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US-Gulf Cultures of Empire

Panel V-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Over the past century, the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula have been deeply impacted by imperial influence from the United States. Existing scholarship on US empire in the region has given special attention to entangled interests of oil and security, showing how the US state and corporations have approached the region with strategic ambitions to more easily extract profit, dominate the broader Middle East, and perpetuate war. Indeed, empires are characteristically defined by logics of extraction. But they are also built on cultural exchange. The cultural dimensions of US-Gulf relations are the focus of this interdisciplinary panel – collectively exploring what we call “cultures of empire” in the Gulf region. Cultures of empire represent the diverse structures that underpin US-Gulf imperial relations, and how they both build and rely on subjects and knowledges that reproduce US hegemony. Bringing together anthropologists, geographers, and historians, we explore the quotidian ways in which empire manifests in everyday practices, rhetorics, and forms of subjectification. In doing so, we approach US imperial power through sites of study that often are either severed from political economic studies of oil and security or treated as merely the realm of Gulf Arab and/or US cultural and social life. The papers in our panel consider US-Gulf cultures of empire in spaces inside and outside of the Gulf, paying particular attention to the role of technological innovation, education, and expertise. They explore geographies and cultures of empire by focusing on sites such as missionary work, petro-education, human resources management, geo-engineering projects, and desalination technologies. Taken together, these papers argue that these areas are not “soft power” in relation to the juggernauts of US oil companies and the US military, but rather essential locations through which empire is naturalized, contested, and reproduced.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Empire-builders in early America took Middle Eastern deserts as a key source of inspiration colonizing the arid lands of southwestern North America. Anglo-American settlers struggled to make sense of the region’s human and physical geography, but quickly began to interpret the desert Southwest as a local version of the Middle Eastern deserts they imagined through the Biblical Orient. But as U.S. empire started to expand beyond North America, settlers and their descendants learned that they could sell their new desert “expertise” abroad, and started to build new colonial networks in the Middle East around the stories of their common arid lands experiences. Based on extensive archival research and fieldwork, this paper surveys the long history of desert exchange by focusing on ties between Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula that began in the 1800s. It shows how the domestic cultures of arid empire, rooted in the U.S. Southwest, transformed into an important channel of international cultures of arid empire that started to diplomatically bind the U.S. and the Gulf from the 1940s on. With the transformation of US-Gulf relations over time, the desert imaginaries that defined their imperial entanglements also evolved – shifting away from older Biblical narratives and more toward the technofetishism of modernist science that became a defining feature of U.S. cultures of empire after WWII. Taking one example from this history, the paper shows how the “desert” as an environmental imaginary figured in the University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory’s joint greenhouse/desalting plant, initiated in Abu Dhabi in 1968. As an early example of the high-modernist, spectacular (geo)engineering projects now familiar in the Gulf, the Arizona-Abu Dhabi project illustrates how the very idea of the “desert” – and its “natural limits” to extractive financial and political systems – becomes a narrative resource to justify precisely those extractive systems. Cultures of arid empire are thus built as elites and arid lands “experts” breathe life into their stories of the desert, which are then put to work in the service of imperial visions based on extractive approaches to the land, environment, and human beings. The “desert” is constantly reinvented by these actors, as they learn to use it in new and unexpected ways. And this is the story of empire itself.
  • When the first American oil developers arrived in the Arabian Gulf in the late 1920s, they built on the work of other Americans in the region who predated their arrival by several decades. American Protestant missionaries, who arrived in the Arabian Gulf in 1889, had used various forms of technology to advance their primary goal: converting Arabian Muslims to Protestant Christianity. The missionaries’ primary tool in their conversion efforts was Western medicine, but they also relied on other forms of technology to achieve this goal. Although by and large, these missionaries failed in their attempt to convert Arabian Muslims to Christianity, as this paper demonstrates, American oil developers who followed on their footsteps adapted their methods – and their rhetoric – to assert their own power in the region to great effect, a strategy that resulted in the forging neo-imperial ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia. During and after World War II, as the United States government quickly understood the strategic value of the oil resources in the region, it too built on and adopted the strategy of missionaries and oil companies in relying on Western technology to reinforce American power, framing their role as one that would bring progress and modernity to the area. This paper examines the role that Western technology, in the forms of medicine, agriculture, and military weaponry and training, played in advancing American interests in Saudi Arabia in the period between 1889 and 1952, as differing groups of Americans helped develop the United States’ “special relationship” with the kingdom. It begins by analyzing the goals and methods of American missionaries belonging to the Reformed Church of America, then analyzes the cooperation between these missionaries and American oil developers, including the American oil company ARAMCO. It then analyzes how the U.S. government built on this effort by initiating agricultural and medical programs in the region, and later, supported multinational organizations such as the WHO, in their medical programs in Saudi Arabia. Finally, it also examines how the United States government instrumentalized its military weapons sales – and military training – to further consolidate its power in the kingdom during the early Cold War.
  • Co-Authors: Neha Vora
    In this paper, we explore the culture of empire and imperial citizenship production within spaces of higher education in the Gulf aimed at the oil and gas industry. We focus particularly on how environmentalism and sustainability, as a now commonplace marker of the US university’s liberal branding, travels and circulates within these institutions. In the broader environmental movement, US universities are regularly depicted as sites of progressive green action, cutting-edge research, and student-driven change for divestment from fossil fuels. US universities have even been exported over the past two decades to wealthy oil- and gas-dependent states in the Arabian Peninsula under the guise of developing these societies away from fossil fuels. These countries, however, have been built and managed in order to uphold the prosperity of the West through fossil fuel extraction, while also remaining outside of the scope of Western development of liberal democratic ideologies and institutions, of which higher education has played a central part. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research within U.S. branch campuses in Qatar, and specifically on Texas A&M, a land grant university with ties to both the US military and to oil economies in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arabian Peninsula, we trace how these projects, increasingly touting green agendas for climate action, are fundamentally underpinned by, and reproduce, the operations of the fossil fuel industry. We argue that liberal knowledge and subjects produced in these educational spaces, rather than assisting to move Gulf economies away from oil dependence, reinforce the clientalist relationships between the Gulf and the United States. Bringing this research in conversation with critical university studies, we argue that US universities are embedded in a broader agenda to reconcile the climate crisis with a supposedly greener capitalism that extends fossil fuel extraction into the future. It is through following US universities as they set up campuses in Qatar that the roles of these institutions in furthering both US imperialism and climate injustice are revealed.
  • In recent years, Muhammad bin Salman’s grandiose reimagining of the Red Sea and northwestern Saudi Arabia has witnessed the announcement of a cluster of ostensibly “green” mega-projects, most notably NEOM and The Line. The Crown Prince has expressed a desire to bring Saudi Arabia back to the modernizing trajectory of the pre-1979 era, prior to Iran’s Islamic Revolution and what he has pointed to as an Islamist over-reaction in the Kingdom. While Western observers have often sneered at the vaulting ambitions of these futuristic designs, it is worth noting that not unlike the consulting firms tasked with carrying out these projects today, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have a long history of futurist collaborations with American engineers, architects, and Space Age “visioneers.” To better understand the pre-1979 Saudi Arabia that the Crown Prince has vowed to reawaken, this paper revisits the reign of King Faisal (1964-1975). It follows the visionary career of King Faisal’s son, Muhammad bin Faisal. Bin Faisal, a 1963 graduate of Menlo College, located near San Francisco, is a prime example of how the fantasies of Cold War California stoked the imagination of the Kingdom. During his college years, the US Office of Saline Water touted desalination as the key to saving California from the looming water crisis associated with Colorado River dam and diversion projects. The 1960s witnessed major advances in desalination research, especially centered around San Diego and Los Angeles. During his time, Bin Faisal visited California Edison’s Ventura combined desalination and power plant. Inspired by what he saw, he returned home with the idea that would become his legacy. From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, he emerged as the principal architect of Saudi Arabia’s collaboration with the Office of Saline Water, laying the groundwork for Saudi Arabia’s emergence as the world’s largest producer of desalinated water. After his father’s assassination in 1975, Bin Faisal also experimented with the idea of towing Antarctic icebergs to Jeddah to harvest freshwater. Although the doomed company and academic conferences that flowed from this idea are often the first anecdote associated with the prince, it is critical to note that even this seemingly zany idea was part of the mainstream of American Cold War technopolitical experiments with desalination, nuclear power, weather modification schemes, and the roots of what we now call geo-engineering. This paper seeks to reconstruct Saudi Arabia’s connection to California and the American techno-scientific empire.