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  • Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia
  • Dirk J. Vandewalle (bio)
Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, by Toby Craig Jones. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2010. 312 pages. $29.95.

High-caliber academic works about Saudi Arabia in recent decades have been the exception rather than the rule. That more descriptive and policy-oriented books have dominated the landscape is, as the author of Desert Kingdom notes, not only due to scholarly disinterest, but equally to what has been essentially a "closed door that scholars have historically come up against when attempting to carry out research inside Saudi Arabia" (p. 9). Luckily, the publication of Steffen Hertog's recent book — a sophisticated and highly analytical study of the impact of oil on the development of the state in Saudi Arabia, underpinned by almost a decade of painstaking research — and the book currently under review indicate that serious research inside the Kingdom, albeit still very difficult, is not impossible.5 The author of this insightful addition to the literature on state-building in Saudi Arabia is to be congratulated first of all for his inventiveness and perseverance in pursuing his own research under the often taxing conditions he briefly notes in the acknowledgement section of his book.

The study of the effects of oil-led development has spawned a by now voluminous literature, most notably centered on the rentier state paradigm — the core argument of which the author recalls in a descriptive fashion in his opening chapter. Much of that earlier literature is now subject to a growing number of welcome revisions in academic writings where the impact of oil on institutional development inside oil exporters, for example, has been amended by accounts that unpack, often at a micro-level, the effects of highly concentrated revenue flows over time. Hertog's detailed account of the creation of intermediaries as part and parcel of patronage systems in the Kingdom is only one valuable [End Page 158] addition to that new literature.

But, as Jones rightly asks in this delightful and carefully argued treatise on the formation of the Saudi Arabian state, what about the role of water as well — a commodity that has seemingly often been neglected in favor of studies focused on oil? If oil provided the revenues that pushed state formation along by now well-documented pathways, wouldn't water — an indispensable commodity the distribution of which the emerging Saudi state could and would control — produce the same kind of pathologies? Not surprisingly, Jones argues that "[o]ver the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering, and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil" (p. 236). The same patterns of providing patronage, and creating intermediaries in the process, are replicated and accentuated through the control of water — the creation of a kind of combined oil/hydraulic society.

With the disciplinary sensitivities of a historian, Jones does not directly engage, quite correctly, the arguments of earlier hydraulic societies' or rentier state literatures — and their amendations — that could have framed the overall argument. Rather, Desert Kingdom is a carefully framed historical overview of the emergence of the Saudi state that brings into focus many previously neglected aspects of that process, including water, land, and environmental aspects. In the process, Jones pinpoints some of the deficiencies of those earlier approaches: "Contrary to the conventional wisdom regarding how patronage worked in Saudi Arabia — that the kingdom simply delivered cash to citizens to ward off frustration — ideology mattered" (p. 86). The result is a rich and highly detailed account that illuminates, for example, the role of individuals in the process of building the Saudi Arabian state, while simultaneously amending aspects of the earlier structurally-driven explanations.

In the end, Jones successfully manages, as he announces his intention in the introductory chapter, to "partially pry open the black box" that Saudi Arabia in certain ways still represents. He does so by exploring in admirable fashion the multiple and intertwined connections he finds between political power, expertise, water, oil, and the environment in Saudi Arabia. Overall, this is a very valuable addition to the literature on...


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