The abundance of oil in Saudi Arabia is staggering. With more than 250 billion barrels, the kingdom possesses one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, affording it considerable influence
on the international stage. At home, oil has secured the fortunes and political primacy of the Al Saud, the country’s ruling family. And it has helped cement the nature of the country’s political system, fueling autocracy and ensuring that the kingdom’s citizens remain, in many ways, subjects. Their exclusion from the political arena has been justified as part of a bargain whereby oil wealth trickles down in exchange for quiescence; patronage has served as a substitute for political and civil rights. The bargain has basically worked, although even during the 1970s oil boom, the royal family faced trenchant criticism and, at times, violent opposition. For the most part, however, disenfranchised Saudi citizens have been content with oil-funded consumption and comfort, confident that they could forever expect their social and economic welfare to be cared for by the state. Oil’s power has often appeared boundless, an engine of such considerable riches that it was capable of anything, at least as long as the political bargain remained in place.

Nowhere has this power been more apparent than in Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of fresh water. Saudi Arabia has no natural lakes or rivers. Rainfall is rare, providing only meager succor in the arid environment. Ancient underground water reserves have been tapped and relied on heavily since the 1950s. Since at least the early 1970s, efforts to provide, manage and even create fresh water, and to do so cheaply, have been important elements of the kingdom’s attempts to redistribute its vast oil wealth. Through massive engineering works and infrastructure development, including the design and construction of dams, irrigation and water management systems, oil wealth has been used to build a modern techno-state, one of the principal aims of which has been to provide water for household, agricultural and industrial use. In 1970 a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company completed the first massive desalination plant near Jidda on the Red Sea coast, a facility that turned seawater into fresh water. With plenty of oil to fuel the plant’s operation and with skyrocketing revenues from the sale of oil to subsidize the cost, Saudi Arabia has effectively been turning oil into water for the last four decades. Today more than 30 desalination plants are at work, each one costing tens of billions of dollars to build and operate.

In the last few years amid rising food costs and anxieties about depleted aquifers, Saudi Arabia began looking for secure sources of fertile land and water abroad. The government purchased sprawling tracts of farmland in far-flung corners of the developing world, including in places like Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt and Ethiopia. War-torn, impoverished or both, many of the countries that have emerged as objects of investment and development are hardly stable, calling into question just how much security they will be able to provide the Saudis.
The result appears to be the creation of a new kind of imperialism, in which wealthy oil producers are looking beyond their own shores to secure foreign natural resources, supporting and developing partnerships with sometimes murderous regimes, with the effect of disrupting local social and economic relations, all justified through the legal acquisition of property and through the mechanisms of the market. Just as resource scarcity served as a pretext for British imperial expansion in the Middle East in the early twentieth century and US dominance after World War II, water scarcity is being offered as justification for the projection of Saudi influence abroad. The charge of imperialism is tempting in part because of the rich irony of oil producers seeming to act the part of neo-imperialists. But it is more appropriate to see Saudi Arabia’s political and economic behavior as consistent with the rise of neo-liberalism in the late twentieth century; rather than seizing and controlling territory directly, open markets and global institutions have been used to capture resources, shape political systems and establish dominance. Use of such mechanisms enables the Saudis to deny responsibility for the various material and political consequences that their adventures engender.
While the kingdom’s quest for foreign resources seems to mark a new mode of behavior, water and agriculture have long been central to power and empire in Saudi Arabia. A look at Saudi Arabia’s past domestic agricultural and hydrological practices hints at what current ventures may have in store for those countries on the receiving end of Saudi agricultural investment.

Water’s Imperial Past

In the early twentieth century, water and agriculture played critical roles in Saudi imperial expansion and the consolidation of the modern Saudi state.

The forces that drove the expansion of Saudi power from central Arabia in the early twentieth century were complex. Best known, and perhaps most overemphasized, was the role of religion and particularly Wahhabism, the interpretation of Islam that encouraged conquest, exhorted violence and came to serve as the official orthodoxy of the Saudi state. The clergy possessed considerable social and cultural power, helped police the public sphere and lent credibility to the ruling family’s claim to temporal political authority. But Saudi Arabia was not only an Islamic power. It was also an environmental power. Capturing natural resources and establishing centralized control over nature was a key political objective for the Saudis over the course of the twentieth century.

The connections between the environment and Saudi political power were established early on. In 1902 ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa‘ud wrested control of Riyadh from a political rival and established the seat of what would become modern Saudi Arabia. Almost immediately Saudi leaders set to work expanding their political and territorial power. Arid and rugged, with only a few small oases, central Arabia was impoverished and isolated. There were, however, lush natural prizes on Arabia’s coasts, particularly in the east, which was home to the two large oases al-Hasa and Qatif. There, millions of date palm trees and sprawling verdant gardens were nourished by some of the largest water resources in the peninsula. Covetous of both the water resources and the revenues generated by the date trade, the Saudis laid siege to the region in 1913, forcibly occupying it and incorporating it into their expanding political realm. Similar calculations went into Saudi conquests across Arabia, including along the Red Sea coast. The treasure was often the rich natural resources available in the targeted lands, keys to commerce and power.

The country’s imperial generation understood that their ability to recruit and maintain what turned out to be an imperial army depended in significant measure on their ability to master and manage Arabia’s scant water resources. Religious zeal went only so far in convincing those who joined the forces of the Ikhwan, the militia that laid siege to much of Arabia and helped forge the Saudi empire, to take up arms on behalf of the rulers in central Arabia. The Saudis enticed the Ikhwan with the promise of permanent and secure access to water, significant booty for the itinerant warriors. Access to water came at a cost as the Saudis dictated that the Ikhwan give up their nomadism and settle in agricultural communities called hujjar. The Ikhwan proved disinterested farmers and the hujjar ultimately failed to keep them in place. Nevertheless, the Saudis’ environmental impulse was already evident. Throughout the twentieth century, leaders in Riyadh would periodically attempt to settle other Bedouins, who through their movements sometimes troubled oil operations and even called into question the sovereignty of the state itself, by enticing them with secure water and subsidized agriculture.

Power over water and agriculture meant power over space and territory, as well as over human bodies, their labor and their movements. Although the country was arid and water- poor, the vast majority of Saudi Arabian citizens derived their livelihoods from some form of agriculture or herding into the late 1960s. Starting in the 1930s, oil merchants, geologists, mining engineers, social scientists and a network of experts arrived in the kingdom, ostensibly charged with the responsibility of exploring, prospecting, extracting and marketing Saudi oil. They did that and much more. From the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to individual experts to private consulting firms, American and European investors and experts were intimately engaged in not only the oil industry, but also in exploring for water and other natural resources, in the creation of knowledge about the natural environment, its place in local and regional economies, in the social lives of cultivators and in the creation of agricultural markets, and, most importantly, in the construction of the institutions that would be responsible for overseeing and managing all of them. Science, technology, social science, expertise and knowledge of the environment all became important instruments of power, symbols of authority and a means by which to enroll millions of subjects into the orbit of the centralized state.

Oil, Management and the Destruction of Nature

Along with capturing and controlling water and agricultural resources, Saudi Arabia’s environmental imperative also involved managing and remaking nature for political ends. Saudi leaders have historically feared the potentially difficult political consequences of being dependent on imported food. In the late 1970s, the government began heavily to subsidize wheat farming — a water-intensive enterprise that made little technical sense in the desert. The Saudis were so committed to the endeavor of agricultural self-sufficiency that, by the end of the 1980s, the country became the sixth largest wheat exporter in the world. In the end, worries over food sovereignty were overwrought, a point of discussion, but little more. The massive influx of petrodollars into the central treasury squelched anxieties about agricultural dependence. In addition, oil wealth changed food consumption habits, which along with a growing population, dictated that the Saudis would continue to rely principally on foreign sources of food. In 2008 the government announced an end to the expensive wheat subsidies. The decision was driven in part because the country’s leaders could no longer justify a program that exacted a heavy toll on the country’s already meager underground resources. Claims to food security aside, the country’s ambitious water and agricultural programs mostly served domestic political ends. Water and wheat became key components of the patronage system, largesse that was often handed out as a reward to political and social elites in return for their unequivocal support for the royal family.

Thus, throughout their domain, Saudi leaders commissioned the building of massive technical and scientific networks designed to exploit and re-engineer the environment, including dams, research centers and desalination plants. One of the earliest and most important was the al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project (IDP), a 1500-mile complex of concrete canals and pumping stations that was completed in the al-Hasa oasis in 1971. The building of the IDP transformed the oasis’ environment and the way in which water was and would be used. The project proved devastating for the local environment. Its political effects were equally grave; the project helped to transform politics in the oasis and throughout the Eastern Province. The IDP’s failures were part of a pattern of environmental mismanagement that helped shape a new generation of radical politics in the Eastern Province. The story of the IDP, particularly in the political purposes it served and the political transformations it helped set in motion, may hint at the potential impact of the kingdom’s pursuit of fertile farmland and new water resources abroad.

Publicly, the construction of the IDP was rationalized as a response to what scientists and social scientists had determined were a series of environmental crises threatening the kingdom’s largest and water-richest oasis. Home to over 2 million date palm trees, al-Hasa’s gardens were nourished by some of the country’s most plentiful water resources. Dozens of springs supplied the oasis with water that had historically coursed through an elaborate irrigation system. The system had proved successful enough over time that the oasis supplied dates and date-derived products to markets throughout the Gulf and South Asia. Al-Hasa’s fate was transformed, however, by the discovery of oil just a few miles to its west and the arrival and operations of Aramco, particularly from the late 1940s, when the oil giant began exporting commercial quantities of oil from the kingdom’s rich reserves, all of which are located in the Eastern Province.

Aramco carried out extensive work in the oasis. Many of its workers, who the company treated savagely, hailed from al-Hasa and the region’s other settled communities. The political scientist Robert Vitalis has documented how starting in the 1940s and through much of the 1950s and early 1960s oil workers proved increasingly restive, resistant to the company’s racist policies, including segregated housing and a race-based wage system. Strikes and work stoppages were common. The company, with the cooperation of local Saudi authorities, responded brutally, arresting, beating and dismissing workers.

Aramco also responded by launching intensive investigative efforts in local communities, dispatching scientists, social scientists and other researchers to gather information on disease and the environment, as well as social and cultural life. In 1950 Aramco sent Federico Vidal, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, to participate in a mission in al-Hasa that aimed to wipe out malaria. During his time with the anti-malaria program, Vidal undertook wide-ranging ethnographic and other research, cataloguing social relations, religious identities and the political economy of the oasis, as well as taking extensive notes on al-Hasa’s water resources and agricultural practices. His research and the conclusions he drew, particularly about what he determined to be an existential environmental threat facing the oasis, would form the foundation for the construction of the IDP more than a decade later. The oasis, he argued, faced a number of potentially dangerous challenges. Surrounded on all sides by vast sand dunes — which literally traveled tens of feet every year — the oasis’ most fertile lands were being eroded. While desert encroachment was alarming, Vidal was more troubled by what he believed to be the mismanagement of al-Hasa’s precious water resources.

Vidal offered up an inventory of social-scientific and environmental data for Aramco. He remarked in detail on the complexities of the oasis, including extensive commentary on its religiously mixed character. The oasis was roughly split between Sunnis and Shi‘a, making it unusual if not unique in Saudi Arabia. Social hierarchies and social power often reflected religious differences. The most powerful landowners were Sunni and most of those who tended the date groves as labor were Shi‘a, although some Shi‘a did own smaller farms. Vidal noted that existing irrigation technology reflected social power. Water pumped from artesian wells flowed along the ground from farm to farm, passing first through lands owned by more powerful landowners and then on to smaller farms, before it drained out of the oasis. As irrigation water coursed its way through the oasis it gradually leached salt from the soil, decreasing its quality and resulting in lower date yields for smaller cultivators.

The Aramco anthropologist was startled by the rising water salinity, but also by the waste. Given the paucity of water in the rest of the kingdom, and because he believed that al-Hasa could be a breadbasket for Saudi Arabia, a place that might provide dates and other crops for national markets, he called for urgent attention to the oasis. He suggested a technical fix, one that called for improved irrigation techniques and better water management. In spite of his close analysis of the ways that social differences affected the distribution of water, he emphasized that the water shortage was due more to flawed irrigation techniques than to issues of land ownership, class and social power.

Vidal first raised alarms about the fate of al-Hasa to Aramco in the early 1950s, but it took a decade for Saudi leaders in Riyadh to act. In the mid-1960s, when Western consultants and Saudi technocrats began talking about and planning for agricultural self-sufficiency, the impetus to intervene in al-Hasa gained momentum. Saudi leaders also had political reasons for getting more involved in al-Hasa. The labor strikes of the 1950s and support for Arab nationalism concerned leaders in Riyadh. Although the Al Saud had conquered the oasis in 1913, authorities in Riyadh had largely left governance of the region to Aramco and local authorities. That changed in the 1960s, as the Saudis sought to project their power in material, economic and administrative ways so as to enroll citizens across the peninsula into the central state’s bureaucratic orbit. Vidal’s research and, more importantly, his findings served as the foundation for the work that followed. Construction of the al-Hasa IDP began in the mid-1960s, with the work being undertaken by Swiss and West German engineering firms. Riyadh threw hundreds of millions of dollars into the project, dipping into its vast oil reserves to secure the country’s limited water and agricultural resources. Launched in 1971, it was an engineering spectacle. Thousands of miles of concrete canals were built, criss-crossing the oasis.

Although the IDP seemed a remarkable technical achievement, it proved an abject failure. In less than a decade, the once rich water resources had mostly run dry. Many of the vibrant gardens that once populated the oasis were desiccated, dotted with the husks of dead date palms and crumbling concrete canals. What accounted for the failure of the IDP and the sudden decline of the oasis’ water resources? In the end, Aramco’s intervention and its concern about the fate of the oasis’ water was more than just the result of concern about what animated the social and political lives of its labor. It is widely believed today in al-Hasa that Aramco and later the Saudi state had other uses for the water. Local residents, especially Shi‘i activists, argue that while some of the oasis’ water was located in wells close to the surface, much of it came from deeper aquifers that stretched across the Eastern Province. As Aramco built facilities and communities, it drew upon some of the same water resources, depleting them more rapidly than otherwise would have occurred.

Over time Aramco also began using the region’s water resources to pressurize local oilfields, pumping water in to force the crude out. The oil company eventually piped water from the Persian Gulf to help with this process, but many in al-Hasa assume that the company first used up much of the valuable underground fresh water that nourished the oasis’ date groves. While the allegation is difficult to prove, in al-Hasa it is widely believed to be true. In addition, many residents in al-Hasa consider the Saudi state to have been complicit in Aramco’s potential duplicity and believe that the IDP was little more than an expensive cover-up.

The social and economic costs for Hasawis were steep, with smaller farmers ending up displaced from land and labor. Because the IDP failed to address the social inequities that existed in the earlier irrigation system, in fact it reproduced and exaggerated gaps between large and small landowners; because those social inequities also corresponded to religious differences, sectarianism became an increasingly important component of local political life. Over the course of the 1970s, Shi‘a across the region were increasingly radicalized. While the most radical activism took place in the oasis of Qatif to the north of al-Hasa, some Hasawis joined ranks with what became a revolutionary Shi‘i political movement. Environmental destruction, the loss of water resources and the perception that both oil and water were stolen from local communities by Aramco and authorities in Riyadh helped feed revolutionary activism through the 1980s.

Exporting Insecurity

Saudi Arabia’s long struggle to control and remake its environment has come at considerable expense. Politically, the kingdom’s environmental imperative succeeded in helping shore up central authority. But it also produced an array of costly failures, often destroying or depleting the very resources that scientific and technical work was supposed to secure. The al-Hasa IDP was but one dramatic example. There were others. While food security, agricultural self-sufficiency and resource scarcity seemed to offer reasonable justifications for environmental interventions and massive engineering efforts, the reality was that concerns about scarcity and security served more to distract from the political calculations that also went into the planning, design and engineering work.

While the considerations driving Saudi Arabia’s turn to securing farmland and natural resources abroad are different from those that drove the early consolidation of empire and the processes of state building, there are important parallels. Overcoming scarcity and the pursuit of security continue to frame and justify Saudi Arabia’s domestic environmental imperative, even as it has been transformed into a global imperative in the early twenty-first century. Oil wealth continues to make possible the pursuit of and even the creation of other natural resources. It also makes possible a range of potentially devastating political and environmental costs in those places where the kingdom is doing business.

Saudi investment in militarized authoritarian regimes will strengthen them and help secure their own political pathologies. It also threatens to displace local cultivators or bind them to increasingly global networks of investment and expertise that could relegate their personal needs and interests to those of foreign powers, businesses and states. Seen this way, Saudi Arabia has arrived as a neo-liberal power, willing and able to bend the policies of impoverished states and communities to its economic will. Perhaps most worrisome, as efforts to re-engineer the largest and most verdant oasis in the kingdom itself demonstrated, foreign farmland, foreign water and other natural resources, so vital and precious locally, will almost certainly be viewed as disposable assets. They have served and will serve as sites of investment, all justified in the name of the food security of foreigners, to be dispensed with when no longer profitable or desirable. Given the potential for considerable environmental damage like that which occurred in al-Hasa, it should be a source of concern that little will be left when the Saudis decide to leave.

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "Saudi Alchemy," Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).

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