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In the Service of the Whole Community? Civic Engagement in Saudi Arabia (1950s-1960s)

[Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Dorothy Miller, Saudi Aramco World, SAWDIA. Image used with permission] [Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Dorothy Miller, Saudi Aramco World, SAWDIA. Image used with permission]

Civic engagement in Saudi Arabia has been viewed mostly from the angle of labor, nationalist, or sectarian activism that evolves in phases of political or social tension.[1] In this essay, I examine civic engagement in the 1950s and 1960s through the lens of the city. I argue that the above stated categories are too rigid,[2] and furthermore that civic engagement in the 1950s and 1960s appears as a "practice of the everyday." In the Saudi oil towns of Dammam and al-Khobar, actors with different social and sectarian backgrounds (re-)appropriated their life space through multiple forms of activism, and even cooperation on a daily basis. These actors repeatedly worked as agents of communal development, and addressed urgent problems posed by oil urbanization, improved living conditions, and even pushed certain political agendas. Their activism illustrates urban modernity in the Gulf Arab states, which took place against the background of oil development, urbanization, and state formation. At the same time, it is reminiscent of urban life before oil, and thus points to certain continuities in the history of the Gulf city.

Urban Politics as Platform for Broader Civic Engagement

A major platform of civic engagement was that of urban politics and governance. The introduction of elected municipal councils in 1954 provided not only an important space for political mobilization, it also endowed local business elites with considerable political leverage. In Dammam and al-Khobar, business interests apparently dominated the councils, whereas "traditional" elites such as landowners and religious figures were reported to be "conspicuous by their absence" among council members. This had a stimulating effect on the activities of the municipalities.[3]

Furthermore, an increasing number of local newspapers contributed to this new sophistication by publicly monitoring and discussing municipal activities. In the nationalist political climate of the 1950s, the province’s local press flourished.[4] One example of an attempt to establish a critical press was the newspaper Al-Fajr al-Jadid (The New Dawn). The publication was run in 1954 by a number of leftist and nationalist activists, many of them local Shiʿa. However, due to its "meddling" in local and national political affairs, the publication of Al-Fajr al-Jadid was stopped by the governor of the Eastern Province after only three issues.[5]

Widespread popular nationalism at that time allowed for many known local activists to be employed by the government, such as in the case of short-term publicist of  Al-Fajr al-Jadid and later Director of the Permits and Contracts Division of the Labor Department in Dammam, Abdulaziz Abu al-Sunaid. Born in Iraq as son of a Saudi father from Najd and an Iraqi mother with family origins in al-Ahsa, al-Sunaid was educated in Iraq where he presumably first encountered communist ideas. In 1953, he became the president of the workers committee that led the famous 1953 strike of Saudi oil workers. Al-Sunaid belonged to the many Saudi nationalists in the Eastern Province that promoted reforms and political participation throughout the 1950s, and when the diverse reform movement in the late 1950s began to compartmentalize into specific political affiliations, al-Sunaid became the leader of the communist wing.[6]

Another nationalist newspaper, the Akhbar al-Dhahran was published over a period of two years, between 1955 and 1957. Under its editor in chief ‘Abd al-Karim al-Juhaiman the fortnightly newspaper became famous for its nationalist articles as well as for its critical reporting of corruption and maladministration in Saudi municipalities. The journalist, writer, and poet ‘Abd al-Karim al-Juhaiman, in later decades became a prominent and celebrated figure in Saudi Arabia. In 1957, al-Juhaiman was arrested due to a critical article on gambling and the publication of the Akhbar al-Zahran stopped. Several more arrests for his critical journalism followed throughout his life.[7]

Urban residents, political activists, local intellectuals, and government officials alike used the Akhbar al-Zahran as a platform for exchanging heated debates on how to go about the nations’ progress on the local level. Representatives of the province’s municipalities had to answer to readers for their activities in communal development or the lack thereof. Local businessmen and investors participated as well in these debates. A regular writer in the newspaper was the wealthy merchant and known philanthropist Shaikh Muhammad Abdallah al-Mana‘ from al-Khobar. Al-Mana‘, whose family originated from the Najd, had worked as interpreter for Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and Aramco, and later became a company contractor and one of the most successful businessmen in the area. His articles discussed the crucial role of responsible private investment for the progress of his country.[8] As proprietor of several local firms and businesses in al-Khobar, al-Mana‘ certainly cultivated contacts to the government officials of the Dammam Labor Department, and discussed with them the role that local businessmen should assume in the development of their communities. In an editorial of 1957, none other than Abdulaziz Abu Al-Sunaid referred to an informal talk with al-Mana‘, and praised the great efforts that were taken by some local individuals to increase the rate of progress in the country.[9]

Private Investment, Family Politics and Communal Self-Help

The wealthy businessman al-Mana‘ and the communist al-Sunaid shared the belief that, due to slow and inefficient state development, Saudi citizens had to actively contribute in the development of their communities. And indeed, similar to what Gwenn Okruhlik has termed "private business activism" in Saudi Arabia, a considerable part of basic services in the local towns was provided by local businessmen, especially in areas that were not in the immediate focus of oil development. Famous merchant families added prestige to their names by for example establishing private (ahli) hospitals, like the urgently needed dentist and eye clinics that were founded by Shaikh Muhammad al-Manaʽ and his brother Abdulaziz in al-Khobar in 1957, at a time when the insufficient health system in the provinces’ towns was recurrently addressed by local residents in Akhbar al-Dhahran newspaper.[10]

Such private investments were likely profitable for their investors. None of the accessible sources offer information on whether medical treatment in private hospitals was generally charged and, if so, how much it cost, or whether poor people received free treatment. Yet, based on interviews in al-Khobar in May 2013, they are remembered by local residents as generous acts of wealthy businessmen in the service of the community. This point of view is supported by older notions of piousness and the performance of good deeds, and by numerous cases in which merchant families founded charity and other non-profit institutions for the benefit of their respective communities, be it in the Eastern Province or elsewhere in the Kingdom. One famous example for al-Khobar is the charity organization Jamʽiyyat Fatat al-Khalij al-Khairiyya al-Insaniyya, which was started in 1971 as an initiative of the al-Qusaibi family to bring local women into work.[11] It should also be noted that the endowment of private property for communal use was not at all a new development in the region. Accounts exist from pre-oil times of the donation of houses for the accommodation of hospitals, for example.[12]

It also seems that many private foundations carried certain cooperative principles. In the case of the al-Khobar water company, established in 1955 by three leading merchants of the town, Akhbar al-Dhahran printed the founders' urgent plea to the public to "encourage this project by buying shares offered for sale."[13] The underlying self-help mentality was even more pronounced in projects of local small-scale investors who spent their after-work hours and small private savings in, for example, for the electrification of their neighborhoods.[14]

An Advance in Social and Intellectual Urban Life: The Dammam Library Project

Responsible private investment in infrastructural projects as a subsidiary development strategy was clearly called for by the general public, and to a certain extent discussed and monitored by the urban communities. Yet, civic engagement in communal development also covered purely non-profit domains, such as in the fields of culture and education. In early 1955, thirty-six citizens of Dammam got together for the foundation of a public library, which was envisioned not only as a lending library but as well as a gathering place for intellectuals of the community, and as a place where public lectures and discussions could be held. The project founders further planned to provide night classes in a variety of subjects and to encourage sports and recreation in the town. An Aramco report counted some of the publishers of Al-Fajr al-Jadid amongst the citizens who promoted the library project, as well as a number of government officials. Merchants and businessmen from Dammam apparently contributed financial assistance to the project.[15]

Like in other parts of Saudi Arabia, the establishment and maintenance of libraries as hubs of local culture and education was a traditional feature of urban life also in the Eastern Province. Historically, private libraries in the province’s old towns obtained important roles in local science and teaching, and added considerably to the social prestige of the families who provided them. With the beginning of oil development and rapid urbanization of the province, a number of privately owned libraries were established also in the new towns of Dammam and al-Khobar.[16]

In contrast to these foundations, the new library in Dammam was envisioned as public library. Its purpose was clearly that of enabling urban civic and intellectual life. However, its fate took a different path than intended by its founders and supporters. A request by the project initiators for government support called the library project to the attention of the provincial governor, who then took steps in order to wrench the project from the hands of its founders. On the governor’s orders, a "Committee for Literary and Educational Aspects" was formed under the supervision of a local qadi with the function to oversee the library project, and especially the planned social and recreational activities. This was not a surprising move since such activities created suspected networks and spaces for political subversion.[17] A couple of months after its foundation, the library project seemed to have passed completely into government realms. Still, what had begun as a purely civic project for the promotion of culture, education and social life in the town had—after all—led to the foundation of one of the three public libraries in the province.[18]

Conclusion: Broader Social Basis of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement was an omnipresent feature of urban life in early Saudi Arabian oil towns, which had a broader social basis than categories such as "leftist," "nationalist" or "Shiʽa" activism imply. Business circles, government representatives, and political activists formed loose civic networks that led to shared discussions about responsible investment, and to collaboration in communal projects. Especially the number of known nationalists among civil servants in the province seemed to have functioned as connecting points between these groups. These personal networks open up an important field for future research on the Gulf Arab states, which may show that the respective societies were in fact more inclusive than is presently assumed.

Unsurprisingly, the patriarchal Saudi state was the major obstacle for civic engagement. Local authorities were notoriously suspicious of non-commercial civic engagement, and especially of any kind of civic association, and sought to bring them under state control. However, this should not close our eyes to the fact that such activities existed, and that they created new spaces and networks within the city in order to unfold despite repression by the state.

[1] Lackner, Helen. A House Built on Sand—A Political Economy of Saudi Arabia (London: Ithaca Press, 1978), 89-109; Abir, Mordechai. Saudi Arabia. Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis (London: Routledge, 1993), 32-39; Vitalis, Robert. America’s Kingdom. Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (London: Verso, 2009: 92-184).
[2] See also Matthiesen, Toby. "Migration, Minorities, and Radical Networks: Labour Movements and Opposition Groups in Saudi Arabia, 1950–1975," International Review of Social History 59-3 (2013), 473-504.
[3] Georgetown Special Collections Division, William E. Mulligan Papers (hereafter: Mulligan Papers), Box 3, Folder 2, ARD, Chronological Files, July-September 1960, Phebe Ann Marr: 'Dammam Municipal Election,' 6 September 1960.
[4] Jones, Toby Craig. Desert Kingdom. How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 145-161, 145-161. Matthiesen, op.cit., 8-9
[5] Al-’Awwami, Sayyid Ali al-Sayyid Baqir. Al-Haraka al-Wataniyya Sharq al-Sa‘udiyya 1373-1393 H/1953-1973 M, al-Juz’ al-awwal, (Beirut: Riyad al-Rayyis, 2012), 125-129, 131-135.
[6] Ibid., 107; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter: NARA) RG 59 POL 23.3 SAUD, Jidda to State, A-153, July 1, 1970 and RG 59 POL 7 SAUD-US8R, report on USSR-Saudi relations, August 3, 1973; Matthiesen, op.cit., 488.
[7] Jones, op.cit., 149-150.
[8] Akhbar al-Zahran, Digest of Selected Items, Vol. II, No. 27, 3 February 1956.
[9] Akhbar al-Zahran, Digest of Selected Items, Vol. II, No. 42, 1 April 1957.
[10] Al-Subayʽi, ʿAbd Allah Nasir. Iktishaf al-Naft wa-Atharuhu ʽala 'l-Haya al-Ijtimaʽiyya fī ‘l-Mintaqa al-Sharqiyya 1353-1380 H/1933-1960 M: Dirasa fi ‘l-Tarikh al-Ijtimaʽi (al-Khubar: al-Dar al-Wataniyya al-Jadida, 1987), 228-229.
[11] See also Ulrike Freitag’s article in Jadaliyya.
[12] Al-Subayʽi, Iktishaf al-Naft, op.cit. 227.
Fuccaro has termed such contributions to communal life "charitable enterprises."
[13] Akhbar al-Dhahran, Digest of Selected Items, Vol.I-20, 16 November 1955. There are interesting similarities with what
Carapico called the "cooperative movement in Yemen."
[14] Reichert, Horst. 1980. "Die Verstädterung der Eastern Province von Saudi Arabien und ihre Konsequenzen für die Regional- und Stadtentwicklung," Schriftenreihe Städtebauliches Institut Universität Stuttgart, 10 (Stuttgart: Krämer), 174ff; Interview with Mahdi Asfour in May 2013.
[15] Mulligan Papers, Box 2, Folder 48, ARD, Chronological Files, May-September 1955, Local Government Relations Department, Clark Cyper: "Dammam Public Library," 17 July 1955.
[16] Al-Subayʽi, Al-Haya al-ʽIlmiyya wa ‘l-Thaqafiyya wa ‘l-Fikriyya fi ‘l-Mintaqa al-Sharqiyya 1350-1380 H / 1930-1960 M (Al-Khubar: al-Dar al-Wataniyya), 96-98.
[17] Mulligan Papers, Box 2, Folder 48, ARD, Chronological Files, May-September 1955, Local Government Relations Department, Clark Cyper: "Dammam Public Library," 17 July 1955; NARA, RG 59, 786A.00/6.2062, Dhahran to State, No. 268, 20 June, 1962. On the political background and history of the Qatif public library see Matthiesen, op.cit. 482-484.
[18] Al-Subayʽi, Al-Haya al-ʽIlmiyya, op.cit. 99.

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