Social anthropology requires extended immersion in other cultures, and not merely short formal interviews with key informants. Understandably, therefore, there have been few anthropological studies offering grassroots-level understanding of Saudi culture and society.
Written by a non-Arabic speaking, US-based anthropologist of Greece, the work that informs Crossing the Kingdom was made possible when a Saudi student of Loring Danforth’s arranged for him and 16 of his American students to visit for a month during the final years of the reign of King Abdullah, who died in 2015. The book does not conform to the standard structure of anthropological research but is instead a travelogue, a series of rapid portraits of Saudi sites and personalities.
The book begins with oil, specifically in the Saudi oil company headquarters, moves on to art galleries and archaeological sites, and ends in Mecca. Danforth and his students were whizzed along on what might be described as the King Abdullah Tour of the Kingdom, possibly part of the country’s charm offensive against very bad media publicity in the West after 9/11.
Danforth engages in meaningful debates and conversations with Saudis. By mostly steering clear of controversial topics such as politics, beheading, lashings and misogyny, he humanises his subjects in readers’ eyes. Even so, his engagement does lead to conflict and confrontation, as when he challenges a conservative lecturer over her views on creationism and homophobia.
Readers will learn much about the challenges faced by a generation of young Saudis trying to lead a full life despite social, religious and political restrictions. Danforth’s Saudi interlocutors are not rebels. Rather, they focus on negotiating and circumventing the rules by avoiding direct confrontation, and they consequently escape the severe punishment that is prescribed, if rarely carried out, for all sorts of transgressions. From driving cars to viewing art, Saudis must exercise self-censorship and tread carefully.
People lead double lives in Saudi culture: nothing exemplifies this better than the Aramco Camp, the headquarters of the US petroleum company that developed Saudi oil in the 1930s and remained in charge of it until its nationalisation in the 1980s. This “Saudi-isation” did not, however, mean that contradictions were resolved and mediated. The present-day Aramco Camp is a heavily guarded five-star ghetto where oil company executives, managers, employees and their families live as if they are in Texas rather than in eastern Saudi Arabia. An exported culture associated with a dark, racist American historical episode – the legacy of the Jim Crow racial segregation philosophy in which the supremacy of white Americans was guarded above everybody else – was implanted in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. This oil zone generates about 90 per cent of Saudi wealth but does not necessarily make Saudis happy.
The best serious academic work on this Aramco Camp remains Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, a study of the American oil company culture that came to the desert with the first Aramco explorers and executives. Danforth relies on Vitalis’ work and other secondary sources, and his book adds few insights on this subject. Nevertheless, it is to his credit that he does not succumb easily to mythologised Aramco and Saudi historical narratives about oil. Throughout Crossing the Kingdom, he tries to challenge simplistic interpretations and crude propaganda. The result is a travelogue that is more sophisticated than the perspectives that dominate Western media reporting on the kingdom.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, and author of Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (2015).
Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia
By Loring M. Danforth
University of California Press, 280pp, £48.95 and £18.95
ISBN 9780520290280 and 0273
Published 16 April 2016