On Saudi Arabia’s eastern province

With protests spreading to Bahrain, a Shia majority country ruled for two centuries by a Sunni monarchy, media attention is again fixed on a sectarian split to explain unrest. It isn’t simply a matter of sectarianism, though, but a broader, popular movement against a palace and its orbit that prospers while the majority does not. From The Econonist: “the protests have not been exclusively Shia. Bahrainis of both sects have inveighed against corruption, inequality and their toothless parliament. But the Shias are the angrier, saying they are generally excluded from the army, the police and the higher ranks of the civil service.”

Bahrain sits just off the coast of Saudi Arabia’s oil frontier, the eastern province, home to a large, restive Shia population that has long been alienated and oppressed by Riyadh and excluded from the great oil wealth in the area. In my latest piece for The Nation, I reviewed Toby Craig Jones’s book Desert Kingdom, about the politics of oil and water in Saudi Arabia. Jones argues that technology, development and the control of nature, paid for by oil wealth, underlie Saudi authoritarianism. In 1979 Shiites in the eastern province rebelled against this techno-political order; Jones tells the story of the revolt in one expert chapter, “The Wages of Oil.” With speculation about protests spreading to Saudi — today there are reports of small protests in the eastern province — I wanted to highlight part of my Nation piece, about uneven development that sparked revolt:

Among the Saudi government’s costly and unsuccessful engineering schemes was a huge irrigation project in the oil-rich eastern province completed in 1971. The region, known as al-Hasa, is also home to a wealth of oases that are a verdant contrast to the sand and brown mountains of the Hijaz, in western Arabia, and the Najd, the central heartland of Ibn Saud and his followers. Before the discovery of oil, al-Hasa was more than a way station for caravans and desert travelers. It was a center of date agriculture and settled commerce near the shore where hundreds of thousands of mixed Sunni and Shiite farmers and merchants lived—a level of diversity not found anywhere else in Sunni Arabia. The Shiites were a slight majority but were mostly part of the working class of a sectarian hierarchy; many of the large farms with access to the best springs were owned by Sunnis.

The al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project (IDP) was meant to redirect precious oasis water and maximize date farming. The IDP was a technical failure—the amount of arable land actually shrank—but it also further ostracized an already marginalized, mostly landless class of Shiite date farmers who blamed the government’s drainage scheme for their environmental plight. Though the completion of a huge oasis canal system in a land of deserts was touted by the international press and the government’s public relations machine, it enflamed the Shiites of al-Hasa. They directed their ire at the government and Aramco, the engineer of uneven economic development on the oil-boom coast. In 1979, the same year that hardline Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-Utaybi took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca to challenge Saudi religious authority, which in their minds had been corrupted by oil wealth and close American ties, the Shiites in the eastern province rebelled. It was an uprising, Jones writes, “fueled by a combination of revolutionary fervor, environmental activism, and anger at having been left behind in the age of great oil wealth.” An Aramco consultant had carried out the survey of al-Hasa that underpinned the drainage scheme, and it duly noted the sectarian tensions of the oasis. The consultant, Federico Vidal, was a member of the company’s Arabian Affairs Division, an intelligence arm of the oil giant modeled on the Cairo branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. These foreign technical advisers, Jones writes, “lent themselves to the project of legitimizing Saudi political authority because of the claim that science and expertise were, in fact, apolitical.” With the IDP, the state was not only trying to secure needed water supplies but to control a restive religious minority that threatened its absolute, authoritarian rule.

After the unrest of 1979, however, the kingdom adopted a more outwardly religious mantle to justify political rule. The seizure of the Grand Mosque by Sunni rebels signaled a shift in internal Saudi opposition away from Pan-Arab nationalists who rejected Wahhabi rule in Arabia, and the Saudis responded accordingly. In 1986 King Fahd officially adopted the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to stake out his legitimacy against mounting Islamist critics. After all, the Arab nationalist opponents of the ’50s and ’60s had been replaced, in the words of historian Timothy Niblock, by “Wahhabi militants whose social base was in the Najdi heartland and whose fathers and grandfathers had formed the backbone of the Ikhwan who had fought for ‘Abd al-‘Aziz” in founding the modern state. With these critics seeing science and development as materialist threats to the kingdom’s Islamic values, the royal family has responded, as it did in the ’60s, by claiming to be “both the agent of progress and the custodian of tradition,” as Jones writes. “What is old is new again in Saudi Arabia.”

Read in full at The Nation (subscriber wall).

Update: Toby Jones was quoted by Robert Worth in the NYT, on the rumors that Saudi has come to al-Khalifa’s aid: “Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”


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