How Big Oil used Jim Crow to control Saudi Arabia

How Big Oil used Jim Crow to control Saudi Arabia

In the 1930s, Britain and France still used their direct imperial power to control the nations (and their oil) now known as Iran and Iraq. Right before and after World War Two, the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), supported by the U.S. government, believed that their experience in the U.S. south and Latin America offered a better road map: Jim Crow racial segregation. Racially separate and unequal housing, pay scales, drinking fountains, bathrooms, parks, etc. guaranteed workers would stay divided, unable to organize for basic labor rights.

Because Saudi Arabia had undergone little industrialization, with none of the basic infrastructure of a modern nation state, a racially divided workforce could prevent a mass movement demanding democracy. While Saudi workers did organize and strike, coming close to gaining real racial, labor, and democratic reforms, we are still stuck with ARAMCO’s terrible legacy: an authoritarian regime supported every time we fill our gas tank and a warming planet disproportionately harming the very people of color originally exploited by global Jim Crow segregation.

That’s the basic, groundbreaking argument Robert Vitalis makes in America’s Kingdom, published by Verso in 2007. While the book has been out for a few years, it’s safe to say that our organizations have still not internalized its lessons. That’s why, on a recent Beacon podcast, I made it my first recommendation for summer reading. Although Vitalis is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, he writes in a novelistic style that a wide audience can enjoy. Seriously, consider taking this book to the beach!

Without giving away spoilers, the book made me think about how much research it takes to figure out who is responsible for the injustices that seem like natural facts of life—especially when it comes to racism. Vitalis had to dig through obscure archives and travel around the world to figure this story out. When he did, he provoked the ire, not just of oil company executives, but the whole academic and journalistic establishment, often funded by oil, that had created a mythology around ARAMCO being a model institution, good for Arab and American interests alike.

In the early chapters, as Vitalis connects the way mineral extraction companies continued to use an ever-more-sophisticated strategy of racism to divide workers, from Alabama to Colorado to New Mexico to Mexico itself to Colombia to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia. He makes a powerful case that American anti-black racism structured the world to a far larger degree than we’ve realized and also requires far more than the U.S. civil rights movement to push back. His portrait of the nationalist movements, led in the Middle East in the 1960s by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, argues strongly that Americans should read this history right alongside the histories of the civil rights movement to truly understand the stakes of defeating Jim Crow. Until 2007, no one but the workers in Saudi Arabia’s oil fields could tell this story.

Ta Nehisi Coates has somewhere written (any crowd sourcing help here?) about how long it took to discover the elaborate calculation and undeniably racist intent behind racial “redlining” in housing. For years, black communities knew where they could find housing (and financing) and where they couldn’t. But it wasn’t until researchers actually dug up maps from the Federal Housing Administration that they realized the role the federal government had in creating segregated communities all over the country by labeling neighborhoods of color as unworthy of credit. Prior to seeing the maps that actually had red lines around these neighborhoods, it was easy to think that housing segregation in the North and West was just a function of capitalism and people of color tending to make less money. When they discovered the redlining maps, it turned out to be completely deliberate.

But we someone had to dig up those maps. Afterwards, policies like the Community Reinvestment Act could be organized around and passed because people on the ground finally understood the appalling strategies of banks and the federal government. It’s not an accident that racism divides workers. Vitalis’s history proves that corporations like Big Oil understand this perhaps even better than we do. This book is like discovering the racial redlining maps for fossil fuels. What other race-based maps are out there that we don’t even know to look for?

Our lack of knowledge is often our own fault. Environmentalists often show a shocking lack of curiosity about how the histories of communities of color (like the Saudi Arabian people) directly intersect with energy policy. Already a Middle East specialist, Vitalis essentially got a degree in African American studies to write this book, in order to fully understand the history of Jim Crow. Yet it’s still considered somewhat edgy for environmentalists to know and talk about the fact that the race of a community is the strongest of the location of toxic waste sites, a fact widely known for thirty years.

On the positive side, Naomi Klein is one of the best examples of a climate leader taking the intersection of race and climate seriously, relentlessly preaching how communities of color are the most directly affected by climate change, and often have been at the forefront of demanding change. Her “Leap Manifesto,” leads with a recommendation that Canada’s climate change strategy “must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land…[i]ndigenous communities.” And in her recent Edward Said lecture, she highlights Eyal Weizman’s discovery that the major targets of U.S. drone strikes exactly follow the boundary of water scarcity caused by climate change through the Middle East and North Africa, the boundary at which less than 200 millimeters of rain fall on average each year.  (Check out the map on the link above.  It’s crazy.)

Syria’s city of Daraa falls directly on this line. It suffered a decade of drought that displaced nearly a million farmers before it became site of the first uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad. The civil war, the refugee crisis, the anti-immigrant electoral consequences in Europe and the US: these all link to climate change. Candidates running for office need to shout this from the rooftops.

But it’s not just enough to show how communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. Yes, we should think “intersectionally,” understanding how racism and climate change are interrelated issues. But it is no accident these issues intersect. It’s no accident the U.S. conducts drone strikes in the Middle East. People planned it that way. Big Oil used imperial Jim Crow to construct our relationship to that region.

We need to understand Vitalis’s argument because, if we unearth their strategies—past and present—we have a better chance to beat them. Once we understood red-lining, we could force banks to lend to communities where they had customers making deposits; the maps showed us the better policy. Among the many shortcomings of cap-and-trade policies must now be added this: it does nothing to check the power of the ARAMCO order of things created by racial division. Just as they built an energy system based on segregation, we must imagine how to build an energy system based on equitably integrating our communities. Big Oil had no qualms about explicitly thinking about race. We shouldn’t either.

The people of Saudi Arabia, of course, had this analysis all along. One of the best parts of the book is how Vitalis rescues the labor organizers and pro-reform members of Saudi Arabia, linking them to a freedom movement that extends to Nasser’s pan-Arab movement, and then back to the U.S. civil rights movement. (It’s a great way to get a primer on the Middle East prior to Israel’s 1967 war and the Iranian revolution.) The demands of Saudi Arabian workers mirror uncannily the demands of US workers, black and white, from the start of our industrialization, through the 1960s: a forty hour week, better pay, equal pay, education, democracy, the end of segregation. They had meetings, formed unions, drafted demands, went on strike, made hard choices about whether or not to compromise, suffered losses, got a few wins.

Ours is a global struggle, even if it takes decades to realize it.


Finally, this has been a pretty good summer of reading for me, so if you’d like more book recommendations with some thoughts on how they apply to our work, post a comment here or on Facebook. I’m toying with the idea of making this a somewhat regular thing. Also, credit to my friend Anand Vaidya, who gave me this book recommendation!

About author

Ben Chin
Ben Chin 8 posts

Ben Chin is the political engagement director for the Maine People's Alliance.


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