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Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia Hardcover – September 27, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


[A] provocative book...Desert Kingdom is a much needed addition to the small shelf of Saudi Arabian histories based on archival research and political economy rather than caricatures of oil wealth and the desert. The connection of geography to political power is compelling. (Frederick Deknatel The Nation 2011-02-28)

For a desert kingdom to concern itself with the control of water would seem to be a given, but the subject has received slight attention in studies of Saudi Arabia. Although oil has always figured prominently in Saudi studies, this book is surely the first to trace Saudi policies concerning oil and water since the 1920s. Jones presents these policies as dictated by a Saudi drive to create not so much a nation-state as an empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is not all desert, but the agriculturally more advantaged Eastern Province, with its appreciable Shiite population, has been the most disadvantaged when it comes to receiving a share of the government's development projects. This explains the Shiite uprising there in 1979 and the halting Saudi efforts thereafter to address the issue. Woven into this book is a pessimistic view of technologically driven policies, environmentalist reflections, and a harsh portrayal of selfishness on the part of both the Saudi state and the oil company it owns, Saudi Aramco. (L. Carl Brown Foreign Affairs 2011-03-01)

Toby Craig Jones's new book about the kingdom examines the Saudi state's relationship to water and oil, the twin resources that are its blessing and its curse (or, according to some, its two curses). Jones argues that Saudi ruling classes hold their inherently fragile state together through a strict and bold program that manages these two substances. In Saudi Arabia, more so than in almost any other place on earth, the business of the state is the control of nature, because to control nature is to control people. (Graeme Wood The National 2010-11-05)

Desert Kingdom is sure to spark discussion and debate. It touches on some of the most sensitive nerves of a society. But, it also describes how determination and perseverance built Saudi Arabia into a Middle Eastern powerhouse. Toby Craig Jones opens the door to understanding how it happened. (Joseph Richard Preville Saudi Gazette 2010-12-05)

A lucid account and a comprehensive analysis of how state power unfolds in oil fields and water wells. The state of nature and the nature of the state are meticulously explored in this fascinating book that definitely succeeds in mixing oil and water and sheds light on how the Saudi state exercises power over nature and society. (Madawi Al-Rasheed, author of A History of Saudi Arabia and Contesting the Saudi State)

It is impossible to think about Saudi Arabia's history the same way after reading this book. (Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies)

In this highly original approach to investigating the underpinnings of power in Saudi Arabia, Toby Jones demonstrates the power of state institutions, multinational corporations and engineering firms to reshape societies and the environments they inhabit. (David Commins, author of The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia)

In this excellent book, Toby Jones demonstrates that managing the environment was a means of building a state that could also manage its society. An outstanding contribution to the increasingly sophisticated historiography of Saudi Arabia and an essential read for those who want to understand the country's contemporary politics. (F. Gregory Gause, III, University of Vermont)

Jones shows how technology, foreign expertise and physical resources were managed and mobilized to produce the structures of power in Saudi Arabia today―it is indispensable reading for understanding why Saudi Arabia is what it is. A signal achievement. (Bernard Haykel, Princeton University)

Toby Jones tells us things about Saudi politics that no one else has, at least not reliably, using scholarly sources and methods. This is now the go-to book that breaks both empirical and conceptual new ground in Middle East studies. (Robert Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania)

About the Author

Toby Craig Jones is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674049853
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674049857
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #958,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By John P. Jones III TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At the beginning of Robert Lacey's The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'Ud, he relates a conversation he had with a Georgetown educated member of the House of Saud: "I have lived in the Kingdom over 30 years, yet if I was to put down on paper how my family and this country worked, I would be lucky if I got a B+ mark. You have spent four years with us. The best you can hope for is a C." As I said in my review of Lacey's book, I thought he got it right, and earned at least an A-. Regrettably, Toby Craig Jones does not reference this work, nor another seminal work by Holden and Johns, (The House of Saud). And I do not think his analysis got it "right."

Toby Jones is an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers. He spent 10 months in the Kingdom, in 2003, at the height of terrorist attacks against Westerners and the Saudi government. This may very well have limited his ability (or desire) to travel around the Kingdom, and his tentative understanding of the country reflects this limited exposure. Jones identifies two factors in Saudi Arabia - certainly key factors, oil and water - and attempts to use these to explain virtually all of the Kingdom's historical development. Furthermore, he focuses almost exclusively on developments in the Eastern Province, which includes its substantial Shia population, to the exclusion of all the other areas of the country. He does not explain his research methodology, but appears to rely heavily on an eclectic array of documents, and eschews the interview process, particularly of Saudis.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful By G. J. Dowling on September 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The attention this creative (and passionately anti-Saudi) study brings to the Kingdom's management of its water sources is welcome and valuable. Water or, more appropriately, its dearth has historically defined peninsular society, and the effort to augment water production was a long-standing political objective of Al Saud. But the analysis falls short.
For one thing the focus is too narrow. While the subtitle gives equal weight to oil and water, the study addresses primarily the latter, with attention narrowed further by a near exclusive concern with two oases -Qatif and al Hasa-located in the Kingdom's Eastern Province. There is little substantive discussion of oil development within the Kingdom while the international consequences of Arabian oil are barely touched on. A key political crisis of the 1950s concerning control over the oasis of Buraimi in the SE of the Peninsula is defined - in what seems a parody of succinctness - as a `Saudi oil grab.' There are errors as well in his understanding of ARAMCO. With scant appreciation of the difficulties of a western business operating effectively within the Kingdom's cultural milieu, he repeats the accusation that the company was a racist enterprise. And he misconstrues ARAMCO's broader role in the society by identifying it as the Saudi state's `surrogate' in the Eastern Province.
Dr. Jones sees the modern political culture of the Kingdom as essentially created ex nihilo with the avid pursuit of resource development. For him, the Saudi regime had little conception on how to consolidate its power beyond Najd prior to mid-century when oil income began to rise significantly and the necessary western technology was increasingly available.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book does a good job of examining the dynamics of food and energy production, distribution, and control in the early part of its post oil history.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By lyndonbrecht on February 10, 2015
Format: Hardcover
This is an interesting account, but seems to have as its goal a sort of indictment of the Saudi regime. They may well deserve it, but I doubt they are as incompetent as this books implies.

Most of the book is about how the government has manipulated oil and water--meaning mostly water procured by funds generated by oil revenue--to reward supporters and marginalize others. The book describes what seems to be systematic discrimination against the Shi'ites in the eastern parts of the country.

He documents serious depletion of aquifers, which may be the most important story in the book. He says that briefly, Saudi Arabia was the 6th largest exporter of wheat in the world, made possible by a hugely expensive irrigation project that has since withered away.

The writing is adequate, the story is fairly interesting. The book, well, read it if you want but the principal motivation would be I think, for the reader who doesn't particularly like the Saudi regime.
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