In and out of Kingdoms

Posted by lapata on March 21, 2012 · 23 mins read

[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.


3/23/12 Linksies | Hindtrospectives | March 22, 2012

[...] In and out of kingdoms – growing up ARAMCO [...]

Qalandar | March 22, 2012

Thank you for this piece -- I was born and raised in a different Gulf state (Abu Dhabi and Dubai), and in a different context (Deira was no Dhahran), but nevertheless, this had an especial resonance -- after the last 10-20 years of the Dubai boom, this (recent) past is often irretrievable, hence the piece had almost a Madeleine-like quality for me...

Sunday Reading « zunguzungu | March 24, 2012

[...] In and Out of Kingdoms [...]

The Political Economy of Oil | Pearltrees | March 25, 2012

[...] In and out of Kingdoms Once, I Was An Oil Drop I was taught that oil was the most glorious thing that had ever happened to humankind. [A guest post by Tipu Sultan] My first memory of this education was at age six. [...]

Nabeel | March 29, 2012

This is an excellent, if somewhat rambling, post that echoes true for much of my experience as someone born and raised in Dammam. However, it has to be taken with a few grains of salt-several things are exaggerated,and the perspective of the author is extremely limited. I was subjected to much of the same propaganda studying in one of the schools that were set up by and for expatriates, with huge funding from Aramco. And I visited the Saudi Aramco Exhibit too, most recently in December 2007 (as it happens,the exact moment BB was assassinated,I was in that museum,got a call as the first reports trickled out). The museum is not dominated by odes to American geology,and the reading that 'the Golden Ages of Islamic Spain had everything to do with American geology' is extremely subjective - I certainly did not see it that way,and know lots of people who didn't. The author may have been subjected to a simplistic,largely bullshit narrative about Americans saving Saudis,but that's only true of the extremely small population - truly the 1% - who lived in the camp. Again, I was in a school that was run by the same administration, but my teacher taught me that the Americans exploited the Saudis through setting unfair conditions and restricting the Saudis' right to their own mineral wealth. And the author also fails to even acknowledge, let alone write about, the interaction of ARAMCO - the camp, the company - with the rest of Saudi Arabia, not least its neighboring cities, Khobar and Dammam, and the university right beside it, KFUPM (petro-academia,anyone?). That is very strange. The author doesn't talk about the millions who lived outside the walls but constantly negotiated with them,often hating and romanticizing them in equal measure (the latter of which I admit to being guilty of as a teenager). So the criticism in this post is tempered by the almost apologetic tone and single-minded focus-this is an Aramco Brat ( interrogating his own history,and his alone.

lapata | March 31, 2012

Nabeel, This is a memoir, so yes it is exploring the author's own particular subjective experience, and I don't think makes claims otherwise.

SM Refugee | April 01, 2012

Dear CM, Now that Sepia Mutiny is closing down, would you mind if some ex-SM commentators start coming here?

Tipu Sultan | April 02, 2012

Nabeel, Thank you very much for your incisive comments. Securing a visa to enter KSA is difficult to say the least, so even if I had the time and resources to travel and re-visit the Saudi Aramco Exhibit now, I would be hard-pressed to do so: my memory of the exhibit is from the 1980s. You are right to point out that I did not discuss the majority of people, the millions who lived--and live--outside the ARAMCO camps, as you say, hating/romanticizing its walls in equal measure. I certainly am well aware of those negotiations. I had several relatives we frequently visited and vice versa, those who lived in Dammam and cousins and family friends who went to school there, plus relatives in Al-Khobar, and in Jeddah too, South Asians working in various capacities, from shop-keepers/shop attendants, to teachers at Indian Embassy schools, and travel agents---all of whom made up a close-knit, if not extended family stretching across Saudi Arabia (and some Gulf states). We also had family friends who worked nearby at King Faisal University as Engineering Professors. They were not, however, the focus of this particular post, otherwise the post would have been more rambling than it is--but they do make up a large part of what I am currently writing. The focus of this piece was to: 1) highlight the extremely under-narrated story of the social and political inequities upon which the ARAMCO camps were historically built; 2) relate my lived experiences within the camp, in memoir format; 3) to also address why it is that the world of oil encounters have not produced many literary projects. Lastly, Al-Khobar and Jeddah exist far more accessibly for us on world maps, than does Dhahran, precisely because of Dhahran's location as a US military installation in a client state. There are hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world. (I actually am unaware of the exact number, so if anyone can tell me what that number is, I would be grateful: there seem to be conflicting facts on this.) The point is, rather than continuing to exist as invisible spots within the US empire that many of them are (that is, many of them remain hidden from view from those who are not directly in the line of their fire, or enabling their fire), I think that the social, cultural, and political realities and histories around these bases ought to be brought to the surface. All the better if this can be done in more creatively engaging, literary ways, rather than in scholarly works which tend to have limited audiences. I fail to see where in this piece I have an apologetic tone. Who exactly am I apologizing for? All your comments, suggestions, and especially any additional insights you have about living in, and re-visiting the Kingdom would be greatly appreciated, along with any good publications--literary and otherwise--you have come across. Thanks!

akbar | April 03, 2012

I do not want to turn your nice post into propaganda against the empire either as this is a job best left to sepoy in empirial watch and I am sure he will continue it as he returns US of A to Columbia in August it. HOWEVER In answer to how many bases I have posted couple of links and there is a PDF from pentagon with link in one of these articles. My personal very peripheral experience with somebody from ARAMCO was at Georgetown university Hospital ,in 1996 where as a Fellow we were paid about 29k per year by department of Gastroentrology but a fellow from KSA (Aramco) was paying the university about 50k per year to be trained as Gastroenterologist . presumably later to work at camps like you mentioned in KSA Other thing I recall is that when cultural attache of UAE or a Saudi Royal had PIA or bleeding PR they used to come to Georgetown and always brough a new endoscope whhich they would generously donate to the department after the procedure. "Empire of bases By Hugh Gusterson | 10 March 2009 Before reading this article, try to answer this question: How many military bases does the United States have in other countries: a) 100; b) 300; c) 700; or d) 1,000. According to the Pentagon's own list PDF, the answer is around 865, but if you include the new bases in Iraq and Afghanistan it is over a thousand. These thousand bases constitute 95 percent of all the military bases any country in the world maintains on any other country's territory. In other words, the United States is to military bases as Heinz is to ketchup. The old way of doing colonialism, practiced by the Europeans, was to take over entire countries and administer them. But this was clumsy. The United States has pioneered a leaner approach to global empire. As historian Chalmers Johnson says, "America's version of the colony is the military base." The United States, says Johnson, has an "empire of bases." "At Least Seven Hundred Foreign Bases It's not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. Official records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department's annual "Base Structure Report" for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate that it would require at least $113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases -- surely far too low a figure but still larger than the gross domestic product of most countries -- and an estimated $591,519.8 million to replace all of them. The military high command deploys to our overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense civilian officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired foreigners. The Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases 4,844 more. These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual bases we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to mention, for instance, any garrisons in Kosovo -- even though it is the site of the huge Camp Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by Kellogg, Brown & Root. The Report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, although the U.S. military has established colossal base structures throughout the so-called arc of instability in the two-and-a-half years since 9/11."

sepoy | April 03, 2012

Welcome back Akbar. And for the SM Refugee above, CM is your Lady Liberty.

SM Refugee | April 07, 2012

Welcome back Akbar. And for the SM Refugee above, CM is your Lady Liberty. Thanks for the welcome, Sepoy.

akbar | April 08, 2012

Thanks and I hope you revisit the breadths and lengths of Lahore more often as your narratives are lovely.