems to be discussed about how both Obama and Bush administrations repeatedly blocked courts from ruling on the legality and constitutionality of the surveillance laws. One hopes that the focus shifts towards a more meaningful conversation about the abuse of power and on to the nature of power itself—especially in its re-engineered form within the US-led global war on terror, a war that has meted out devastation upon so many peoples, and which only keeps expanding.

Americans are wondering about the authenticity of their freedoms. It remains to be seen, however, if they will take this moment to demand accountability from those in power–particularly those who operate in the shadows–and if so, to what extent. It is terrifying enough that so many people in the US have not been concerned by their government’s surveillance of foreigners.  It is also terrifying to think that so many people in the land of the free, would be satisfied with the sort of freedom that simply means getting to choose the color of their chains.

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Sarah Waheed is an author and a scholar of Urdu literature in the 19th century. She holds a Ph.D. from Tufts University.

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