Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

The Nature of Oil: Reconsidering American Power in the Middle East

[Image via the author.] [Image via the author.]

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York: Verso, 2011.

Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Robert Vitalis, American Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006.

For most of those who consider themselves politically liberal, oil—along with environmental degradation and foreign occupation—form a kind of political axis of evil on the American political landscape. Despite the talk of democracy promotion in Iraq and a “strategic alliance” with Saudi Arabia, many would still agree with Bob Dylan, who wrote in 1979: “All that foreign oil / controlling American soil / Look around you / it’s just bound to make you embarrassed.” Scholars who work on the Middle East have formulated a more sophisticated vocabulary to discuss the evils of oil in the region by employing the concept of a rentier state. In short, those countries that derive a significant portion of state revenue from rents (such as those derived from oil export) have an easier time buying off the opposition and are therefore more insulated against the threat of democracy.

In the past few years, three new books in Middle Eastern studies have complicated this picture considerably. They ask us to seriously reconsider the significance of oil for American power, Saudi history, and the forms of expertise that have marked the post-World War II era. To the question, “Why is oil significant?” these authors provide novel responses that are rooted in the study of corporations, environmental history, and science and technology studies, respectively.

Robert Vitalis’ American Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier effectively destroys the notion that ARAMCO represented a benevolent corporation committed to the “social uplift” of its employees. Instead, Vitalis traces the “color line” that was implemented in the ARAMCO labor camps, claiming that the Jim Crow settlements that were characteristic of American segregation were exported abroad after the 1920s. Toby Craig Jones’ Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia argues that resource management was a key element in the form of power exercised by the Saudi state. The development and distribution of water and oil enabled the ruling family to extend its authority over a territory that was gradually incorporated into a nation-state. Jones’ account displaces the conventional focus on Wahhabism and Islam, arguing that “Saudi authoritarianism, then, was more of an outcome of its efforts to order nature and society than either a characteristic of the political order from its founding or the result of a particular relationship between Islam, the clergy, and the Al Saud.”  

Of the three books, Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil makes the most far-reaching claims for the importance of oil. For Mitchell, oil not only created the parameters of a certain kind of democratic practice, but it also allowed for concepts to appear as coherent entities that could then be used to make political claims—most notably understandings of “the economy” and “the environment.” Borrowing heavily from Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, Mitchell shows how “socio-technical worlds” assembled forms of political agency and languages of calculation by inscribing a division between the natural and social worlds.

From Imagined Communities to Imagined Economies? The Materialist Turn in the Study of Nationalism

Following Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, nationalism has often been understood as an “imagined political community,” that is, a cultural artifact enabled by print capitalism and enlightenment thought. Previously, world systems theory had posited that the nation-state enabled the hierarchical structuring of global capitalism among the core, periphery, and semi-periphery, but in the past two decades scholars have turned to an analysis of cultural and commemorative practices in order to understand the emergence of national consciousness. Although it is Mitchell who comes out most strongly against the tendency to focus on representation and ideology, Vitalis and Jones also emphasize the importance of material resources in the processes of forging a nation-state.

For Mitchell, the extraction and properties of oil enabled a new economic system to emerge at Bretton Woods in 1944, which dramatically transformed the understanding of national space. While the economy had historically been tied to the gold standard, after the Second World War there was a drive to limit the effect of currency speculators and base the economy on the flow of currency. As a result, “the value of the dollar as the basis of international finance depended on the flow of oil.” Pursuing an argument that will be familiar to those who are familiar with Mitchell’s previous work, he claims that the “economy” as “the modern apparatus of calculation and government” appeared only in the mid-twentieth century.

Yet in Carbon Democracy, Mitchell emphasizes the role of hydrocarbons in the emergence of “the economy”; oil ensured that the economy would no longer be tied to an existing reserve of physically limited materials and encouraged a conception of growth that was boundless. Following this development, the notion of the “national economy,” framed by a post-war Keynsianian, is viewed as a form of “petro-knowledge” that enabled national space to appear along with a certain regime of calculation. In short, the physical properties of oil itself—which ensured ease of transport, reduced the ability for major acts of sabotage, and promised the possibility of indefinite growth—played a major role in the emergence of the national economy after World War II.

Jones is less skeptical about the existence of “the economy” even while he shares Mitchell’s concern for the economic (and material) basis of national space. He writes that Saudi political authority was cemented, in part, “through the creation of a national economy and an integrated market.” While the more familiar narrative about Saudi nationalism claims that Islam provided the basis of national identity, Jones rejects this explanation. The government did seek to instill a sense of national belonging, but this was not achieved through religion so much as through a particular regime of environmental control. Here it is the category of a “national environment” (rather than that of a “national economy”) that does the major analytical work. Ultimately, it was resource distribution and development that allowed the state to consolidate the territory under its control into a modern nation-state. According to Jones, the “new environmnental technostate” fashioned by then-Prime Minister Faisal in the 1960s fused developmentalism with Islam and provided the basis for Saudi nationalism. Even if this relationship was reframed in the 1980s to reflect the rising tide of Islamism, the importance of development for the power of the state remained essential.

Vitalis’ discussion of nationalism uses historical practice to debunk official ideology. He takes particular issue with American exceptionalism: “American exceptionalism and its account of the US-Saudi encounter help make possible Saudi exceptionalism itself, where the rhetoric and substance of imperialism are rejected as a way of telling the story of US-Saudi relations and of Saudi state formation.” Thus against ARAMCO’s self-produced image of beneficence, America’s denial of imperialist practices, and Saudi Arabia’s own nationalist historiography, Vitalis’ transnational story undermines various instances of “mythmaking.” The key tool employed in Vitalis’ dismantling of national myth is his analysis of racial segregation and labor practices.

Modular Concepts and the Racial Division of Labor

According to Vitalis, race operates as an “Achilles heel” for American nationalism. As such, Americans often choose not to view their history of racial oppression, which extended from the copper belt of Arizona to the labor camps of Saudi Arabia. Yet this conception of race as an “Achilles heel” is puzzling. It suggests that the city on a hill is discovered to be hollow once we take into account the country’s long history of racial oppression. A more apt analogy would be that the hill itself is built on and even through the social construction of racial categories.

Much like the criticism often wielded against Benedict Anderson’s notion of nationalism,[1] we might ask whether race is now being used in a modular way that is easily replicable in various contexts. Timothy Mitchell, for example, writes “imperialism deployed a widely accepted principle of political, moral and intellectual organization to create its social order: racism” (emphasis added). The notion that racism is an object that one merely “deploys” sets it apart from other terms that Mitchell so carefully deconstructs, such as “democracy,” which “like other ideas that appear to be nonmaterial, acquire their lightness and transportality through specific practices.” One might say that the heaviness of race accumulates through specific practices of representation that are also inseparable from the object that they claim to represent—in this case, the idea of race itself.

While Vitalis’ account is fascinating in its own right, there are certain questions that remain unanswered in his use of race as an analytical category. For example, if the tensions between Saudis and Americans were later dismissed as clashes of “culture,” what does this tell us about the development of racial categories? What should we make of the fact that Saudis and Palestinians were subjected to different labor practices? What does it mean that Americans “learned their racism” in South Africa, and did these practices indicate a different “mechanism of social control” when they arrived in the Middle East? How do we account for these differences if, as Vitalis claims, “American racial geography was identical to that of every other oil installation Americans had built in three continents across one hundred years.”

Islam or Facebook? Reconfiguring Religion and Technology in Light of the “Arab Spring”

While Carbon Democracy is the only book that deals with the 2011 revolts directly (since it was the only one published after the fall of Mubarak), all three of these monographs elucidate the workings of power in a way that challenge mainstream narratives on the “Arab Spring.” Tracing how the United States has systematically fostered socially conservative religious movements in order to secure American financial interests abroad, these works shed light on the relationship between technologies of rule and forms of subjectivity in the Middle East.

Mitchell notes that since 2010, Egypt has been a net importer of oil, making it increasingly difficult for the state to buy off the economic protests that intensified after Mubarak renewed his attempts to privatize the economy in 2004. While the “Arab Spring” (a term that Mitchell himself avoids using) is often seen as a tardy response to the war in Iraq, “one could plausibly argue that the war delayed the fall of these autocratic governments,” as the Mubarak regime systematically blocked any criticism of US imperialism or neoliberal economic policies. Instead, Mubarak allowed the Muslim Brotherhood a limited voice, since their “moral conservatism” ultimately “offered no threat to the regime.” In a similar vein, Vitalis shows that while American ideas were certainly exported, these ideas did not feature the much-touted democratic ideals celebrated by political pundits and ARAMCO managers. Instead, it was understandings of social conservatism (and racial segregation) that arrived in Saudi Arabia, which undoubtedly served the interests of American oil better than a commitment to political equality.

Jones also highlights how global networks of capital required the deployment of Western experts who helped form a “new environmental technostate” that marginalized large segments of the population. For example, Karl Twitchell, an American geologist and engineer, is described by Jones as a “cog” in the Saudi regime. Although Twitchell viewed his research as “the dispassionate work of science,” he actually “made significant contributions to the character of the political order.” Specifically, Twitchell’s geological findings would bolster the geopolitical aims of the Saudi state and help settle the politically sensitive question of the Southern border.

While Jones and Vitalis trace the ways in which expertise often served the demands of global capitalism, Mitchell rejects the notion that capitalism itself has an inherent logic. He coins the term “McJihad” as a way of showing how globalization (with its allegedly universally singular format) and religion (an example of resistance in the form of cultural particularism) were always formed in conjunction at specific moments. Instead of analyzing how changes in the “economy” prompted particular “cultural” responses, Mitchell directs our attention to the “socio-technical” worlds that were assembled by multiple actors at certain sites. In so doing, he shows how Islam and technology were mutually imbricated and inseparable from US military power and the configuration of international oil.

What might this insight teach us about political protest in 2011? Latour is known for many things, but political expediency and pragmatic application are not two of them. To return to debates on the “Arab Spring” (perhaps themselves becoming tired at the moment, but bear with me), the tendency to separate technology from culture has been a significant—and problematic—trend. On the one hand, it was said that social technology had emancipated the Middle East, connecting millions of disaffected youths who had, mysteriously, no agency until this moment. On the other hand, the Islamist threat loomed large, as a backwards avatar that would emerge from the Pandora’s box (one wonders if these commentators have ever entertained the possibility that Islamists, too, know how to use the internet).

The divorce between the material world (technology, distribution of resources, economic structures) and religion (belief, culture, tolerance) is stubbornly persistent even among scholars who have a more nuanced understanding of Islamism and are committed to leftist politics. Rather than asking about the political effects of economic decisions, we must start asking how the forms of economic power themselves enable a certain conception of the social and foster specific political strategies. The point, then, is not merely that some forms of distributive practices are more “just” than others, but that the mechanisms of extraction, production, and distribution have socio-political agency even while their laws are regulated by physical properties that seem to be “natural”—inscribed in the natural sciences and therefore outside the domain of political analysis.

Thinking about oil and politics in the Middle East must go farther in its analysis than either Bob Dylan or rentier theorists have been able to do. It is not simply that the US is controlled by “Arab money” (ala Dylan) or that oil is a hindrance to “democracy” (ala rentier theory). Hegemony and empire have become easy catch-all words that indicate something bad that the West has done to the Rest. Instead, these books ask us to look at the particular modalities of subjugation. This does not necessarily mean a return to politics in terms of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz—politics as war pursued by other means. Instead, these works press us to re-evaluate the stakes of our basic vocabulary in Middle Eastern studies: namely, our understandings of nature, technology, capitalism, and religion.


[1] For example, Partha Chatterjee notes: “If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined communities from certain ‘modular’ forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?” See Chatterjee’s “Whose Imagined Community?” in Gopal Balakrishnan (ed), Mapping the Nation (London: Verso, 1996), 214-226.

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T