Saturday, May 07, 2011

Book review: America's Kingdom

Robert Vitalis takes a no-holds barred look at Aramco
By Paul Cochrane, Executive magazine

Saudi Aramco, valued anywhere from $2 trillion to $7 trillion and employing more than 55,000 people, is the world’s largest unlisted company. How it got there is a story that has been told before — from the first discovery of oil to the entrance of the American oil majors, to the development of the so-called “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

But Robert Vitalis’s newly updated book, the product of a decade of research and writing, charts the history from a different perspective, viewing Aramco as a microcosm of the colonial order. It describes an ‘oil-garchy’, the partnership that began decades ago with some of the largest oil companies in the world — Socal, later renamed Chevron, Standard Oil of New Jersey, later Exxon, and Socony-Vacuum Oil, later Mobil — and the relations between Washington DC and Riyadh until Aramco was fully nationalized in 1980, becoming known in 1988 as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company or Saudi Aramco.

It is not a telling of history financed by Aramco or seeking to enter the good books of the Saudis or the oil industry — an independence that aids its veracity. As Vitalis notes: “Companies are like authoritarian countries. They keep records hidden...They open their archives only to those they hire [and] insist on the right to approve what is written... There are no sunshine laws and no Freedom of Information Acts against corporate privilege.”

Indeed, like other tomes exposing the costs of oil development, America’s Kingdom is blacklisted in Saudi Arabia alongside works like the late Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif's superlative quintet Cities of Salt.

Vitalis blasts commercially successful accounts of Aramco and Saudi Arabia that conveniently gloss over the company’s less than exemplary past and uncritically repeat Aramco’s creed that it acted differently from other oil companies; the company claims to have helped Saudi Arabia modernize through what Aramco President Frank Jungers called its “farsighted policies” and a “55-year record of cooperation and mutual respect.”

Vitalis exposes the situation of Saudi and non-American workers, their decades-long struggles for better accommodation, wages and rights, how protests were squashed, and the eventual ending of a system that divided labor based on race, imported from the US and similar to the ‘Jim Crow’ laws used in America to pay white workers more than African Americans and Hispanics.

He also exposed as myths many claims that Aramco still expounds; the company’s website states that, “Since 1940, Saudi Aramco schools have provided educational services to dependents of Saudi Aramco employees.” In fact, Aramco’s management worked to prevent Saudis and their dependents from being educated, arguing “the company should not engage in a general education program,” despite a 1942 Labor Law that required Aramco to do so. It was not until 1955 that the labor movement and the Saudi government forced Aramco to “pay for a system of schools, training institutes, and, ultimately, an engineering college.”

The book debunks the notion of Saudi “exceptionalism” — the doctrine that its leadership steered the fledgling kingdom through the miasma of empire and imperialism without external influence; while Saudi Arabia became a state in 1932, what “everyone seems to forget is that (the Saudi Emir, later king) Ibn Saud signed a treaty in 1915 with Great Britain that conceded sovereignty rights for protection,” writes Vitalis. The kingdom has been keen to downplay such reliance on outsiders for its survival ever since, whether on Britain or later on Aramco and the US.

America’s Kingdom is an important contribution to the often-neglected field of oil history, and a powerful critique of the US-Saudi relationship and of Aramco, a company with monumental sway over the world’s energy markets.

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