In and out of Kingdoms

in imperial watch

[A guest post by Tipu Sultan]

Once, I Was An Oil Drop

I was taught that oil was the most glorious thing that had ever happened to humankind.

My first memory of this education was at age six. I was inducted into the girl-scouts, along with some of the other girls in the corporate-garrison town-city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up. We were made to dress up as oil drops for the annual Saudi ARAMCO Day Parade. Who dresses six-year-old girls in large black plastic garbage bags to be paraded around for two hours, in over a hundred degrees of heat? That is some serious love of the Company. As the mothers effusively took our photographs, beads of sweat coagulated between the thick, dark plastic, and my skin. I wasn’t just dressed up as an oil drop—I was turning into one. We all felt hot, suffocated, and sticky. But the adults had decided that we looked too adorable dressed up as oil drops. For what felt like forever, we walked all around Dhahran in single file, and were rewarded for our efforts afterwards with soft drinks and chocolate-chip covered cake. The great love for the Rumplestiltskin-like benefactor who spun oil into dollars, had transformed otherwise cautious adults who would keep kids away from wearing plastic bags, into oil-besotted tyrants. Oil was anthropomorphized in that moment. We were made to experience the ‘life’ of an oil drop.

Saudi Arabia was a land, we were constantly told, that time forgot—until the Americans and the oil. History began there and nowhere else.

In the 6th grade, I went on a school trip to the first museum I remember: the Saudi ARAMCO Exhibit. It had been two years since the museum had been inaugurated in 1987, by the company (Saudi ARAMCO – Arabian American Oil Company) and the King (Fahd). The museum has enormous ceilings, and houses a vast collection of installations dedicated to petroleum pioneerism, or in words of the exhibitors, ‘energy education’, while also ‘paying tribute to the Arabic and Islamic heritage at its core.’

I have a vivid memory of the larger-than life size photographs of the first American geologists in Arabia in the 1940s, smiling confidently through their sunglasses as they sat in rugged clothes, in front of tents and oil wells. I also recall glass-encased astrolabes from 11th century Andalus—whether re-creations or real I have no idea. And then there were the technologically interactive installations which instructed us that oil was in everything we needed to live a civilized, modern life, from baby bottles to garden chairs.

The Golden Ages of Islamic Spain had everything to do with American geology? Apparently so.

I also remember being enchanted by a telescope which held my attention for a while—but that I was much more excited about the caves of Hofuf where we were heading next. Hofuf is about an hour and a half south-west of Dhahran, and much of the drive there is through desert and sandy slopes and elevations referred to as jabal, the Arabic word for mountain. Meandering in and out of the caves in jabals was one of my favorite past-times as a child in the Kingdom. It was a welcome escape from the confines of living in a walled up world.

Dhahran is one of the very first American gated communities ever built in the twentieth century: the exemplary, model ‘suburb.’ In fact, the gated communities built in post-World War II America were modeled on Dhahran and the two smaller communities of Abqaiq and Rastanura nearby. By both its residents and the company, the corporate-garrison oil town of Dhahran is called a camp. On its Eastern border is the Persian Gulf, to its south-west lies the city of Hofuf, and further south still, the seemingly uninterrupted, unpopulated ‘Eastern region’ and, to its north is King Abdul Aziz Airbase. Between 1945 and 1962, the airfield was owned and operated by the U.S. While it has been a Saudi-owned airbase for decades, the Americans are allowed free and open access: no security clearance is needed whatsoever. The 1991 Gulf War ensured an ever more permanent US military presence.

Dhahran camp was established as a U.S. camp, settler-colonial style, as part of the long tradition of America’s westward expansion, otherwise known as Manifest Destiny. Many of our neighbors were proud Texans, hailing from oil towns back in the States. It was not unusual to see the Lone-Star flag draped from garage doors. Such neighbors were not happy about their proximity to non-Whites, such as my South Asian Muslim family; they used their White credentials for gatekeeping organizations and institutions (Girls Scouts, Little League, etc.,) within the camp, determining who was allowed in, and to what extent. Seeing themselves as pioneers in a hostile land, it was they who arranged the hierarchal contours of what constituted ‘civilization’ within the American camp. In my mind, I have often likened Dhahran to images from books and films about Californian frontier-towns during the mid-nineteenth century gold rush. As it happens, this is not so distant an analogy. Saudi Arabia’s state owned national oil company—holding the largest oil reserves in the world—was born in 1933 out of the oil concessions made by Saudi royal elite to California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC). An affiliate of the better-known Standard Oil of California (Chevron), it was the first company to begin oil prospecting on the Kingdom’s Eastern coast.

The dominant, official narrative within the camp was constantly reinforced to all those living and working there: that the discoveries of American geologists heralded great progress, that they brought with them all the good sense of science and technology, much in the way that many American school children were, and still are, taught about the great ‘discoveries’ of Columbus. The American geologists were depicted as brave, good, great geniuses—innovators and dreamers, men with visions, almost prophetic. They saved Arabia from a backwater nowhere, to a land of great prosperity, and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. That the ports of the Gulf were ever backwaters to nowhere is a myth of course, since the Persian Gulf region had been for centuries a vast trading route and network between Africa and the Indian Ocean. But the more insidious aspect of this miracle narrative was that the Americans brought the Arabs out of their stupor and into the modern world, by renewing for them their Islamic golden age—ergo, Andalusian astrolabes and American geology.

In America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, one of the only books to document the history of the Arabian American Oil Company, Robert Vitalis systematically discredits the mythic stature ARAMCO has acquired in company and kingdom narratives about the US in Saudi Arabia. Using sources from geologists’ letters home, to official company documents, Vitalis shows that ARAMCO was, from the beginning, a venture having everything to do with profit and security. The first Americans to arrive in the desert were heirs to mining dynasties which had already been extracting copper and other metals in South America. In its chase after oil, the US government followed the company into the Arabian Peninsula. American oil officials agreed to share profits with the King, train employees, build roads and towns, and eventually turn ARAMCO into a Saudi run and owned company in return for revenue and exclusive oil rights. From Eisenhower’s agreement to train Ibn Saud’s army, to Lyndon Johnson’s sale of missiles to the Saudi royal family, ARAMCO—like the East India Company had been for the British—was transformed into America’s largest overseas private enterprise.

I grew up on one of the final frontiers of the American Empire. But unlike tea or pepper, oil is very sticky indeed, and its stickiness never washes off. Its grime never quite leaves you.


Roller-skating and riding my bicycle were amongst my other favorite past-times as a youngster. I wanted to know if I could bike up until the edge, right up to where Dhahran ended and something else, the desert, began. There were at least two main gates, if not three, but I couldn’t think of any others. Inspired by English novels, which were often full of trap doors and secret gardens and closets that opened out into vast fantasies, I wondered if there was a hole, or a key, that led us away from what kept us trapped. If we were all in a giant peach, and I lived next to the pit, what was outside? There must be a hole, I remember thinking, or a little secret door where people could slip in and out without anyone noticing: I found none. But that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. There were all sorts of secrets and rumors that buzzed around the camp, since there was no free press in the Kingdom. So secrets must be coming in somehow from somewhere.

Only once did I find, what I thought was the edge. I was about twelve years old. It was a late winter afternoon. I was riding, faster and farther than I had ever before. I had to ride as fast as I could on my imitation BMX, because I had to be home before maghrib. That day, I rode quite far, beyond some cul-de-sacs, right off of Penninsular Avenue and behind Rolling Hills Blvd, where the Golf courses were, and then I rode further still. I thought I had found it, and in the distance there were some rocky shards of hill, the jabal. It lay behind tall metallic fences. In all likelihood, it was an area where construction was about to begin. I stared out at the jabal. I had heard from other kids at school and from family friends, in whispers, that the jabals around Dhahran were haunted by a jinn (spirit). The jinn apparently dressed in a jalabiyya, and looked like he could be a bedu. But he wasn’t, because he walked two feet off the ground, in the air. And, no one had ever seen his face: it was said he had none, only smoke arose between his ghutra. Only from a distance, the silhouette could be made out. It was said that only he could command the area around the jabal, which was infested with scorpions, snakes, and poisonous lizards. I shuddered. I wasn’t going in there. Not if the gatekeeper was a jinn. And as exciting as the possibility of caving my way into a desert hole, away from everyone, I certainly was going to have nothing to do with any scorpions. In all my life, I had seen only one, and it had scared the life out of me. Stuck to the front screen door of our house, I could see its enormous pincers even from half-way down the drive-way, and screamed. My father killed it after smacking the arachnid until I could hear it crack on the back of a shovel. So, when I saw that jabal, I shrank back and knew I would never go inside. But I did feel some vindication: I had finally found the end, the border, the fence which made us all living inside the camp, hemmed in by a strange hamlet: above us were the searing screeches of airplanes from the base which flew low and loud, and below us, only black stickiness that made the airplanes go. I quickly hopped onto my bike and rode home, stepping inside just as the muezzin’s call to prayer was ending.

And so, I came to know of the bedu only as traces, as ghosts, and as Halloween costumes for the Americans in the camp.

The opening chapters of Vitalis’ book are edifying. In them, he shows how a Jim Crow system was instituted in Dhahran’s oil camps during the 1930s, between native Arab workers and American petroleum explorers. By the 1950s and 1960s, the workers began to openly challenge the racial hierarchies of the ARAMCO camps, in one strike after another. Simultaneously, progressive Saudis questioned the oligarchs who dictated the rules of the international oil market. These groups and voices were crushed by the Company and by the royal elite. Their defeat signaled the consolidation of America’s Kingdom under the House of Fahd, the royal faction that governs Saudi Arabia to this day.

In ARAMCO’s unearthing of black gold, a Texas operation-California style, and with the assistance of native royal elites, the Company cleared the oasis communities of indigenous nomadic peoples. Paving the way for progress, ARAMCO used the labor of once itinerant, relatively free-moving Bedouins, to build camps of concrete under the fierce sun. Progress came to the Arabian Penninusla in those years by way of blisters, heat stroke, deprivation, and the melding of human labor to the molding of oil. The native guides who assisted the American geologists in the early days likely belonged to tribal communities who had already been transitioning to a semi-nomadic lifestyle as a result of the British and Ottoman imperial competition in the region.

A letter to his wife from one American geologist about his native guide is revealing:

I enjoy the poems even though I can’t understand a word. The listeners all repeat the last two or three syllables at the end of each line. Khamis [ibn Rimthan] usually summarizes the story for us beforehand. Jerry…told them about the escape of Daniel Boone from the Indians, the ‘American Bedu’ by throwing tobacco in their eyes and swinging across a river gorge on a grapevine. I stumbled through an account of Custer’s Last Stand. Abdul Hadi [ibn Jithina]..wanted to know what tribes the American Bedu belong to. Khamis said none that he would know, but Abdul Hadi said he had been up to the border and perhaps the American Bedu were related to some of the tribes in Iraq! After I had told about them about cutting out Custer’s heart and eating it to make them brave, Khamis said the Bedu did the same thing with a wolf’s eye—they carried it with them when they did not want to be seen at night. Khamis is member of a once-powerful northern tribe, the Ajman, who rebelled against the King Ibn Saud, and were defeated in battle…Many fled to Iraq, had much of [their] land taken away, and their largest city now falling into ruins.
Asked to finish the story of the American Bedu, Tom Barger drew two uneven circles in the sand. “Before the war their land was like this, after like this.” Here was Barger’s version of the story ….about the mining capital’s expansion into Apache and other Native American people’s lands. Khamis concluded, “Yes…this is what happens to the Bedu in Arabia when they make war with the government.” (Vitalis, pp. 88-89)

Dhahran was the first of these towns where local Arabs and Americans lived in segregated quarters—separate and most definitely unequal: no Saudis were allowed to live inside the Dhahran camp. It was caste, Jim-Crow style. Those who collaborated, that is accepted the Company’s dictates and the royal edicts, tended to be wealthier and better-off. The royal elite justified oil extraction and modernization in the name of Islam, thus providing ample employment opportunity to a conservative, patriarchal ‘ulema.

The only history written of the place known as Dhahran is a novel by the Jordanian-Saudi writer, Abdul-Rahman Munif. It is entitled Cities of Salt and was published in 1984, but I only came to know of it in its English translation many years later. At six hundred pages, the novel—the first of a quintet—is an epic for only the committed. In it, Munif tells the story of what happens to a small oasis community when the Americans arrive in their search for oil. It is narrated through the eyes of the local Bedouins, as they are forced to flee from their oasis community by foreign strangers bringing with them “mysterious magic tools”: bulldozers, cars, radios, and telephones. Amongst the many characters in the novel, is one Bedouin, al-Hathal, who leads a rebellion of Arab workers when the village of Harran, near his oasis, as it is turned into an American port city, and his people are forced into construction work. Cities of Salt was banned in Saudi Arabia, and Munif, Saudi Arabia’s only novelist and historian, was forced into exile by the monarchy. Dissent of any kind gives the royal elite indigestion.

I quickly realized that Harran was none other than the fictional name of the camp I grew up in. It was the first time I had read an account of Dhahran that was not written up by the ARAMCO Public Relations Department. I savored every bit.

It was more than the historical narrative which drew me in, however. Munif’s apocalyptic imagery is powerful: he likens oil-drilling machines to iron giants tearing away at the flesh of palm fronds; the bedu watch in horror as the earth is dug up into a veritable hell-fire. Such descriptions showcase a war, not between modernity and tradition, but between inhumanity and the ecology, as petro-capitalism makes its final triumph. The bedouins’ confusion, anxiety, and despair are voiced through Prophetic predictions about the end of the world, inspired by Islamic motifs. And, Munif’s title is evocative. In an interview with Tariq Ali, Munif explained why he chose it:

Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive. Look at us now and see how the west sees us.

Why haven’t there been more novels like Munif’s?

In coining the term, “petro-fiction”, Amitav Ghosh has observed that the Oil Encounter has yielded hardly any meaningful works of literature, and suggests a few reasons why this is the case. Oil encounters occurred in places in the Persian Gulf which were predominantly made up of people belonging to oral cultures, “those parts of the Middle East that have been the most marginal in the development of modern Arab culture and literature—on the outermost peripheries of such literary centers as Cairo and Beirut.” But over and above this, Ghosh claims that it is the the multi-lingual aspect of the Oil Encounter that prohibits it from being narrated through the novel form, which tends to function best through the “monolingual speech community,” of the nation-state. (Ghosh, p. 79)

The languages of the Oil Encounter, languages also seminal to the history of the Indian Ocean—Arabic, English, Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, and Bengali, and others—do not mix, but rather float like the different, coated layers between water and oil. Perhaps, like oil drops, the encounters between the peoples and languages of the petroleum industry, must fall one by one, meeting one another on the more solid literary ground of short stories, travelogues, and memoirs.

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